Important Korean art periods which left their mark:
Three Kingdoms period (circa 57 BCE–668 CE)
Each of the Three Kingdoms, Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo, had its own unique painting style, although still under Chinese influence. Early Silla paintings tended to be more fanciful and free-spirited. Some of them could almost be considered impressionistic. The finest Korean traditional art is said to have originated in the Baekje period. Influenced by Chinese dynasties. While Goguryeo art was heavily influenced by Buddhism. The earliest Korean paintings that are found, are the tomb murals in the Goguryeo tombs. They display dancers, hunting and spirits.
Unified Silla (698-926)
Culturally, this era is seen as the golden age of Korea for its architecture, philosophy and stories. There was spectacular economic growth. Literature, ceramic ware, silk and craftwork products were imported. It was brought to Silla via sea routes and the Silk Route due to the diplomatic ties with Tang China. All the while preventing them from becoming a province of China and keeping their own identity. Traditional artwork in this period consisted mostly of Buddhist art.
Koryŏ period (918–1392)
During the Goryeo (Koryo) period, the flourishing of Buddhism created a need for Buddhist painting with Buddhist elements. Even though the influence of Confucianism outmoded that of Buddhism, Buddhist art was still seen in many private homes. During the Goryeo era, Korean artists began painting more realistically.
Chosŏn period (1392–1910)
Painting from the Joseon (Chosŏn) era offer the richest variety and are still the most imitated today. The spread of Confucianism during the Joseon period stimulated a renewal of the arts. The decline of Buddhism as the dominant culture moved Korean painting in a more secular direction. Paintings of the Joseon period still largely imitated northern Chinese painting styles, but certain painters attempted to develop a distinctly Korean approach. Using non-Chinese techniques, painting Korean landscapes and scenes from Korean daily life. This is also called the ‘Koreanization’ of Korean art.
Popular subjects of the Joseon period
Because of the big influence of the Joseon period, there are four categories that are still popular in Korea to this day: landscape and genre painting, minhwa, the Four Gracious Plants, and portraits.
Landscape and Genre Painting
When painting styles moved towards realism, a style of landscape painting known as ‘True View’ became a national style in Korea. Artists were also painting more realistic paintings of ordinary people going about their ordinary things. Genre painting, as this has come to be called, is probably the most unique of all painting styles. It also gives us a historic glimpse into the daily lives of people of the Joseon period in Korea.
Minhwa, also known as Korean folk painting made by common people, emerged near the end of the Joseon period. This type of colourful painting was created by anonymous folk artists following traditional forms. This type of art is supposed to bring good luck to the owner’s household. Popular subjects were: everyday life, the tiger, symbols of longevity such as cranes, deer, fungus, rocks, water, clouds, the sun, moon, pine trees and tortoises. The way subjects are presented also has a special meaning. Paired birds for instance are a symbol of marital love. Insects and flowers represent harmony between yin and yang. While books and bookshelves stand for learning and wisdom.
Four Gracious Plants
The Four Gracious Plants, also known as the Gentlemanly Plants: plum blossoms, orchids or wild orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo.
Portraits were painted throughout Korean history, but were produced in greater numbers during the Joseon period. Main subjects were: kings, meritorious subjects, elderly officials, literati or aristocrats, women and Buddhist monks.
The Japanese invasion (1880-1945)
During the Japanese occupation of Korea, from the mid 1880s until 20th century 1945, Japan tried to impose its own culture on all aspects of Korean life, including art. Schools of art in Korea were closed, paintings were destroyed, and artists were obliged to paint Japanese subjects in Japanese style. This was a very difficult period for Korean culture. After World War II, Korean painters assimilated some Western approaches. Making art vanish into a more international style. But elements of Korean painting have also been copied by western artists, as they have been influenced by Korean art.
During Kim Jong Il’s regime (1994-2011), art was only permitted in the nationalist type. Also known as propaganda art. After the death of Kim Il, the Korean government loosened the restrictions, and they were eventually eliminated. To supplement the propaganda posters, new art forms arose. Experts say that artists are showing more and more free expression in their work. Due to its seclusion, North Korea has preserved its more traditional art. While art in South Korea, due to open borders, has been influenced by the west.
How Korea developed a style of its own
For a long time, the Chinese influence was prominent in the early development of Korean art history. But as you discovered, over time Korean artists began to cultivate their own technique, which grew into a unique style. Centuries of a preference for simplicity, naturalism and harmony, resulted in a lessening of extreme angles, rigid or overtly bold lines you see in other eastern art traditions. In Korean art you find the concept of naturalism, and it is characterized by its non-complex and harmonious composition, due to a deep connection with their natural surroundings. Artists tried to portray nature as true to life as possible.
Korean paintings today
The majority of today’s Korean painters still follow the path of tradition. Each nature’s motif gives meaning to a certain conception of value, such as spiritual strength, firmness, longevity and wisdom. It was history that destined Korean art to be directly influenced by traditional Chinese painting. And even though it has adopted its principal element – the line -, it has over the past centuries developed a distinctive style of its own.
The Kaesong Collection
The Kaesong Collection unfolds a stylistic and genre panorama of Korean contemporary painting and brings out two aspects in the development of Korean painting. One is associated with long art traditions of Korea, the Far East countries and their art heritage. The other, more modernist trends in the arena of world art. You will find an impression of the art works here https://www.kaesongcollection.com/collection/