Important Korean art periods
Until the Joseon dynasty, the primary influence was Chinese painting done with Korean landscapes, facial features, Buddhist topics, and an emphasis on celestial observation in keeping with the rapid development of Korean astronomy. During the mid-to-late Joseon period, which is considered the Golden Age of Korean painting, Confucianism predominated. But we will start at the Three Kingdoms period.
Three Kingdoms period (circa 57 BCE–668 CE)
Although still under the influence of Chinese culture, each of the Three Kingdoms had its own exclusive style and had its own impact on the evolution of Korean culture and art.
The earliest Korean paintings that are found, are the tomb murals in the Goguryeo tombs. This dynamic art displays dancers, Persian hunting scenes, tigers and archers on horseback. Goguryeo art was heavily influenced by Buddhism, where royals started decorating the murals on ancient tombs.
The Baekje kingdom also produced notable tomb paintings, sculptures and bas-relief. It is said to have the most mysterious, naturalistic, warm and harmonious Buddha images. Characterized by what has come to be known as the ‘Baekje smile’. Thus exhibiting a particular Korean style. Baekje holds a unique position in Korean history because of its influence on the creation of both Korean and Japanese art.
A lot of ancient art comes from the Silla kingdom, because it was the most secluded of the three and the last to adopt Buddhism. That is why early Silla paintings, while said to be inferior in technique to those of Goguryeo and Baekje, tends to be more fanciful and free-spirited. Some of them could almost be considered impressionistic.
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 to become 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 (Koryŏ) 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 private homes. During the Goryeo era, artists began painting more realistic.
Celadon ceramics were popular throughout the Goryeo Dynasty and are considered as some of the finest and elegant pottery pieces made in the world. Korean potters had developed their own distinctive style. Korea has a tradition of making more organic shapes.
Chosŏn period (1392–1910)
Joseon (Chosŏn) era paintings offer the richest variety and are 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 largely imitated northern Chinese painting styles, but certain painters attempted to develop a distinctly Korean approach, using non-Chinese techniques and painting Korean landscapes and scenes from Korean daily life.
In 1447 court artist An Gyeon drew a landscape painting for Prince Anpyeong. This is considered the oldest landscape painting by a Korean artist. By painting, An created a distinctive style of landscape painting that shaped the direction of that genre during the early Joseon period. But there was another Korean artist that influenced landscape painting.
Jeong Seon, father of True View
Jeong Seon, also born in the Joseon time period, and commonly known as Kyomjae, is considered to be the father of the more realistic genre True View. A new style of landscape painting. Before, Korean artists were mostly orientated towards China. Jeong Seon made the painting of Korean landscapes hugely popular, and is still most imitated to this day. In 1711, he travelled to Mount Kumgang (Diamond mountain), and created an album consisting of 13 paintings of this beautiful mountain range. The next year, he went back, and painted an album of 30 paintings.
The Diamond Mountain, located in North Korea, has always been a source of inspiration for Korean artists. But for over 50 years, South Koreans could not visit it. In 1998 North Korea opened it to South Korean tourists and artists, which made it possible to visit and ones more be inspired by this so often depicted and much admired muse.
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 have 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.
Read our blog ‘What is the most favourite subject of Korean painting’, LINK BLOG if you want to learn more about typical Korean subjects and symbols in art.
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.
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 connecting with their natural surroundings. Artists tried to portray nature as realistically as possible.
Famous Korean painters who left their mark
Many artists have formed Korean painting. We’ve selected some major painters who left their unique mark.
Jeong Seon (1676-1759)
Jeong Seon, born in the Joseon time period, and commonly known as Kyomjae, is known to be the father of the more realistic genre True View, a style of landscape painting. He worked with ink and Oriental-style water drawings, among other mediums. In 1711, he travelled to Mount Geumgang (Diamond mountain), and created an album consisting of 13 paintings of this beautiful mountain range. The next year, he went back, and painted an album of 30 paintings.
Kim Hong-do (1745-1806)
Kim Hong Do, (also known as Gim Hong-Do but mostly as Danwon), grew up in present day Ansan South Korea. Danwon is mostly remembered for his depictions of the everyday life of ordinary people. He was one of several Korean artists to portray ordinary people in his work.
Kim Jeong Hui (1786-1856)
Born in South Korea, Kim Jeong Hui, also known as Gim Jeong-hui, was one of the most distinguished epigraphists, calligraphers and scholars of the late Joseon period. His most well-known work is an ink painting titled ‘Wandang Sehando’. It is said he has taught over 3,000 students, and was seen as the leader of a modernizing trend that turned into the Gaehwapa Enlightenment Party by the end of the 19th century.
Aside from these historical artists involved in traditional Korean art, various contemporary artists have also had a big impact on modern Korean art.
Park Su-Geun (1914-1965)
Park Su-Geun from the Yanggu County, Gangwon Province, South Korea, taught himself how to paint in the style of traditional Korean art. When his work ‘Spring is Gone’, was chosen to be displayed at the 11th annual painting contest in 1932, held in Seonjeon his career took off. By 1944 he was chosen eight more times to exhibit in this competition. And in 1953, he won first place in the annual National Art Exhibition. He is best known for his use of Korean-based folklore themes and worked mostly in greyscale.
Chang Ucchin (1917-1990)
When Chang Ucchin was born, Korea was still ruled by Japan. During this difficult time, he studied at the Imperial School of Art in Tokyo, where he focused on western art styles. In 1954, he became a professor of fine arts at Seoul National University. Ucchin represents the modern fine art movement in Korea. The subjects he used are images of the moon and sun, birds, children, and other things from daily life. A lot of his work are oil paintings, but he also used other mediums as Chinese ink painting, drawing with marker pens, pottery painting, silkscreen, wood-block and copperplate printing techniques.
Kim Tschang-Yeul (1929-2021)
After Kim Tschang-Yuel served in the Korean War, he studied at Seoul University College of Fine Arts. In 1966, he moved to New York to attend the Art Students League for a few years, after which he moved to Paris. Because he immersed himself in new artistic movements and schools of thought, he began experimenting with liquid forms. This eventually led to his famous style of painting water droplets. Famous paintings by his hand are ‘Recurrence’ (2007), ‘Water drops and Calligraphy’ (1995), and ‘Untitled’ (1970).
Lee Ufan (1936-Present)
Lee Ufan was born in 1936. He is a minimalist sculptor and painter. The source of inspiration for his work comes from the intrinsic nature of objects, which is an eastern artistic philosophy. Lee was part of the first Korean art movement of the late 1900s to be promoted in Japan. A style known as ‘Korean Monotone Art’. He advocated the de-westernization of Korean society, through philosophy and art, as an antidote against the influences from European artists.
Yun Suknam (1939-Present)
Yun Suknam was born in 1939 in China. She returned to Korea, one year after Korea was liberated from the Japanese occupation in 1946. When she moved to New York to study printmaking at Pratt Institute, she started painting at the Art Student League in New York. Yun has been an active feminist artist. After her studies in The Big Apple in 1985, she returned to Korea to found the feminist art collective October Group (Sewolmoyim) in 1985.
Kim Song-gun (1945-Present)
Kim Song-gun, is also known as the Painter of the Waves. Because his favourite subjects are sea and river sceneries with thunderous waters. His depictions are very realistic and also carry some abstraction, because of the dramatic presentation of the waves. In 1999, he won the People’s Prize for ‘Waves of the Sea Kumgang’.
The rising of new art forms
Since the dividing of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korea, the west has known very little about North Korean art. Over the years, both countries developed their own style. Which resulted in two very different art scenes. During the Kim II-reign (1994-2011), art was only permitted in the nationalist type. 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. Including a type of painting exclusive to North Korea. 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.
In the course of history, Korean art has been influenced by Chinese styles, obliged by Japan during the occupation period (1880-1945), and inspired by European styles in the modern era. But it has always kept its own style, elements, traditional symbols and patterns. Which all have their own meaning and representation, only perceived by those who are in the know.
Modern day Korean painting
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. And even though the art scene in Korea has been influenced by different art movements, it has over the past centuries developed a distinctive style of its own. Based on the rich traditional and cultural history of Korea.
The Kaesong Collection
The Kaesong Collection unfolds a stylistic and genre panorama of North Korean contemporary painting and brings out two aspects in the development of Korean art. 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/