Important features of Korean landscape painting

16 December, 2022

Nature has always had a prominent place in Korean art. The Korean term for landscape paintings, sansu, even translates as ‘mountains and water’, because landscape paintings almost always feature these two elements. Mostly seen in the form of great mountain peaks with a waterfall or luscious hills along a winding river. They are part of the ten longevity symbols known as shipjangsaengdo. The Korean appreciation of nature has a rich history and is seen throughout Korean culture. Dating all the way back to the tomb paintings of the Goguryeo kingdom, with a peak in the Joseon (Chosŏn) dynasty also called Yi dynasty, when it evolved as a major genre. But we will start with the Goryeo (Koryŏ) period.

Landscape painting in the Koryŏ period

Landscape painting is a tradition that goes back a long way in East Asia. These depictions were not always accurate reproductions, but an essence of the artist’s reality. Making it more of a utopian vision. But during the Koryŏ period (918-1392), this slightly changed when artists began painting more realistic. Like Yi Nyong, a well known landscape painter of this era. His most famous work is a depiction of the Yesong River and one of the Chonsuwon Pavilion. 

Developing a unique style 

Landscape painting evolved as a major genre during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Due to the spread of Confucianism, which stimulated a renewal of the arts, and the decline of Buddhism as the dominant culture. Moving 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, painting Korean landscapes and scenes of common people in their daily life. 

In the 15th century, court artist An Gyeon drew a landscape painting for Prince Anpyeong known as ‘Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land’. Using an ink and colour silk scroll style. It is considered his masterpiece and has gotten much appreciation. His distinctive style shaped the direction of the landscape genre during the early Joseon period, but there was another Korean artist that influenced this genre.

The Koreanization of Korean art

Before the 18th century, landscape paintings depicted famous scenery in China or were scenes of harmony imagined by the artist. When the Korean people started to reclaim their own historical and cultural heritage, they also rediscovered their country’s beautiful nature. This is also called the ‘Koreanization’ of Korean art.

After traditional painting styles became even more realistic, a style of landscape painting known as ‘True View’ became a national style in Korea. And because artists were also painting more realistic depictions of people, it gives us a historic glimpse into everyday life in Joseon Korea.

Father of True View

Jeong Seon (1676-1759) made Korean landscapes hugely popular, and is known to be the father of the Korean True-View landscape. He worked with ink on paper and Oriental-style water drawings, among other mediums. In 1711, he travelled to Mount Geumgangsan (Diamond mountain), and created a famous album consisting of 13 paintings of this beloved Korean mountain range. The next year, he went back and painted another 30. His most famous painting, ​​Geumgangsan jeondo, is considered a national treasure.

In total, Jeong painted around 100 pictures of Diamond Mountain, which still exist to this day. You can see them at Gansong Art Museum and the National Museum of Korea. His approach and love for this natural beauty, still influences and inspires Korean artists from South and North Korea to this day. 

Mountains and water

Mount Geumgangsan, located in North Korea, has not only been a source of inspiration for Jeong Seon, but for a lot of Korean artists. For over 50 years, South Koreans could not visit this beloved natural site. In 1998 North Korea opened it to South Korean tourists and artists, which made it possible to visit and once more be inspired by this often depicted and much admired muse.

The Korean peninsula exists for more than seventy percent of mountains. Because of this, mountains have been integrated in culture, mythology, heritage and identity. Traditionally, people would go there for hunting and gathering, ancestral rites, religious and ceremonial practices. Mountains were also believed to be the territory of spirits and dragons, as well as rivers and all other bodies of water.

The dragon king

Often depicted are the mountain spirit and dragon king motifs. They have their origins in two famous figures in the history of Korea: Dangun and Munmu. Dangun is seen as the predecessor of the Korean people. Who, as legend has it, turned into a mountain spirit. Munmu is considered the first ruler of the Unified Silla period, and was known by the title of ‘The dragon king’. He is usually depicted flying amidst the clouds over a sea of high waves.

Another reason mountains are depicted so often is because Buddhist monasteries were often built in mountain locations. And even though during the Joseon dynasty the Buddhist faith declined, it still thrived in mountain and rural settings, which made mountains still important.

Most towns were positioned with their backs (north) to the mountains, facing a river (south). This was considered an ideal location for a building. Finding this perfect place is called pungsu (geomancy) and it is said to ensure good fortune for all who live there. As you can tell, mountains and rivers play a huge role in Korean history, culture, religion and mythology.  

Nature as a main character

The beauty of Korean art and the strength of its artists lies in simplicity, spontaneity and a feeling of harmony with nature. It values tenderness, a sense of balance, serenity and harmony. It is distinguished for its simple and elegant composition. Koreans have long valued simplicity, tenderness, a sense of balance, serenity and harmony, as is seen in art from East Asia. But the Korean counterparts have just a minor representation of rigid straight lines or curved lines. Korean art is associated with the concept of naturalism, exhibiting a profound connection with the artist’s natural environment in its non-complex and harmonious composition. It is distinguished for its simple and elegant composition.

Landscape painting portrays both nature, the human view of nature and the world. In Korean art, we humans get a diminutive role, if we are depicted at all. Nature, in all its awe, is always the main character. Much as we now try to capture a beautiful surrounding by photograph, artists in the past tried to capture the moment of beauty and preserve it forever.

Korean paintings today

The majority of current 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. But as time has gone by, Korean art has developed its own unique identity and characteristics.

The Kaesong Collection

The Kaesong Collection, of high quality North Korean art works, 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, countries in East Asia and their art heritage. The other, more modernist trends in the arena of world art, contain the finest contemporary and modern oil paintings, watercolours and drawings. This makes the Kaesong Collection such a unique collection.

These works of art are created by noteworthy artists like Jong Chang Mo, Son U Yong, Rim Ryul, Tak Hyo Yeon, Kim Sung Hui, Kim Song Min and many others. Among them are several prize winners at international exhibitions held in Asian countries. They are widely acclaimed in South Korea, China, Japan, The Philippines and Thailand.

An impression of these contemporary artworks from North Korea can be found here.

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