The influence of nature in Korean painting

4 June, 2023

The beauty of Korean art 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 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.

Beloved nature symbols

In Korean folk painting, known as minhwa daily life as well as nature play a huge role. The way subjects in this type of art 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. One of the most popular motifs in minhwa is the tiger. It is said that the adoration for the tiger originated from the mythical ‘White Tiger’. A guardian spirit of the east. It is significant for Korean art how the tiger is portrayed. Almost never as a ferocious beast, but mostly as a friendly and sometimes even comical and clumsy animal

Another well known nature genre in Korean culture are, the Four Gracious Plants, also known as the Gentlemanly Plants: plum blossoms, orchids or wild orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo.

Nature as a main character

Korean art has always been inspired by nature. Because the Korean peninsula exists for more than seventy percent of mountains, they have been integrated in art, culture, mythology, heritage and identity. Landscape painting, a tradition that goes back for centuries in Korea, has a significant place for mountains and water. The Korean term for landscape paintings, sansu, even translates as ‘mountains and water’. That is why in compositions you will often see great mountain peaks combined with a waterfall. Or luscious hills along a winding river. 

Landscape art portrays both nature, the human view of nature and the world. But 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. 

Landscape painting

The still popular landscape painting evolved as a major genre during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). When court artist An Gyeon drew a landscape painting for Prince Anpyeong in the 15ht century, called ‘Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land’. It is considered his masterpiece and has gotten much appreciation. His distinctive style shaped the direction of the landscape genre. But there was another Korean artist that influenced this genre. After traditional painting styles became more realistic, a style of landscape painting known as ‘True View’ became a national style in Korea. Jeong Seon (1676-1759) made Korean landscapes hugely popular, and is still known to be the father of the Korean True View landscape.

Jeong Seon travelled to Mount Geumgangsan (Diamond mountain), located in North Korea, 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.

Korean nature genres

Mountains and water are also part of the ten longevity symbols known as shipjangsaengdo. As well as the sun, clouds, bamboo, pine, crane, deer, turtle and the mushroom of immortality. You will often see them all represented in a single picture.

Other popular Korean genres throughout the centuries are:

  • Buddhist and Confucian paintings; showing the Buddha and Confucian art portraying as scholars wearing the traditional stove-pipe hats and monochromatic robes. Usually depicted in a teahouse near mountains or at mountain lodges.
  • Hunting scenes; often seen in Korean courtly art. They are a memory of Mongolian and Persian hunting scenes.
  • Decorative Painting; the vast majority of ancient folk painting, were used for decorative purposes.

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.

Nature in 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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