Who are among the most famous painters in Korea?

16 December, 2022

Korean painting has a long history. Dating all the way back to the Korean tomb paintings, that were found in the Goguryeo tombs. They display dancers, hunting and spirits. Until the Joseon dynasty the primary influence was Chinese painting done with Korean landscapes, facial features, Buddhist painting. And an emphasis on celestial observation in keeping up with the rapid development of Korean astronomy. During the Golden Age of Korean painting (the mid-to-late Joseon period), Confucianism predominated. And even though Korean painting has been influenced by Chinese and Japanese styles, it still pursued its own path in the world of art.

Popular genres and Korean subjects

Korean painting has had different traditions. There is monochromatic art, made with black brushwork. Works with colour, by amateurs as well as professionals. Many genre scenes, animal, bird and flower painting, and the colourful folk art called minhwa. As well as Buddhist element’s like Buddhist devotional scrolls (taenghwa), ritual arts and festival arts, which had an extensive use of colour. 

Korean painters you should know

Jeong Seon (1676-1759)

Jeong Seon, born in the Joseon (Chosŏn) 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. 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. With his techniques and style, he inspired many Korean artists. He worked with ink and Oriental-style water drawings, among other mediums. In 1711, he travelled to Mount Geumgangsan (Diamond mountain), and created an album consisting of 13 paintings of this mountain range with its impressive Birobong peak. The next year, he went back, and painted another album of 30 paintings. His most famous painting, ​​Geumgang jeondo, is considered a national treasure.

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 is possible to visit and ones more be inspired by this so often depicted and much admired muse. 

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. He was an extraordinary artist in traditional painting, and a member of the Gimhae Gim clan. This made him a pillar of the establishment in the late Joseon period. 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. Some of his significant works are: a portrait of the Royal Heir (the future King Jeongjo) in 1771. A portrait of Jik-su Seo in 1796 and an album of Genre Painting in the 18th century. But it was the ‘Nineteen Taoist Immortals’ which he painted in 1776, that catapulted his reputation as an artist.

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’. He was related to Queen Jeongsun, the second wife of King Yeongjo. The influence of Kim Jeong Hui on Korean scholars of the later 19th century was huge. 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. Because he often used a Ho (pen-name), he became – in his generation – the artist with the most pen-names.

Aside from these historical artists involved in traditional Korean art, various contemporary artists have had a big impact on modern Korean art as well.

Park Su-Geun (1914-1965)

As a teenager, 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. Shortly after, Park became a full-time painter and stayed successful in other competitions. He is best known for his use of Korean-based folklore themes and worked mostly in greyscale. After his death, he was awarded the Silver Crown of Order of Culture Merit. 

Chang Ucchin (1917-1990)

When Chang Ucchin was born, Korea was still ruled by Japan. This period is also known as the Japanese occupation. 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. His different techniques made his work stand out. He developed it through experimentation, and was inspired by modern trends of the west. 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 emersed 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. As a tribute to Kim’s lifelong contribution to art in Korea, the Kim Tschang-Yeul Museum of Art was opened in Jeju, South Korea in 2016. 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. His work has been recognized and honoured by the government of Japan. 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, trough philosophy and art, as an antidote against the influences from European artists. His work is focused on the connection between materials as well as the perceptions of it, which is known as the Mono-Ha movement. In 2000, he received the UNESCO prize at the Shangai Biennale. And in 2001 he won the 13th Praemium Imperiale for painting, as well as the Ho-Am Prize of the Samsung Foundation.

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. But it was not until her 40s that she entered the world of art. 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. The following year, the group held the first feminist exhibition in Korea. Yun Suknams work is included in the collections of the Tate Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

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. His painting, ‘Waves of the Sea Kumgang’ was noticed internationally in 2009, due to a photo made at Bill Clinton’s state visit to North Korea. The photo is showing Clinton sitting next to Kim Jong-il, with waves painting in the background. In 1999, he won the People’s Prize for ‘Waves of the Sea Kumgang’.

Art in North Korea

Ever since the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South Korea, after the civil war, the west has known very little about North Korean art. It has always been one of the most secretive countries in the world. Over the years, both countries have developed their own unique style, which resulted in two very different art scenes. North Korea has preserved its traditional art, while South Korea’s art, due to open borders, has been influenced by the west. Resulting in South Korean art-styles which include hip-hop, beatboxing, K-pop and ballet.

Art and politics

During the Kim II-reign (1994 to 2011), painting was only permitted in the nationalist type. Which shows the power of art as a political medium, and the interconnectedness of art and politics, as also seen in Russia and during the Maoist era in China. After the death of Kim Il, the restrictions on painting has got less and were eventually eliminated. To supplement the propaganda posters, new art forms arose. Including a type of painting exclusive to North Korea.  

The Kaesong Collection

Acquired in the most isolated country of the world, the Kaesong Collection is a rich selection of hidden treasures. Containing the finest contemporary and modern oil paintings, watercolours and drawings. This makes the Kaesong Collection, of high quality North Korean art works, such an exclusive 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 North Korean artworks can be found here. https://www.kaesongcollection.com/collection/

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