SHIN Gyung Jin / Art and Power: Tracing the Figure of the Artist in Korean Art History (2) 藝術與權力 – 韓國藝術史中藝術家身份形象的遞變(二)

SHIN Gyung Jin / Art and Power: Tracing the Figure of the Artist in Korean Art History (2) 藝術與權力 – 韓國藝術史中藝術家身份形象的遞變(二)

Gyung-jin Shin 辛庚珍

發表於: 24 Jun 2020

Korea’s 35-year long colonial history as Japanese occupied territory (1910-1945), followed by domination of the US and other powers which turned the country into the battlefield of a long Cold War, has every step of the way imprinted the legitimacy of art, thus also the relaxing and tightening of the circle of entitlement to artists. 2nd of a 4-part essay. 繼朝鮮皇朝近二千年的「宮廷畫師」至深受中國宋明影響的「文人畫家」,辛庚珍進入一個歷史斷層,由日佔35年的殖民時期到戰後的冷戰時期韓國分裂為南北,藝術的存在價值以及藝術家入圈的合法性,看來都不是純粹的藝術問題。全文四部之二。

/…2nd of a 4-part essay / continued from part 1


  1. Seon Jeon Artist: “Koreanness” Established by Japanese Colonialism

At the beginning of the 20th century, Korea underwent radical modernization and severe social change under the Japanese colonial rule after 1910. During this time (1910-1945), the Korean art scene adopted Western painting styles and exhibition systems only through Japan. The mainstream artists were selected by the Joseon Art Exhibition (朝鮮美術展覽會) called Seon Jeon, which was the only government-organized public exhibition of Joseon art, held every year from 1922 to 1944. For a while, “Koreanness” was stereotyped to be “primitive, local color” and “beauty of sadness,” thus also the so-called characteristics of Korean modern paintings, which had long played a key role in the discourse of Korean national identity until the 1980s. In this section, I will analyze how “Koreanness” was first formed under the rule of the Japanese.

Modeling after the Japanese government-supervised art exhibition, Japan Imperial Art Exhibition (帝國美術院展), the Joseon Art Exhibition (JAE) began as a component of Imperial Japan’s cultural governance in the 1920s. This art evaluation system supervised was broken down by the Japanese government into four sections: oriental painting, western painting, sculpture, and calligraphy. Most of the successful Korean artists of the time started their career through the exhibition whereas some participated in government-run art campaigns that supported Japanese political propaganda, which subsequently brought them wealth and built their reputation. In contrast with a nationalist group of Korean artists, The Painting and Calligraphy Association (書畵協會), the JAE stood for Japanese colonization of the local art scene, which in ways hindered the spontaneous growth of Korean modern art. [6]

It is unquestionable that the JAE’s committee composition, membership and fundamental values of its supervision system determined not only the characteristics of the exhibition but also what would become of Korean arts. Members of the jury committee, appointed by Japanese government, were mostly prominent figures of the Japanese art scene, including the principal of Tokyo School of the Arts. Although there were a few Korean judges at the beginning, they disappeared altogether after the 10th exhibition. Kunzo Minami (南薫造), one of the judges of the 4th JAE in 1925, said, “I cannot announce any of the review standards without being informed of the intention of the government.” This statement reveals that the judgment directly reflected the opinion of the government. “The intention of the government” was repeated by almost every judge’s comments published in newspapers and magazines: to establish an individual style of Korean arts by exposing the “local color” and to pursue “moderate styles of art” rather than to follow a new movement.

The “primitive, local color,” long regarded as “Koreanness” by the majority of Koreans for several decades, was one of the most critical criteria by which the Japanese judges evaluated Korean artists. From the 1930s onward, JAE’s committee members started to use the word “local color” (鄕土色) to describe and assess Korean paintings. The term “local” (鄕土) is apparently used to distinguish what is Korean from that of imperial Japan. Although all parts of Korea began to take on the shape of a modern city at the time, the more highly appraised works by Korean artists were those revealing the “local color,” that is, representing pre-modern landscapes that remain primitive. The most preferred subject matters include rural villages, women’s naked bodies, sights of a washing place, and women head-loading water basins, which were considered to be the exotic features of Korea in the colonizers’ gaze. [Figure 4] Such Japanese orientalism was used to justify Japan’s political domination by stressing the perception that Korea was a primitive, backward, and non-civilized country. Consequently, this allowed Imperial Japan to highlight the colonial superiority of Japanese arts. Unfortunately, this perspective of the colonizer’s was embedded into that of the colonized even after independence. [7]

The second constructed Korean distinctive was “moderate styles of art,” which continued to be emphasized as more and more “non-native” elements comparable to Cubism or Fauvism of western modernism appeared in local Korea artworks after 1935. Hakutei Ishii (石井柏亭) said, “I regret that some artists awkwardly make strokes with a brush in order to follow a new phase. However, the fact that there are plenty of moderate artworks makes me expect that such works will be the future of the show.” According to the official narrative of the Chief of the Educational Bureau, JAE’s main objective was “to refine public thought” and “to unify society through education.” In other words, in order to weaken Korea’s militancy against Japanese imperialism and cultivate the colonized’s taste to fit the ruler’s intentions, the colonial government strategically promoted works that are easy to appreciate and understand rather than avant-garde and radical ones. [6] In short, the “standards of art” suggested by the Japanese judges served as a political tool for strengthening Japanese colonial rule’s power control.

Muneyoshi Yanagi at his library in 1953 | source: Korean Times

First pinned down by Japanese philosopher Yanagi Muneyoshi (柳宗悅: 1889–1961) in 1919, the “beauty of sadness” is thought to have been one of the best-known aesthetics of Korean arts until the 1980s.

The “beauty of sadness” was first defined in his essay “Thinking of Korean,” published in Yomiuri newspapers in 1919, where he describes Korean art as a reflection of its sad history. According to him, the unique element that best represents Korean art is the beauty of the fine and long lines () seen in Buddha statues, ceramics, and paintings. He claims that lines symbolize the “sadness” that Koreans have experienced throughout history. The common ethnicity of Koreans was marked by hunger for affection, despair, and struggling that originated from, as he describes, “a dark, miserable, and fearful history.” His intuitive proposition that such lines represent sorrow, however, is impossible to identify and prove logically. Also, his attempt to define the characteristics and ethnicity of Korean art lacks academic research based on objective information.

Figure 4. Lee Young-Il (李英一), A Rest of Breastfeeding, 1930, National Museum of Korea, accessed 23 June 2020, www.museum.go.kr


The concept of national and ethnic identity in art Muneyoshi developed was based on the modern Western concept of the “nation,” which was why his theory came into the spotlight. [8] It aroused the emotional sympathy of Korean people at that time and was extensively reproduced both in art practice and theory until the 1970s. “Koreanness,” an orientalising concept created within the region by the Japanese, produced the identity discourse on Korean monochrome painting in the 1970s. The military dictatorship in the 1980s appropriated it to establish an image of the nation as a means of governance.

Meanwhile, government-supervised exhibitions by the Japanese laid the groundwork for further control in future, followed by numerous state-controlled events. After the Joseon Art Exhibition was abolished in 1944, the National Art Exhibition of the Republic of Korea (大韓民國美術展覽會), held from 1949 to 1981, inherited the JAE system, which led to widespread authoritarianism in the Korean art scene.



  1. Betrayers and Defectors

Korea restored its national independence in 1945, but soon became an ideological battlefield for Western powers during the Korean War (1950–1953). There were ceaseless ideological conflicts in the Korean Peninsula throughout the 20th century – between independence activists and pro-Japanese groups under the Japanese colonial rule, between pro-American and pro-Russian groups after independence, and between democracy activists and dictatorship in the era of the military government. Even though ideology is no longer the main issue in the contemporary international community since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Korea, one of the few divided countries in the world, still suffers from ideological conflicts, which also play an important role in collective artistic judgment as power relationship has affected the evaluation of individual artists.

Kim Ki-Chang 金基昶, 1914–2001《東亞日報》2001.01.26

One of the dramatic examples of artists who received different evaluations before and after the Japanese imperial era is the artist Kim Ki-Chang (金基昶, 1914–2001). Overcoming a permanent speech disorder that he had at an early age, he received awards four times from the Joseon Art exhibition in his 20s. Most of his oriental paintings had conventional subjects revealing local color, which met the criteria of the Japanese judges. He finally became a recommended artist of the Joseon Art exhibition, which guaranteed him a huge success in the Korean art scene during the Japanese rule. In the 1940s, he started participating in the Japanese government’s art campaigns, praising imperialism and supporting their political propaganda. His pro-Japanese activities were demonstrated by his illustrations that appeared in newspapers and magazines in the 1940s. An illustration printed in the Ma-Il newspapers in 1943, for example, illustrates a student soldier and his parents sending him off to the war. This painting obviously promotes the conscription of Korean student soldiers enforced in 1943 for Japan’s wars against China and the United States. After independence, he was exempt from the list of Korean artists produced by the “Joseon Art Construction Headquarters” (Art Construction Headquarters).

However, the advent of Lee Seung-Man’s pro-US regime (韓國總統李承文 1948~1960), which paid little attention to punishing pro-Japanese figures, enabled Kim Ki-Chang to sustain his reputation and popularity until he died in 2001. He was deeply engaged in the government-supervised exhibitions in Korea and had a major influence on the mainstream of Korean art, serving as a professor of Hong-Ik University (弘益大學) and Korean representative at international exhibitions. He also made a portrait of King Sejong the Great for the 10,000-won bill and produced a well-known poster of the ‘88 Seoul Olympics. However, he never escaped criticism of his pro-Japanese work from the Japanese colonial era. Some politicians have initiated legislation to eliminate his drawing from the bills. This raises the question of how much artists and evaluations on them can be free from political ideology. France has severely punished artists who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II; by contrast, the punishment and re-estimation of artists supporting Japanese colonialism, or not, have remained controversial in Korean art history.

From a different perspective, anti-Communist ideology dominated Korean art milieu over the last half of the 20th century. Since the 1920s, socialist artists have appeared in the realm of Korean art. One of the leading groups is the Korea Artista Proleta Federatio (KAPF), established in 1925. Most of them were members of the Joseon Communists Party and pursued art that coincided with and contributed to the new world led by the proletariat. The KAPF artists advocated the cause of “Proletarian Art” as a tool for class struggle. Kim Bok-Jin (金福仁?, 1901~1940), one of the leaders of KAPF, insisted, “Art should be art for the people rather than for art’s sake.” They referred not to the realist movement represented by Gustave Courbet but to the avant-garde art movements of Europe and Russia, such as Futurism, Dadaism, Expressionism, and Constructivism. While Kim Bok-Jin was imprisoned from 1928 to 1934, the movement cowered in fear of Japanese oppression, and most artists returned to the notion of “art for art’s sake.” [9] Right after the division of South and North Korea in 1953, a large number of artists, including KAPF artists, were either kidnapped or went willingly to the north, referred to as a situation whereby “the artists defected to North Korea.” Until the end of the 1980s, the National Security Act of the South Korean government forbade any appreciation or reference of the artists defected to North Korea. The information and documents about them have been concealed, distorted, and lost. It was not until 1988 that they could receive the recognition they deserve.

 /… end of part 2 of a 4-part essay… to be continued


[6] Kim, J.S. (2014). “The Realization of A Government-supervised Art Exhibition in the Colony- with Focus on the Japanese judges at the Chosun Art Exhibition”. Seok-dang Collection of Treatises vol.58. pp. 239-265. Dong-a University.

[7] Park, S.T. (2004). “Study of Joseon Art Exhibition and ‘Local color’ during the Japanese Occupation Period”. Incheon Studies vol.3. (2004.9), pp. 255-294. Incheon Studies Institute.

[8] Kikuchi, Y. (1997). “A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory”. Journal of William Morris Studies 12, no. 2(Spring). Pp. 39-45.

[9] Hong, J.S. (2014). “‘Proletarian Art’ Discourse in Early Period of KAPF”. SAI vol.17. pp. 9-40. International Association of Korean Literary and Cultural Studies.


Related Reading: Shin Gyung-jin’s “Art & Power” series


Visitors take in the National Museum of Korea’s special exhibition “Through the Eyes of Joseon Painters” during a press event on July 22, 2019, at the museum in Seoul. (Yonhap) Source: http://koreabizwire.com/special-exhibition-unveils-joseon-era-ink-paintings-of-major-korean-scenic-spots/141163
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