Modern Korean Painting

From the Great Han Empire to the 1950s

By Ewha Womans University Museum

Ewha Womans University Museum

Modern Korean Painting: From the Great Han Empire to the 1950sEwha Womans University Museum

Modern Korean Painting : From the Great Han Empire to the 1950s

The period between Imperial Korea (1897–1910) up to the 1950s marks a significant era for Korean art, characterized by efforts towards the continuation of traditions and the establishment of new conceptual and systemic aspects. This exhibition aims to examine the precipitous currents of modern fine art, with central focus on the works of art held in the collection of Ewha Womans University Museum. First of all, the documentary paintings of the Great Han Empire, portraits by the royal painter, and the postage stamps and schoolbooks of the time allow a glimpse into the dignified status of the empire and the introduction of new cultural facets and techniques through the imperial dynasty. Furthermore, a number of art schools were established for the purpose of continuing the lineage of traditional art and fostering successive generations of artists, which resulted in the emergence of renowned artists that led the development of modern art circles in Korea, such as Kim Eun-ho, Lee Sang-beom, No Su-hyeon, Byeon Gwan-sik, Chang Woo-soung, Kim Gi-chang, and Lee Eung-ro. This favorable attitude towards the growing prominence of Western art led to the nationwide spread of hobbyists with an interest in learning Western art and the new perception of the times towards art as a part of popular culture. Meanwhile, Western-style artistry in Korea, consisting of artists educated both in Korea and abroad, saw rapid growth through the establishment of various art organizations and exhibitions. Founded by Helen Kim and other key members with affiliations to Ewha Womans University, and widely known for having invited the most prominent artists of the day as teachers, the artists’ group Geumranmukhoe is testament to the fact that the cultured in Korea had persisted in the creation, exhibition, and appreciation of fine arts and calligraphy from the aftermath of liberation through to the 1960s. The modern paintings that laid the foundation and opened new grounds for modern artistry in Korea will yield an insight into the sensibilities that modern artists of the era had aimed to pursue, amid the rapid changes in the traditional way of life and cognitive system.

Exhibition Hall : 1. Early Modern Art: The Great Han EmpireEwha Womans University Museum

Early Modern Ar t: The Great Han Empire

Occupying a time of change and turbulence, the Great Han Empire sought the dual projects of self-determination and modernization amidst the pressure exerted by China under the Qing dynasty, Japan, and Western imperialism. The paintings of this period capture a vivid depiction of the sociopolitical zeitgeist. Featured in this section of the exhibition, Myeongseonghwanghu Barinbanchado illustrates the event of the royal funeral after the death of Empress Myeongseong. This occasion was capitalized upon as an opportunity to proclaim to the world the status of the Great Han Empire as an imperial power and an independent nation-state. Featuring the opulent scene of a royal carriage procession in the early Great Han Empire, Daehanjeguk Donggado differs from traditional Joseon style of court paintings in its direct portrayal of the king and partial usage of Western painting techniques, as well as the use of hand-painting instead of color engravings to finish the piece, which conveys a distinct perspective on the royal procession. In addition, Gungukgimusohoeido records the scene of a meeting within the Bureau of National Defense, the supra-governmental organization that led the Gabo Reform. The time of the Great Han Empire was also a period under which substantial changes were brought about on the method of visualization and expression towards the world. Expressing intricate shades through the new method of photographic imagery, the works of royal portrait painters showcase the introduction of photography and Western painting styles as new techniques of depiction and vehicles of symbolism that served as the catalyst for the modernization of art in Korea, while the designs of postage stamps and school textbooks display an aspect of print-material art that led the development of society and everyday life, as well as the establishment of modern visual culture. Such changes began with the royal court of the Great Han Empire, which sought to actively introduce new cultural products and foster a new era for the Korean people through culture and art.

The Funeral Procession of Empress Myeongseong (Late 19th century) by UnknownEwha Womans University Museum

This painting depicts the funerary procession of Empress Myeongseong in 1897, and is speculated to be a piece commissioned in the process of correcting procedural mistakes through the supervision of relevant officials in order to prevent such mistakes during the actual event. The state funeral of Empress Myeongseong was a significant event through which the Great Han declared itself to the world as an imperial power and an independent nation-state, and this picture illustrates the preparations and considerations behind this occasion.

Section of The Funeral Procession of Empress Myeongseong : Sinyeon, Bongyeo
Upon his ascent to the throne, Gojong elevated the queen to the position of empress, and decreed the color of all ceremonial goods to be changed to gold. In order to befit the station of the empress, new ceremonial goods were produced, such as the royal sedan chair. The new ceremonial goods may have been designed to emulate those featured in the Hwangjoyegidosik, which was completed in 1759, the 24th year in the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty.

The Funeral Procession of Empress Myeongseong (Late 19th century) by UnknownEwha Womans University Museum

Section of The Funeral Procession of Empress Myeongseong : Daeyeo

The daeyeo was a type of ceremonial palanquin used when transporting the jaegung, which was the casket containing the king or queen during a royal funeral. This was the most extravagant gama of all, carried by dozens of porters and led by a coordinator on top of the daeyeo itself.

The Funeral Procession of Empress Myeongseong (Late 19th century) by UnknownEwha Womans University Museum

The King’s Excursion on a Royal Carriage (Late 19th-early 20th century) by Chae Yong-shin (1850-1941)Ewha Womans University Museum

The King’s Excursion on a Royal Carriage is a royal documentary painting that illustrates the procession for Gojong’s royal excursion. At the head of the painting, the title Daehanjeguk Donggado Seokjisa indicates this piece to be the work of Chae Yong-shin, arguably the most renowned portrait painter of the period. However, discrepancies in the pen-strokes and inaccuracies in the depicted procession order, use of written characters, and the order of the painting covers have led to various interpretations as to the date of production and author of the painting. Directly portraying the king unlike in previous depictions of royal events, and using an aspect of Western painting by directly applying the brush instead of using colored engravings, The King’s Excursion on a Royal Carriage is a fascinating work that depicts the procession of Gojong’s royal excursion with a sense of gravitas and opulence.

The King’s Excursion on a Royal Carriage (Late 19th-early 20th century) by Chae Yong-shin (1850-1941)Ewha Womans University Museum

Section of The King’s Excursion on a Royal Carriage : Portrayal of the King

Gojong makes four direct appearances from the mid-section of the scroll. His first appearance shows Gojong dressed in military attire as he is preceded by the eunuchs of Gyeomnaechwi, the ceremonial musical troupe; next, the scene is broken up and the second depiction of Gojong features him upon the royal open-top gama and dressed in gonryongpo, the dragon-imprinted royal robe, and the ikseongwan, a type of wide-brim hat worn by royalty. In the second depiction, Gojong is also accompanied by uima and eosukma, which are horses carrying items required by the procession. The subsequent two appearances depict Gojong riding the royal carriage with senior officials of the dangsang level.

Meeting of the Bureau of National Defense (1894) by Jo Seok-jin (1853-1920)Ewha Womans University Museum

This painting Jo Seok-jin’s depiction of a meeting held by the Bureau of National Defense, which was the organization responsible for the decision on the Gabo Reform. The inscription on the top right of the image reads, “Meeting of the Bureau of National Defense on 26 July of the 31st year of Gojong’s reign, attended by the chairperson and 17 others,” which implies that the painting was commissioned to commemorate the establishment of the said organization, which existed from 27 July 1894 to 17 December of the same year. The lower part of the image is inscribed with the list of members at the time of the bureau’s founding.

Plum Tree Blossom Stamp (1900/1901) by UnknownEwha Womans University Museum

This stamp was issued using a printing press that was ordered from Germany to allow the domestic printing of stamps in Korea. From 2 January 1900, the Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Industry of the Great Han Empire began the domestic issuance of 11 types of stamps. These stamps mainly featured plum tree blossoms or taegeuk designs as symbols of the royal dynasty, and comprise the first specimens printed by machine in Korea.

Exhibition Hall : 2. Beginnings of Modern Art Education : SEOHWA MISULHOE AND SEOHWA ASSOCIATIONEwha Womans University Museum


Amidst the influx of new cultural aspects during the Enlightenment era in Korea, the establishment of modern institutions for art education sought to continue the lineage of traditional art and calligraphy while fostering younger generations of practitioners. Alongside the founding of Gyeongseong Seohwa Misulwon in 1911, Seohwa Misulhoe in 1912, and Seohwa Research Association in 1915, Seohwa Association was established in 1918. Throughout this process, the movement for modern art education in Korea was led by Seohwa Misulhoe, which was founded on 1 June 1912. The teaching faculty at Seohwa Misulhoe was led by Jo Seok-jin and Ahn Jung-sik, and included artists such as Gang Jin-hui, Jeong Dae-yu, Kim Eung-won, Gang Pil-ju, and Lee Do-yeong. Their teaching methods focused on basic training through conventional painting methods, and encouraged students to emulate the calligraphy styles of the instructors and artwork from China, until the association’s dissolution in 1919 following the death of Ahn Jung-sik. Invigorated by Seohwa Misulhoe to an extent, the increased popularity of fine art and calligraphy resulted in the nationwide spread of similar art schools, which aimed to educate successive generations of artists while allowing hobbyists to learn the arts as well. Propagating the perception of art at the time as part of popular culture, this new trend led 13 prominent artists, including Jo Seok-jin, Ahn Jung-sik, Kim Gyu-jin, Oh Se-chang and Ko Hui-dong, to launch Seohwa Association on 16 June 1918 as the first artists’ association in Korea. Although the association attempted a diverse range of endeavors for the modernization and vitalization of art culture, it ceased its activities following the 15th Seohwa Exhibition in 1936. As discussed above, the influences from various institutions of modern art education led to the emergence of renowned artists such as Kim Eun-ho, Lee Sang-beom, No Su-hyeon, and Byeon Gwan-sik from Seohwa Misulhoe, and Jang U-seong, Kim Gi-chang, and Lee Eung-ro through the newcomers’ contests held by Seohwa Association, all of whom became key figures in leading the development of modern art circles in Korea since the 1920s.

Clear Elegance of Hongmungwan (Late 19th century-early 20th century) by Lee Do-yeong (1884-1933)Ewha Womans University Museum

Lee Do-yeong was a teaching assistant at Seohwa Misulhoe and his theme in the painting is similar to that found in the Flavor of Early Autumn by Ahn Jung-sik. Written in the upper corner is the phrase, “clear elegance of Hongmungwan,” the office of special counselors, along with another inscription to signify Lee Do-yeong as the author.

Colored Orchid (Early 20th century) by Kim Eung-won (1855-1921)Ewha Womans University Museum

Of the works of Kim Eung-won, who was renowned for his excellence at orchid paintings, this is a unique piece in the fact that it was drawn with color ink. The postscript implies that the piece is a representation of the spiritual purity of seonbi, the social class of scholars and the ruling elite.

Exhibition Hall : 3. Developments in Modern Art Circles in Asia: The Search for OriginalityEwha Womans University Museum

Developments in Modern Art Circles in Asia : The Search for Originality

Since late 19th century, the most noteworthy aspect of the history of modern fine art at the time is the introduction of new painting styles and cultural assets through those who had studied or traveled abroad. Hwang Cheol and Ji Un-yeong operated their own photography studios, having introduced photography techniques from Shanghai, China and Kobe, Japan, respectively, to produce works as both photographers and practitioners of fine art and calligraphy. Having studied in Tokyo, Japan, Ko Hui-dong had previously been known for his oil paintings, but his transition into oriental paintings saw the amalgamation of Western techniques with the traditional format of classic oriental works. From the 1920s, the Japanese colonial government began to host the Joseon Art Exhibition as part of its attempt to systematically regulate the artistry of Joseon, which greatly affected the establishment and development of modern art in Korea. The traditional Korean method of colored ink painting was renamed ‘oriental painting’ and reinvented as a creative art form of the colonial exhibition, while other categories consisted of Korean ink landscape paintings, colored portraits, and colored paintings of flowers and birds.While traditional ink landscape paintings were passed down to the first generation of oriental painting artists through the painting styles of Ahn Jung-sik and Jo Seok-jin, which were originally based on traditional forms, the trend in favor of new artistic methods further encouraged changes in the genre. This trend consisted of the deviation from otherworldly and lofty portrayals of landscapes, which were replaced by expressions of everyday and worldly scenes. In particular, gradually painting more seasonal vistas with strong regional flavors allowed Lee Sang-beom to develop a renewed recognition towards distinctively Korean sensibilities. On the other hand, colored portraits and paintings of flowers and birds, which are generally categorized as Japanese-style paintings, were led by the first generation of oriental painting artists, including Kim Eun-ho, and pursued a new form of artistic style. Kim Eun-ho’s own style of painting emphasized a sense of realism, while his proteges, Kim Gi-chang, Jang U-seong, and Lee Yu-tae created a new style of painting which deviated from the Japanese influence while producing delicate and elegant works.

Red Cliff (1922) by Ji Un-yeong (1852-1935)Ewha Womans University Museum

Ji Un-yeong was a scholar painter working between the late Joseon Dynasty and early modern Korea. This painting features the famous poet-official Su Shi strolling along on a red cliff. Red cliffs were one of the common painting motifs among literati until the late Joseon Dynasty. This painting is considered key to understanding the works of Ji Un-yeong, as its composition is groundbreaking and impressive compared to many other Red cliff paintings.

Bird (1926) by Kim Eun-ho (1892-1979)Ewha Womans University Museum

Kim Eun-ho completed many landscape, bird and flower paintings—as well as those of birds and animals—and he was especially good at accurately detailed colored paintings. In the center of this painting a bird sits on the branch of a cherry tree in autumn, and behind that are the twigs of a low bamboo tree. He depicts worm-eaten leaves with remarkable accuracy and the bird as if a stuffed bird had served as his model, reminding us of pictures painted in modern Japan.

Landscape (1958) by Lee Sang-beom (1897-1972)Ewha Womans University Museum

Painted by Lee Sang-beom in 1958, commemorating the 60th birthday of Dr. Helen Kim, the 7th president of Ewha Womans University. The painting portrays a landscape in which a tile-roofed house stands in the woods on a hill by a stream and flowers express a cheerful sense of spring. On the right is a seal mark with a poem reading: “A house on a high place is filled with a beautiful feeling of pear blossoms on a hillock. In spring 1958, a year of musul. Painted by Cheongjeon to celebrate the 60th birthday of Dr. Uwol.” “Pear blossoms on a hillock” or Iwon (梨園) generally refers to Jangakwon, the bureau of court music in the Joseon Dynasty, but in this painting it seems to indicate Ewha Womans University.

Exhibition Hall : 4. GEUMRANMUKHOE : Modern Enjoyment of Literati CultureEwha Womans University Museum

GEUMRANMUKHOE : Modern Enjoyment of Literati Culture

Geumranmukhoe was officially launched in 1953 following the recapture of Seoul, as a fine arts and calligraphy circle centering on the core members Lee Jeong-ae and Helen Kim. The name of the group was taken from the proverb Geumranjigyo, which can be interpreted as “the friendship that is strong as steel and fragrant as an orchid.” Instructors at the group consisted of Western-style painters, such as Son Jae-hyeong, Kim Yun-jung, Lee Sang-beom, Kim Yong-jin, Kim Eun-ho, Lee Byeong-jik, and Hwang Seong-ha, who were active during the transition into the modern era, while its membership was based on those related to Ewha Womans University, including Helen Kim herself. According to surviving information, the group held regular meetings estimated on a monthly basis, as well as an annual exhibition for works produced by members. Geumranmukhoe was a sophisticated meeting of artists that continued throughout the late Joseon era due to the efforts of the intelligentsia, and an extension of the fine arts and calligraphy groups of various sizes that existed during the transition into the modern era. Particularly in reference to the members that are renowned as collectors of antique art and calligraphy through the activities of the Ewha Womans University Museum, the art-historical significance of Geumranmukhoe can be surmised from the continuation of the classical behavior within artistic culture, such as creation, exhibition, and enjoyment of fine art and calligraphy, throughout the liberation of Korea and the late 1960s.

Living at Ewha Haktang in the Modern Era (Late 19th Century - First Half of the 20th Century)Ewha Womans University Museum

Exhibition Hall : 5. Establishment of Western Art CirclesEwha Womans University Museum

Establishment of Western Art Circles

The emergence of Western-style artistry in modern Korea began under the leadership of Ko Hui-dong, who graduated from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1915 with a degree in Western paintings, along with other students who had also studied Western art in Japan. Through the return of painters who had studied in Europe, the establishment of various art organizations, as well as the institution of exhibitions, the movement achieved rapid growth. Establishment of Western Art Circles seeks to examine the portraits, landscapes, and still life paintings produced by key painters of academism that formed the foundation of Western-style artistry, as well as artworks that pioneered modern abstract art and demonstrated the coexistence of the designed and the abstract. This form of Western-style artistry is notable for portraits that thematically focus on the ego of individuals, and features key elements such as Western furniture, clothing, books, and tools for oil paintings, which were recognized as symbols of the new culture and representative aspects of the lives of modern intellectuals. Furthermore, the act of actually confronting the surrounding scenery and to feel and depict the ever-changing impressions therein represents the shift into modernistic creative activities. Depicting various objects, flowers, and fruit, still life paintings saw the development of expressive techniques based on realism and the rising emphasis on symbolic elements that express the consciousness of the artist, as well as the endeavor to convey uniquely Korean sensibilities. On the other hand, it is also possible to examine pieces that contributed to the development of Western-style artistry in Korea by introducing experimental and avant-garde forms of art such as cubism and abstract art. As pioneer works that laid the foundation and created new grounds for Western-style artistry in Korea, such artistic endeavors allow the viewer to gain an understanding of the sensibilities of the times as pursued by Western-style artists amid the rapid changes in the traditional ways of life and cognitive structures.

Reading Friend (1926) by Lee Chong-woo (1899-1981)Ewha Womans University Museum

Lee Chong-woo, a 1923 graduate from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, left for Paris to study in 1925 to develop the technique of classical realism. During his stay in Paris in 1926, Lee painted this picture for a Korean student studying in Paris and portrayed him in the image of an intellectual accepting new Western culture. Lee Chong-woo distinctly painted the student’s expression, muscles, and facial lines as a realistic representation rather than as an idealization.

La Femme à Paris (1956) by Park Young-seun (1910-1994)Ewha Womans University Museum

Park Young-seun embraced and developed the new trends and formative style of art in his own way during his four-year stay in Paris where he went to study in 1955. This work shows the geometrical space division of Cubism, the two-dimensional expression of objects, and shades of slate-grey and red, which are the key characteristics of his Paris works. Park left a varied series of paintings depicting women indoors and expressing a woman with exotic features as a paragon of beauty.

Wood Box and Bottle (1959) by To Sang-bong (1902-1977)Ewha Womans University Museum

To Sang-bong began to focus on still life paintings that depicted objects such as ceramics, flowers, and fruits. Wood Box and Bottle featuring quiet color shades of greyish brown and deep, dark brown offers a sense of nostalgia since the chest of drawers and white octagonal porcelain bottle of the late of Joseon Dynasty are adopted in the motif.

Untitled (1958) by Kim Whanki (1913-1974)Ewha Womans University Museum

Kim Whanki, the pioneer of Korean abstract art, expressed a Korean sentiment and sense of beauty through understated formative language by choosing natural and traditional subjects such as mountains, rivers, the moon, cranes, Japanese apricots, and moon jars. Untitled, a work belonging to the period when he studied in Paris, concisely expresses the shapes of the round moon, mountains, and birds flying above them as simple stylized lines and shapes, thereby displaying abstractness.

Credits: Story

Organized by Ewha Womans University Museum
Directed by Jang Namwon
Curatorial Supported by Oh Jin-Kyeong, Hong Sun-Pyo
Curated by Kim Joo-Yeon, Shin li-Ji, Chang Mi, Jang Hyo-Jin, Hwang I-sook

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps