Artists in Their Times: Korean Modern and Contemporary Art - From 1900s to 1970s

Learn the major trend of modern and contemporary art of Korea

By National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Mountain (Soil) (1959) by Yoo YoungkukNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

'Artist in Their Times' , a large–scale permanent exhibition, features works in the museum collection examines major currents of Korean modern and contemporary art over 120 years from 1900s to 2000s. Composed with 15 sections delineating some 120 years of modern and contemporary art history, the exhibition is organized in cooperation with researchers specializing in each historical period. Walking through different time periods and witnessing how art has evolved with the changing circumstances of the country, audiences will be able to grasp the organic relationship between art and society, and the periodic development of different artistic media. Korean artists have demonstrated an unyielding artistic consciousness, striving to sublimate the ordeals brought upon by history into works representative of a zeitgeist. We hope that this exhibition could be an opportunity for the audiences to open their eyes to Korean art and history.

Guided tour of the entire exhibition with a museum curator

Landscape of Rouen (1926) by LEE ChongwooNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Korean Art in the First Half of the 20th Century (1-3)

Over the course of the 20th century from the 1900s to the 1950s, Korean history underwent a period of profound turbulence. While the century was rung in with the conflict between the Wijeong Cheoksa (“uphold orthodoxy and reject heterodoxy”) proponents and the Gaehwa (“enlightenment”) proponents that played a leading role in actively adopting new culture from China and Japan, that conflict would end with the humiliation of Korea being stripped of its sovereignty with its 1910 annexation by Japan. Under the stern military rule of imperial Japan, most cultural activities came to a stop. In the wake of the March 1 Independence Movement came an era of cultural rule, with the first national art exhibition taking place under the control of the Joseon Government–General. During the Japanese occupation, the period whenKorean artists enjoyed “relatively” more freedom to receive art education and pursue artistic activities was a brief window of time between the 1920s and 1930s. 

Still Life(Flowers) (1929) by Lee, Jeung-sooNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

But after the notorious militarism of the late Japanese empire came Korea’s liberation in 1945, and the five years until the outbreak of the Korean War represented a turbulent period of intense conflict between left–wing and right–wing politics. The eruption of the Korean War was a major incident in world history, ushering in the Cold War era.Even amid this chaos, many people in Korea opted to pursue careers in art. Perhaps it is inappropriate to say, “they could not give up art despite the hardships.” Rather, it is because of art that they seem to have been able to summon the courage and resistance to overcome their hardships. The first gallery in this exhibition features their stories and some of the invaluable works they left behind.

Nude (1937) by SEO JindalNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

1. Early 1900s

Transformation of Traditional Art and the Introduction of Oil Painting

During the Joseon era, there had been many professional painters among the middle class, who had been affiliated with palaces or produced work to meet the demands of the aristocracy. This traditional artist lineage was carried on by Chae Yongsin, a royal painter who produced a portrait of Emperor Gojong. At the same time, Chae was also a “freelancer” who set up his own studio to meet the new demand for art. The production methods and distribution structure of traditional art was undergoing a gradual change.

Nude (1937) by SEO JindalNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Meanwhile, Ko Huidong, a member of the upper–middle class and student of French, was the first Korean to travel to Tokyo to learn oil painting. While studying in Tokyo, he first learned “self–portrait”. The self– portrait, with its expression of the artist’s own identity, was a foreign genre from the standpoint of traditional art concepts. A sea change arose in perceptions of the stature and role of the artist.

Portrait for JEON Woo (1911) by CHAE YongshinNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Portrait for JEON Woo, Chae Yongshin

Chae Yongshin was a portrait painter who was active from the end of the end of Joseon Dynasty to the Japanese colonial period. The person of the Portrait for JEON Woo, JEON Woo, is a representative Confucian scholar of the Wei Zhengcheksa(“uphold orthodoxy and reject heterodoxy”), and when Japan was forcibly invaded during the colonial period, they drifted to the island area and devoted themselves to the development of learnings in the secluded life. He had a strong will to maintain the Neo-Confucian tradition. Through his straight posture and strong expression, he successfully shares the impression of a straight scholar.

a panoramic view of the eye view of the times. (2020) by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

2. 1920–1940s

Government Exhibition Art and the Emergence of New Forms of Expression 

After the end of World War I and the March 1 Independence Movement, the art worlds of the 1920s underwent a change in topography. Transitioning into a system of “cultural rule,” the Japanese government established the Joseon Art Exhibition, holding yearly art exhibitions that received large–scale promotion in the press. But the Joseon Art Exhibition remained the only gateway available for artists, serving as a yardstick for many artists to gauge their own capabilities as they continued on with their artistic  careers. Ambitiously scaled “exhibition works” were produced to be shown at the events, and so–called “stars of Joseon Art Exhibition” emerged during this time.

Kyesan-dong Cathedral (1930s) by Lee, In-sungNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

This period also saw the appearance of artworks revealing new sensibilities and the unique styles of artists. In the case of Western–style art, new artworks incorporated elements not only of impressionism, which corresponded to the “academism” of the time, but also of fauvism, surrealism, and abstraction. The idea of painting being a form of free expression to reveal the artist’s subjectivity and individuality, rather than simply a technique for representing objects as they appeared, would allow for the development of a wide variety of artistic forms.

Calla (1932) by LEE InsungNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Calla, Lee In-sung

Lee Insung was born in a poor family, and when he was a young man, he was selected for the Korean Art Exhibition and became a star. The title Calla originally means flower ‘Calla’, which in Japan the flower means "healing" and "recovery." The "watercolor painting" technique, which has been polished under the guidance of senior artists, will be exhibited to present a clear and fresh beauty to the audience.

Children and Fish and Crab (1950s) by LEE JungsupNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

3. 1940–1950s

Liberation and Postwar Art 

South Korea was liberated from Japanese rule in August 1945. But the thrill of liberation lasted for only a short time before the new ideological battle and societal conflicts reached a fever pitch. As if to reflect the societal situation, the number of artworks produced over the roughly five–year period between 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 was exceedingly small. The works from this time reflect both hope for the new country and despair over its reality. 

Mountain (Soil) (1959) by Yoo YoungkukNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Erupting in 1950, the Korean War would serve to entrench the division of the Korean Peninsula. While socialist realism became the chief approach in North Korea, the effect in South Korea was to encourage more active adoption of Western art from the US and Europe. 

Work 1963-3 (1963) by KIM BongtaeNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

4. 1960s

Prelude to Contemporary Art: Informel

Amid the political and social turbulence of the post–Korean War period from the late 1950s into the 1960s, the Korean art world was also undergoing change. An example of this was a street exhibition held the same year as the April 19 Revolution (1960) in which large abstract works of art were hung by artist groups on the western and northern walls of Deoksugung Palace, the venue where the Gukjeon was taking place. It represented a kind of protest, appealing to the public by creating an event to raise issues with the conservative art establishment.

Restoration B (2020) by KIM HyungdaeNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

During this period, artists deepened their artistic work into a zeitgeist of sorts, and began participating in biennials and other international exhibitions, which served as an opportunity to broaden their awareness of international art and examine Korea’s situation and  possibilities. In these ways, the art of this era assumed an oppositional aspect vis–à–vis the establishment, pursuing change in accordance with the international art environment as a formative movement closely tied to the zeitgeist. 

Legacy (1963) by CHUN SangbumNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Legacy, Chun Sangbum

He continued his constant quest for new materials by releasing ironworks emphasizing materiality. Legacy emphasizes accidental effects rather than smoothing the surface, but this expresses the strong vitality of the sculpture by leaving traces of the corrosion-prone steel material and welding process.

Untitled (1979) by Park, Hyun-kiNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

5. 1960–1970s

Experiments with Modes of Expression

In the 1960s and 1970s, we encountered a variety of experiments on Korean art expression styles. The world was going through a turbulent time, with the fervor of hippie and resistance culture juxtaposed against the bleakness of a cold and stark international situation, as exemplified by the Vietnam War. Under its authoritarian political regime, Korea was racing breathlessly on a path of state–led industrialization, with its five–year economic development plans and Saemaul (New Village) Movement. Also coursing this dynamic moment was an endless outpouring of desire for democracy and freedom, as seen in the April 19 Revolution of 1960.

The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969) by KIM KulimNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Attempts to break through the authoritarian, hidebound social and cultural framework through different experiments with various modes of expression continued against a backdrop of youth culture exemplified by blue jeans and guitars. To be sure, these experiments could only do so much in achieving solid long–term continuity amid the various prevailing social conditions. But the more basic questions that they raised about art concepts, and the attempts to link together different elements spanning different fields, can be seen as having contributed significantly to achieving healthy “biodiversity” in the Korean contemporary art ecosystem.

Work 63 (1963) by QUAC InsikNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Work 63, Quac Insik

Work 63 shows the marks of broken glass by breaking and reattaching it. The fragments of the broken glass are picked up and attached to the screen, where the lines of the broken glass overlap and appear to be a very delicate and beautiful screen.

a panoramic view of the eye view of the times. (2020) by MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

6. 1970s

Under the Yushin system of the 1970s, various cultural policies were introduced with an emphasis on reviving and rebuilding national traditions. Amid this climate, Korean art came to reflect a Korean aesthetic consciousness that emphasized harmony with nature and spiritual qualities. The interest that Japan was showing toward Korean contemporary art became an important factor in strengthening the identity of Korean art. 

Ecriture No.16-78-81 (1981) by PARK SeoboNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

 In 1975, the exhibition Korea: Five Artists, Five Hinsek ‘White’ was held at Tokyo Gallery, and exhibitions of Korean art would take place throughout Japan over the next decade or so, including solo and group exhibitions as well as exhibitions at major art museums. “White monochrome” was mentioned for the first time in Japan, and as it became tied to the inherent sentiments of Korea, it broadened into a discussion on the identity of Korean art. This tendency holds an important place in contemporary Korean art history, and its relationship with Western and Japanese art has been the subject of ongoing research through Korean and overseas discourses.

Untitled (2014) by CHOI ByungsoNational Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

Untitled, Choi Byungso

One day in 1975, the writer began to paint newspapers carelessly with a ballpoint pens. Choi Byungso painted it with a ballpoint pen and then with a pencil to paint on it again. It erased the front and back of the newspaper in the same way, and the meaning of social communication of newspapers was completely eliminated.

Continue to explore Korean modern and contemporary art since the 1980s, here.

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