Art; Turbulent Half-Century of Contemporary Korean Art

Article excerpt

Nowadays, the Korean art world is being overwhelmed by the wave of globalization sweeping over the whole society, raising the need to discuss the role of contemporary Korean art within this context. One urgent problem is harmonizing international trends with the Korean spirit. To solve this dilemma, it is necessary to review the history of contemporary Korean art.

The dawn of modern Korean art covers the broad period from the end of the Choson Kingdom to the 1950s, when the prototype of Korean art was established. During the 50-year period since the country was liberated from Japanese colonial rule, Korean artists endeavored to develop their true artistic identities.

Korea's liberation on Aug. 15, 1945 unleashed a great surge of passion in the art world, and various group exhibitions were organized. In the vortex of the liberation and the political clashes that followed, a welcome piece of news came on on Sept. 22, 1949, which brightened the art world -- the organization of an annual ``National Art Exhibition.''

However, the eruption of the Korean war on June 25, 1950, temporarily nullified what had been accomplished. Artistic activity came to a complete stop, and confusion ensued in the art world; artists split in two groups -- those who went to the north and those who chose the south.

Under the worst conditions imaginable, artists reasserted their positions and tried to promote modern art in Korea through exhibitions and art education, providing a basis for many future artists.

On the other hand, many artists went abroad to study. A climate was created for artists to participate actively in the arts and society. The mass media helped the artists and the public come into contact with international trends, and set up a new artistic direction.

Modern art in Korea began to take root around 1957. Led by youthful artists in their twenties as well as more established painters, who resisted the intense opposition by the more conservative artists entrenched around ``The National Art Exhibition,'' they organized shows to demonstrate their originality as individual artists.

This period was marked by a radical avant-garde movement on the domestic scene and an increasing participation of domestic artists in international exhibitions.

Often called the starting point of Korean contemporary art, the year 1957 witnessed the birth of four art groups, each with its own strong characteristics -- ``The Modern Art Association,'' ``The Creative Art Association,'' ``The School of New Plastic Art'' and ``The Association of Contemporary Artists'' -- an almost miraculous event, considering the poor circumstances of the period.

The emergence of the four groups instilled a new energy to reform the established order of the art world. Each group differed in character and ideology, but all of their efforts were a substantial response to the urgent demands of the art community, and reflected their own ideas of innovation in the art structure of that time.

The last two or three years of the 1960s marked another turning point in the development of modern art in Korea. The seemingly opposing trends -- `reduction' and `expansion' -- branched into two main streams of modern Korean art.

This `reduction' and `expansion' period, from the late 1960s to 1975, saw a change of direction in the artistic ideology of modern Korean art, ushering in a peculiar situation in which the opposing trends co-existed, progressing side by side.

The 70s saw the mushrooming of artistic groups which rallied around a common historical and ideological solidarity. In this transition period, ``The Avant-garde Korea,'' the first artists' group to include critics, was born with a goal of pursuing new artistic possibilities at the core of the movement.

In 1972, when artistic activities were vigorous for the first time, ``The Independent Exhibition'' was organized and grew into an independent artistic area for young artists. …