Part 1: The History
The arts of Korea, while largely influenced by Chinese, are characterized by simplicity, spontaneity and naturalism. A work of Korean art is not very meticulous in tiny details. It rather tends to embrace wholeness. This seemingly indifference lies in the flexible state of mind of early Korean artists who love nature as it is. Ko Yu-sop, a Korean art scholar, defines the characteristic aspects of Korean art as "technique without technique," "planning without planning," "asymmetry" and "nonchalance."
During the Three Kingdoms period (BC-AD 668), the first major period of Korean Art during recorded history, the local powers of Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast fought for control over the Korean peninsula. Koguryo's art survived mostly in the form of fresco-type mural paintings decorating 5th and 6th century tomb chambers. The vigorous polychrome paintings represented lively everyday scenes, animals, and other stylish figures, some of which display Central Asian influences. The Paekche kingdom maintained close relations with Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries. Its art is mostly known for gracefully sculpted Buddhist images preserved in Japan. The finest example from this period is the painted wood figure of Kudara Kannon in Japan, which either was brought from Korea or was carved by one of the many Paekche artists working in Japan at the time. Silla art of the Three Kingdoms period is noted for the refinement of its metalwork. Monumental tomb mounds surrounding Kyongju, the Silla capital, is famous for a striking array of uniquely Korean ornaments, including a group of gold crowns richly decorated with masses of jade pendants and gold discs.
Silla unified the Korean kingdoms into a single nation in AD 668, marking the beginning of the Great Silla period (668-918). Impressive granite monuments were constructed, including the mid 8th century pagoda of the Pulgaksa monastery and the cave temple of Sukkalam, both located near Kyongju. The Sukkalam contained a giant stone Buddha figure and fine relief carvings showing Chinese influence. Metalworkers of Silla period excelled in the creation of large bronze temple bells, which were often as tall as 13ft high. Also noteworthy are the elegant bronze figurines of Buddhist gods, such as that of Maitreya (7th century).
Support of Buddhism by royalties during the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) encouraged the construction of new temples and monasteries. One of the best example being the "Hall of Eternal Life" of the 13th century Pusoksa, is believed to be the oldest standing wooden building in Korea. Although sculpture and stonework declined during the Koryo period, the aristocratic arts such as precious metalwork, lacquer inlaid with mother of pearl, and above all, ceramics reached new levels of quality and refinement. Porcelain making, introduced in late 11th century from China, was rapidly transformed by Korean artists into a distinctly Korean variant of Koryo Celadon. These unique blue green clay wares are regarded as among the most beautiful Asian porcelains ever produced. In the 12th century, the Koreans invented the technique of adding black or white clays into the celadon wares to produce delicate patterns of birds, flowers, and clouds.
With the founding of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), Buddhism was replaced by Chinese inspired Neo-Confucianism. Under the conservative formalism of Confucian concepts, the Korean art suffered a steady decline in the early periods of Choson dynasty. The autocratic monarchy tried to maintain close relationship with the court of Ming China and grand buildings, such as the 15th century Kyongbok Palace, were constructed in the new capital of Hanyang as an imitation of even grander Chinese Peking prototypes. In areas of painting, both the professional court artists and the upper-class painters relied heavily on Chinese themes and customs. Not until the 18th century did distinctively Korean styles emerged in the works of number of Choson artists. The most well known of these artists was Chong Son, who gave up the traditional Chinese style landscape for the representation of rough Korean scenery as in his painting, "The Diamond Mountains". Genre painting also represents another way in which Choson artists broke away from the imitations of Chinese paintings. A good example of this is the "Boating Scene" by artist Yunbook Shin, which displays the typically Korean skillfulness and wit.
Part 2: Modern Art
With the introduction of Western culture, Korea experienced radical changes in its cherished old values in all areas of life including the fine arts. Although many attempt was made to resist the influence of outside world, new generation of many young artists aimed to break away from tradition and experiment with new ideas and concepts of art. And gradually, the modern painting came to be accepted.
The two major competing schools of modern Korean art are the surrealist and abstract expressionist. The first group of artists were educated in France while the other group received their training in America. Though the period of contemporary art is relatively short, Korea has produced a number of painters with great talent and achievement.
The traditional ink and brush painting of Korea is dominated by two distinct groups, the classical authoritarian and the innovative experimentalist. While they are two competing schools of art, the traditional (East) and the modern (West), there appears to be some degree of cooperation between the two schools. Hopefully there will be a harmonization of these two groups in the future and the public views are optimistic. Contemporary Korean artists, whether belonging to the "Western School" or the "Asian School" have added something new to the old and have displayed the Korean spirit in their work.
Part 3: Personal Reaction
Since I was born and raised in Korea for most of my early childhood, I have seen many works of Korean artists ranging from simple paintings to complex designs of ancient palace roofs. And although it's unfortunate for me that I couldn't appreciated them because I was too young then, I feel lucky to have this chance to go back and learn about them even though I'm thousands of miles away from my motherland.
While I was doing the research for this paper, I have noticed that some of the earlier studies on Asian culture often identified the traditional Korean art as an imitation of Chinese while others did not even bothered to mention it even though they wrote extensively about Chinese and Japanese art. While there is no denying that Korean art was influenced by Chinese, it wouldn't be correct to say that they are the same.
Because of my interest in Asian cultures, especially in Chinese and Japanese culture, I had a lot of chance to see and read about their art. Chinese art, in my opinion, is very attractive, complex and detailed. Japanese art, on the other hand is simple, clean, and efficient. The characteristics of Korean art, although difficult to point out, lies in its ability to see and capture the nature as it is. Korean art do not have excessive decorations or patterns of other Asian countries. Instead, it tries to represent the artist's idea through spontaneity and naturalism.
If I was to name one Korean art as my all time favorite, my answer will probably be the Namdaemun (Great South Gate) in Seoul. The Namdaemun was the main gate of the capital city of Hanyang during the Choson dynasty. It was first built in 1398 during the reign of the first king of Choson dynasty. Designated as the #1 National Treasure, it is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Korea. The reason why I chose this monument as my favorite Korean art is because of its beautifully curved roof, which is the trademark of ancient Korean buildings.
Part 4: Sources
I first started my research through some of the books I found at a public library. However, because these books covered a lot of materials in detail, I found it was difficult to find the information I needed from these books. As an alternative, I used the school library computers to find some articles that I found to be useful. I also found a couple of web sites that dealt with international art histories. And here are the sources I used to do my research.
McKillop, Beth. "Korean Art and Design." New York: Icon Editions, 1992.
Kim, Won-yong. "Visual Arts of Korea." In Kim Won-yong. Art and Archaeology of Ancient Korea. Seoul: The Taekwang Publishing Co., 1986.
Chung, Yang Mo. "The Art of Everyday Life." In Hongnam Kim, ed. Korean Arts of the Eighteenth Century: Splendor and Simplicity. New York: The Asia Society Galleries, 1993.
Best, Jonathan W. "5,000 Years of Korean Art: History and History, A Review Article." The Journal of Asian Studies 40:3 (May 1981): 559-566.
Kim, Won-yong. "Philosophies and Styles in Korean Art: A Prelude to the History of Korean Art." Korea Journal 19:4 (April 1979): 4-10. [Also included in Art and Archaeology of Ancient Korea. Seoul: The Taekwang Publishing Co., 1986.]
Kim, Young-Kee. "Modern Art in Korea." Kukche munhwa 4:1 (1967:9): 109-142.
www.emb-korea.ottawa.on.ca/html/e_menu.htm (Embassy of the Republic of Korea)
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