Korean Painting Historical Overview

KOREAN PAINTING – Prehistory to the late 19th Century

Although Korean painting is not well known in the west, it has held an important place in Korea from a very early date.  One of the difficulties in studying Korean art is that conflict which has been so much a feature of life on the Korean peninsula through the ages has destroyed so much of what certainly existed in prior periods.  Additionally, invasion and conquest has resulted in much of the best of what remained after battle being removed to other countries where it is more difficult to study and relate it to other Korean developments.Despite these complications in the study of Korean art, Korean art is fascinating because although it has been deeply influenced by Chinese art, the most productive periods in terms of art often do not coincide between the two countries.  This can be particularly noted in Koguryo wall paintings, Buddhist paintings of the Koryo period, landscape painting in the first portion of the Choson dynasty and the landscapes painted of Korean scenes in the eighteenth century.  Korean painting therefore was influenced by Chinese painting while still pursuing its own path.  This resulted in different results and developments than that found on the mainland and give Korean art an interest all its own.

The earliest historical record of painting in Korea comes from the area of Lelang in Korea where a tradition of painting existed from sometime around the founding of this kingdom in 108 B.C.  Painted baskets in the Pyongyang museum show numerous figures demonstrating filial piety.  These works show that painting was a well developed art form even at this early date.  When the Lelang area was conquered in AD 313, it is believed that some of its artisans and craftsmen were absorbed into Koguryo.

During the Three Kingdoms period in Korea, which was from 57 BC through 668 A.D, centers of civilization were found at Koguryo in the North which extended far into Manchuria, and at Paekche and Silla in the south.  Although there is still some discussion as to which civilization was oldest, scholars generally believe that the Kingdom around Koguryo was in fact the oldest.  Koguryo period painting of tombs offers the largest remaining examples of Korean painting from this period although tombs from Paekche and painted objects from Silla offer further demonstration as to the artistic measure of Koreas ancient civilizations.

The wall paintings of the Koguryo tombs are located in the North of Korea in the area around present-day Tong’gou and Pyongyang.  The tombs are large stone-built structures with multiple chambers and with paintings on the walls and ceilings.  The earliest tombs in Koguryo date from the third and fourth century A.D. and continue on through the sixth and seventh century A.D.  These later tombs, particularly the Great Tomb of Kangso, the tomb at Naeri and others are decorated with clouds and representations of birds, snakes and tortoises and also Buddhist elements such as the lotus and floral scrolls.  Similar decorative details are seen at the Takamatsu tomb in Nara in Japan and it is thought that this treatment probably reflected Korean influence in the arts during this period.

In addition to these Koguryo tomb paintings, one of the tombs from Paekche during the later period when their capital was at Puyo contains very fine examples of wall paintings with depiction’s of animals.  In Puyo itself, may fine tiles have been discovered with landscape designs that also display the artistic sensitivities of the artisans of this period.



Although almost nothing remains in the way of actual painting of the Unified Silla period (AD 668-918) except an illuminated fragment of the Avatamsaka sutra on purple paper, the artistic decoration of this fragment which is believed to have been created around AD 750 A.D. fully demonstrates the high level of accomplishment in painting of the people of this period.The Koryo Dynasty (AD 918 – 1392) was a period in which the royal household and aristocracy acted as patrons of Buddhism.  One of the ways that this patronage was demonstrated was in support for the arts and painted depictions of Buddhist art are fairly plentiful from this period.  Koryo Buddhist paintings were produced to be used as part of many of the rites of Buddhism and are chronicled in the “Koryo-sa”, the History of the Koryo dynasty.  The richness and vivid colors used in these paintings marked a high point for Asian painting.  Among the characteristics of these paintings is in the use of gold in patterns for garments and the use of transparent effects.

No examples of Korean secular painting of this period remain, but writings tell us that secular painting was vibrant and that Koreans often came to China to buy paintings.  Famous painters of this period according to the records were Yi Nyong and Yi Je-hyon.

The adoption of Confucianism as the state philosophy during the Choson dynasty (1392 –1910)  had a very profound affect on Buddhist painting.  Although Buddhism continued to be popular and still had significant royal support, it never again had the artistic pre-eminence that it once enjoyed.

Korean painting during this period was more influenced by Chinese artists of the Southern Song academy tradition than those of the scholar-painters of the Chinese Wu school.  Korean landscape masters of this period therefore evolved their own interpretation of the classical landscape tradition.  In general these keep elements of far distance in their compositions rather than confining attention to the foreground, as often was the case in most Ming dynasty paintings.  Artists of the so called Zhe school (named after Zhejiang, a Chinese coastal province from which many of these artists came) also had a deep effect on Korean painting so much so that one observer of Korean art has coined the term “Korean Zhe School” to designate Korean artists of this movement.  An example of this style is the Korean artist Yi Kyong-yun.

Because of the successive Japanese and Manchu invasions, the seventeenth century does not really demonstrate the same vibrancy in painting that was occurring in China.  The seventeenth century revival of classical styles in China had little effect in Korea.  Korean painters were free to pursue their own development and it was in the eighteenth century when painting in China was losing its force that Korean painting really came into its own.   The development of art in this period was purely Korean and very different from Chinese artistic traditions.  One example of these new national patterns is the appearance of “Chingyoung sansu” or “real landscape”.  This new style was developed by Chong Son and the early development of this technique can be seen in his painting titled “Summer Landscape”.



Another uniquely Korean development of this period is the painting from daily life best exemplified by the artists Sin Yun-bok and Kim Hong-do.  The pictures of Kim Tu-ryang used the technique of direct observation to render some highly original works.  Work of the artist is displayed in the National Museum in Seoul and in the Pyongyang Museum.  These works show experimentation with western techniques such as chiaroscuro but still contain the fine brush lines that demonstrate the clear Oriental traditions.

This first experimentation with inventive forms of painting in the eighteenth century gave way to even further experimentation in the 19th Century.  The work of Kim Chong-hui, also known in Korea as Ch’usa or Wandang, shows a clear understanding of Chinese traditional techniques but often takes these traditions beyond the Chinese forms in both intensity and originality of form.  Kim Chong-hui is a towering figure in the art scene of this period and is without equal in his effect on the direction of Korean art during this period.  Of his students, Cho Hui-ryong and Hong Se-sop although never an equal to their teacher are well regarded for their artistic accomplishments.

As can be seen by the preceding short introduction, Korean painting although on the face adhering to Chinese models developed a clear Korean tradition in painting that yielded numerous unique developments.  As Korea preceded into the 20th Century, Korean artists could look back on a tradition of painting that yielded many Korean forms and renderings of older more traditional techniques and subjects.



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