by A Kladov

South Korea, a country rich in history and culture, has always provided fertile ground for artistic expression and creativity. Its art, spanning centuries, recounts the story of a people who have managed the challenges of identity, tradition, and modernity with grace and fortitude.

Korean culture is distinct due to its harmonious blend of ancient traditions and modern developments. It is notable for its deeply ingrained Confucian ideals, which emphasize respect, family relationships, and community peace. These principles impact everything from language and social etiquette to ceremonies and festivals. Korea's rapid modernization juxtaposed against its rich history creates a dynamic cultural landscape where ancient palaces coexist with cutting-edge technology and pop culture, notably K-pop and cinema, which have garnered global acclaim. This mix of the classic and modern, tradition and innovation, distinguishes Korean culture as unique and balanced!

In this article, we will look at the lives and works of 10 of South Korea's most famous artists, whose contributions not only impacted Korean art history but also made an unforgettable mark on the worldwide art landscape. Each artist in our list brings a unique perspective, influenced by their individual experiences, cultural heritage, and the socio-political context of their times.

Their works range from serene and introspective to vibrant and revolutionary, offering insights into the multifaceted nature of Korean identity and the universal themes of human existence. Their stories provide us with a better grasp of the cultural currents that shaped South Korea's artistic environment and its contribution to the global cultural fabric. From the traditional landscapes and calligraphic mastery of the Joseon Dynasty to the cutting-edge contemporary works that challenge and redefine artistic boundaries, these artists embody the spirit of Korean creativity and its ongoing dialogue between the past and the present!

 

1. Yi Jeong (1541–1626)

Yi Jeong "Bamboo In The Wind" (Early 17th Century)

Yi Jeong "Bamboo In The Wind" (Early 17th Century)

Yi Jeong was a prominent figure in the Joseon Dynasty known for his ink landscape paintings, calligraphy and poetry. He skillfully integrated Chinese literati painting styles with Korean sensibilities, focusing on natural landscapes that conveyed both philosophical depth and aesthetic beauty. Yi Jeong's work has had a lasting influence on Korean painting, embodying the harmony between human and nature. His well-known artwork "Bamboo in the Wind" (early 17th century) is celebrated for its sophisticated calligraphic brushwork, demonstrating advanced techniques through the delicate portrayal of leaves and the strategic use of light and dark ink to depict bamboo, achieving a dynamic spatial depth. This choice of subject reflects the Confucian and Daoist ideals of integrity and nobility, aligning with the long-standing East Asian tradition of scholar-painters venerating bamboo. Yi Jeong, a direct descendant of the culturally influential King Sejong, embodies the intellectual and artistic zenith of his era, marked by the creation of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. Yi Jeong's work symbolizes a direct connection to a golden era of Korean history. His mastery in capturing the essence of nature and philosophical ideals through ink painting reflects the scholarly pursuits and aesthetic values deeply cherished in Korean culture.

 

2. Choi Buk (1712-1760)

Choi Buk  "Returning Home On An Ox"

Choi Buk  "Returning Home On An Ox" 

Choi Buk, a celebrated Korean artist from the late Joseon period, was renowned for his traditional ink wash paintings. Known for his evocative landscapes and vivid depictions of daily life, he often used a variety of pen names, including Samgijae and Hosaenggwan, to sign his works. His ability to capture the essence of the Korean landscape with subtle brushstrokes and nuanced shades of ink has solidified his status as a significant contributor to the development of Korean painting. His notable works include "Landscape" (circa 1740), capturing a village nestled among mountains and rivers; "Returning Home on an Ox," depicting a serene journey; and "Traveling Through the Snow to Visit a Friend," illustrating a tranquil winter mountains. Choe's art, characterized by its peaceful ambiance and the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature, continues to be celebrated for its depiction of idyllic times.

 

3. Kim Hong-do (Danwon) (1745-1806)

Kim Hong-do "Feast For The Pyongyang Governor"

Kim Hong-do "Feast For The Pyongyang Governor"

Kim, a member of the Gimhae Kim clan and artist, was born and raised in what is now Ansan, South Korea. He is also known by his artistic name, Danwon. Kim started royal service at the official painting bureau of the Joseon court, the Dohwaseo, at the age of seven, after being trained by master Pyoam Kang Se-hwang (whose recommendation led him to the official painting bureau). His career was distinguished by notable works such as the portrait of the Royal Heir (future King Jeongjo), the Royal Portrait of King Yeongjo with Byeon Sang-byeok's assistance, and "Nineteen Taoist Immortals," which significantly boosted his reputation. King Jeongjo's reign saw Kim commissioned for numerous institutional paintings. The Korean Copyright Commission recognizes Kim's extensive oeuvre, including 757 paintings, 7 calligraphies, and 4 moldings, with works like "Feast for the Pyongyang Governor" showing variations in sepia and color. Kim Hong-do, alongside Owon and 15th-century painter An Gyeon, is celebrated as one of the Joseon dynasty's three greatest painters. Despite his status as one of Joseon's three greatest painters, alongside Owon and An Gyeon, Kim died in loneliness and poverty, with the exact circumstances and year of his death remaining obscure. The Korean Copyright Commission recognizes 757 of his paintings, illustrating his prolific contribution to Korean art.

 

4. Jeong Seon (1676-1759)

Jeong Seon  "A Leisurely Cat In Autumn"

Jeong Seon  "A Leisurely Cat In Autumn"

Among the few who went against the norms of the conventional and uniquely Korean Chinese painting style was the well-known Korean artist Jeon Song. Rather, he was going for a different technique that brought his surroundings to life. Jeon Song, renowned for his realistic portrayal of landscapes, significantly influenced the late Joseon period's art scene with his ink and oriental water paintings. Esteemed by his contemporaries, Jeon ventured beyond his studio to paint scenes that caught his eye, a practice that left a lasting impact on subsequent generations of Joseon dynasty artists. Discovered and esteemed by an aristocratic family, he was introduced to the royal court, securing a position as a court artist. Residing in Seoul for most of his life, Jeon continued to paint diligently into his later years. While his artwork is officially classified under the Southern School, he eventually developed a distinct style, characterized by bold, sharp brushstrokes and clear, parallel lines. Among his notable works, "A Leisurely Cat in Autumn" and "Ground Cherry and a Rooster" stand out for their detailed depiction of animals within landscapes, offering a vivid glimpse into Korean life at the time. Jeon's meticulous attention to detail, people, and the environment in his paintings marked a significant departure from the conventions of his era. Through his detailed and colorful depictions of the natural and urban environments, Jeon Song broke from traditional Chinese approaches and pioneered the true-view landscape genre in Korea. This new style honored Korean features. Regarded as the most renowned painter of the time, he perfectly rendered Diamond Mountain, the Han River, the Sea of Japan, and Hanyang (Seoul).

 

5. Kim Whanki (1913-1974)

Kim Whanki "Where And In What Form Are We To Meet Again?"

Kim Whanki "Where And In What Form Are We To Meet Again?"

Whanki Kim, originating from a village in Korea under Japanese rule, emerged as a pioneering figure in Korean abstract art. As a member of the first generation of Korean abstract artists, he skillfully blended oriental themes with abstract expression, creating a distinctive style rooted in Korean Lyricism. Renowned as a forerunner in abstract painting and dubbed the godfather of the Dansaekhwa movement, Kim Whanki secured his legacy in Korean art history from a young age through his innovative approach and formative expression. Throughout his career, Kim Whanki's art evolved from semi-abstract to fully abstract works, exploring complex hues and patterns. His early pieces hinted at recognizable forms, while his later art embraced pure abstraction, characterized by dynamic lines and expansive spaces. Following Korea's liberation in 1945 and the establishment of its government in 1948, Kim co-founded the New Realism Group with Yoo Youngkuk and Lee Kyusang. This collective aimed to innovate realistic painting, distancing themselves from Japan's influence and the ideological tensions of the Cold War era. Their work, straddling figuration and abstraction, has been instrumental in pioneering Korean abstract art, making them key figures in the country's modern artistic narrative. Kim Whanki's "Jar and Flowers" showcases an early transition into abstraction, depicting white porcelain as a simplified, abstract geometric form. This piece lays the groundwork for his later explorations, such as "Where and in What Form Are We to Meet Again?" and "26-I-70," which immerse fully into abstract realms with intricate play on lines and spatial arrangements. These works collectively underscore Kim's journey towards refining his abstract artistic language, characterized by a balance between form and void.

 

6. Park Su-Geun (1914-1965)

Park Su-geun "Woman Washing Clothes" 1950

Park Su-geun "Woman Washing Clothes" 1950

Park Su-geun, a prominent South Korean painter, captured the essence of rural Korean life without formal art education. Developing a distinct style characterized by textured surfaces, geometric shapes, bold lines, and muted colors, he navigated financial constraints to learn painting with the support of his teachers. His debut "Spring Comes" won an award at the 11th Joseon Arts Exhibition, marking his entry into the art world. As a member of the Johohoe artists' group, Park participated in several group exhibitions, establishing himself as a significant figure in Korean art. While residing in Pyeongyang, Park Su-geun submitted pivotal artworks such as "Woman Grinding Beans," "Woman Washing Clothes," "Mother and Child," and "Woman Doing Needlework" to the Joseon Arts Exhibition. Throughout his career, he also created an array of prints, watercolors, drawings, and illustrations. Park dedicated his artistic endeavors to illustrating the lives of simple, modest individuals, focusing on authentic depictions of family life that resonate with his personal experiences in the rural, agrarian settings of Korea. Important pieces including "Woman Grinding Beans," "Woman Washing Clothes," "Mother and Child," and "Woman Doing Needlework" were submitted by Park Su-geun to the Joseon Arts Exhibition while he was living in Pyeongyang. Park Su-geun frequently depicted the everyday lives of women and the natural beauty of trees in his artwork, with notable pieces including "Woman Pounding Grain," "A Wash Place," "Returning Home," and "Old Tree and Woman." By the way, his wife was a model for his artworks. Despite a productive career and some sales success, Park never owned a studio or achieved financial stability through his art. In 1963, he suffered the loss of sight in his left eye due to a cataract and later passed away from liver cirrhosis.

 

7. Kim Tschang-Yeul (1929-2021)

Kim Tschang-yeul - Drops And Strokes

Kim Tschang-yeul - Drops And Strokes

Kim Tschang-yeul, who gained recognition for his paintings of abstract water droplets, was involved in both the Art Informel movement and the Modern Artists' Association in South Korea. His grandfather taught him calligraphy at the age of five, which had a significant impact on his subsequent artwork. Although he started his formal education at the Seoul National University's College of Fine Arts, the Korean War in 1950 halted his studies, impacting his path to becoming a celebrated artist. Proponent of important reforms within Korea's conservative art scene and the state-run National Art Exhibition, Kim Tschang-yeul is a key figure in Korean art and co-founder of Hyeondae Misulga Hyophoe. Interestingly, he worked in the police and art school for a while. Now, Kim Tschang-yeul is often held in the same regard as Lee Ufan and Nam June Paik, celebrated as a monumental figure in Korean modern art. His recognition includes being honored as a chevalier of France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and receiving South Korea's Order of Cultural Merit, Silver Crown, in 2013. Kim generously donated 220 pieces of his artwork to a museum, with his extensive collection also featured in various prestigious international museums and galleries.

 

8. Park Seo-Bo (1931-2023)

Park Seo-bo

Park Seo-bo

An important figure in Korean contemporary art, Park Seo-Bo made a substantial contribution to the Dansaekhwa monochromatic movement. This movement, blending traditional Korean aesthetics with Western abstract concepts, surfaced in the 1970s, post-war Korea, and has since achieved global acclaim. His unique approach to painting, focusing on form and materiality, has positioned him as a key Dansaekhwa practitioner. Park Seo-Bo's artistic journey reflects a profound evolution from his initial influences by art informel, a movement paralleling American abstract expressionism that emerged during WWII in Europe, to a more disciplined approach emphasizing process. His early work, deeply rooted in the expressive freedom of art informel, transitioned towards a more structured methodology, signifying a departure from spontaneous gestural techniques. This shift is evident since his foundational role in establishing the Hyun-Dae Artists Association in 1957, advocating for the principles of art informel to address post-war trauma. His subsequent UNESCO scholarship in 1961 allowed him to delve deeper into these principles during his time in Paris, further enriching his artistic vocabulary and setting the stage for his later work, where process and meticulous discipline take center stage. Upon his return from Paris, Park Seo-Bo embarked on the "Primordialis" series, characterized by its use of somber tones. This was followed by the "Hereditarius" series, where he experimented with a broader color palette, including white, black, blue, yellow, and red. His notable "Écriture" series is marked by canvases prepared with gesso, over which he drew lines, creating a meditative repetition that symbolized a deep connection with nature. Park's engagement with the international art scene and his efforts to promote Korean contemporary art globally were instrumental in his career. His mentorship at Hongik University, along with his efforts to showcase emerging talents and his work with the Korean Fine Arts Association, significantly contributed to the nurturing of new generations in the Korean art world.

 

9. Lee Ufan (1936)

Lee Ufan "The Memory Of Mine 1"

Lee Ufan "The Memory Of Mine 1"

Rising to prominence in the field of contemporary art, Lee Ufan had a major influence on the Dansaekwa movement in Korea throughout the 1970s and 1980s, which promoted monochrome painting. His groundbreaking minimalist paintings and sculptures from the late 1960s had a significant impact on the Japanese Mono-ha movement. Lee's artistic narrative is deeply intertwined with the exploration of materiality, perception, and the spatial relationship, fostering a nuanced conversation between mankind and the natural environment. His creations, which skillfully navigate the boundaries of Abstract Expressionism and draw inspiration from traditional Korean munjado calligraphy, challenge the conventional paradigms of artistic representation. Works like "The Memory of Mine 1", "From Point", and "From Line" are emblematic of his approach, employing simple geometric shapes and a restrained color palette to evoke a sense of serenity and contemplation. An aura of harmony and calm is conveyed by the balanced forms, such as circles, lines, and rectangles that are created with a single brushstroke. Like a symbol, every stroke is fascinating, whether it's a tree, a whole forest, or just shadows. Lee creates a visual symphony of calm and harmony with his careful use of color, which runs from rich blacks and blues to vivid reds and occasionally oranges, against stark yellow or white backgrounds. Each brushstroke, whether it represents a solitary tree or a sprawling forest, carries a symbolic weight that captivates the viewer. Lee Ufan's contributions to the art world have not only garnered critical acclaim but have also achieved remarkable success in the auction market, with his pieces fetching substantial sums, underscoring his enduring legacy and appeal across diverse audiences.

 

10. O Yoon (1946-1986)

O Yoon "No Sowing In The Spring, No Harvesting In The Fall"

O Yoon "No Sowing In The Spring, No Harvesting In The Fall"

Oh Yoon was a significant artist who mostly used folk themes in his works. Yoon sought to portray the oppressive aspects of Korean society as a founding member of the "Reality and Speech" movement, which also included up-and-coming writers and artists. His artwork delved into the societal role of art, exploring traditional Korean cultural expressions such as Minhwa (folk paintings), shamanic artworks, Talchum (mask dances), and Gut (rituals for purifying spirits). His notable works, such as "No Sowing in the Spring, No Harvesting in the Fall," "Song of Sword," and "Working God," vividly capture the daily lives, traditions, and challenges faced by the Korean populace. Though his art did not receive significant recognition until after his passing, Yoon's legacy underwent a reevaluation in the 1980s, coinciding with South Korea's democratic transition, establishing him as an iconic figure in people's art. His contributions have been acknowledged and showcased by major institutions like the National Museum of Contemporary Art Korea in Gwacheon. Unfortunately, he died of Cirrhosis at the age of 40.

From Tradition to Modernity: The Evolution of Korean Art

Korean art, with its unique and tumultuous history, stands as a testament to the resilience and creativity of its people. From traditional to modern expressions, it encapsulates a rich cultural heritage and the ongoing evolution of artistic endeavor. At TrendGallery, you can explore the vast narratives and stories of art from Korea and countries worldwide, opening numerous "books" that delve into the diverse and vibrant world of art across the globe!