Chung Hyung-min: Modern Korean Ink Painting

by Philip Gowman on 3 January, 2007

in Book Reviews, Books on Art

Modern Korean Ink Painting, by Chung Hyung-min(Hollym, 2006)

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A well-illustrated and easy-to-read book which traces the development of ink painting in the 20th century from its roots in the Chosun dynasty: the famous “court” painter O-won (Jang Seung-eop, 장승업, immortalised in Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon), and the literati style perfected in Kim Jeong-hi (김정희).

Chung emphasises the importance of the short-lived (1911-19) Seohwa Misulhoe (서화 미술회 – the Fine Art School of Calligraphy and Painting) which taught many of the painters who were to become the leading lights of post-liberation Korean art, preserving the old traditions through the dark times of the Japanese colonial occupation.

Chung documents the different influences on the Korean tradition: interaction with artists in Shanghai; the introduction of Western styles from the time of the late Chosun dynasty; and of course the various Japanese influences, whether purely Japanese or western styles mediated through Japan.

The various post-liberation trends are examined:

  • Chang Woo-seong: Yi Sun-shinthe indigenisation of Christian images and the re-portrayal of and re-claiming figures from Korean history. For example, the famous 1953 portrait (right) of Admiral Yi by Chang Woo-seong (장우성) sets the record straight following an extraordinary 1929 picture by Choe Wu-seok (최우석) of Korea’s national hero wearing the robe of a Japanese warrior
  • the experimentation with western modernistic forms such as cubism, surrealism, abstraction and expressionism
  • the exploration of folk and shamanistic art by minjung artists

Suh Seok workThe book is divided into three sections, “Dawn of the Modern Age” 1876-1910s1, “Modern Art Era” 1920s-1940s and “Perpetuation of Nationalism” 1950s-1980s. It’s a pity that the last section is the shortest, as there’s such a wide variety of things going on. There’s work which clearly harks back to Chosun dynasty compositions, such as Hwang Chang-bae’s (황창배) 1982 Untitled — showing a cockerel and musician in ink and light colour on paper; and the quieter calligraphic works of Suh Seok (서세옥) (example left) and more sculpural works of Kwon Young Woo (권영우) using Korean paper. But there are other works which it is difficult to trace back to a past tradition: Lee Ungno’s (이응노) Eruption owes more to Jackson Pollock than to O-won.

In the space available Chung only has time to note the individual trends. What there is no room to do is note the development of individual artists, some of whom have representative works in each of the trends – indeed, who set the different trends. Lee Ungno (1904-1989) seems to be one of these; Kim Ki-chang (김기창) (1913-2001) another. There are many examples of their work illustrating this book, and there must be a market for a follow-up book to examine some of these artists in more detail.

Buy this book at Amazon.co.uk to contribute towards more books for me to review


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  1. 1876 being the year of the forced opening of Korea’s ports []

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