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Feminism and women artists in Korean art

Lecture 5 in Jiyoon Lee’s Art & Society in Modern Korea course.

Big caveat: a very simplistic and immature summary, prepared by someone with limited knowledge or understanding of these things, of a very brief lecture covering a huge topic. Treat with extreme caution. Posted here as a “stub” (in Wiki terms) which I might build on in the future.

  • Before the 20th century the occupation of being a professional artist went against the Confucian concept of an ideal wife. There were female artists, but they were privileged women who were able to become accomplished artists without having to stoop to earning money from their abilities – for example Princess Jeong Myeong (Daughter of king Seonjo), Ahn Dong Jang (안동장), and Shin Saimdang (신 사임당) (1504-1551), mother of the Confucian scholar Yi Yulgok.
  • During the early Japanese colonial period (1910-20s), a group of women artists emerged: Na Hye-seok (나혜석)), Baek Nam-soon and Jeong Chan-yeong, who had all been educated in Tokyo University, and had formed a women’s group there, producing magazines among other things. Their art was mainstream rather than addressing women’s issues.
  • 1945 saw the establishment of the art department at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul.
  • The 1950s saw the first female winners of the President?s award in the National Art Competition: Chun Kyeong-ja (천경자) in 1955 and Park Rye-hyun in 1956.
  • A number of foreign-trained (US, Paris) female artists emerged in the 50s and 60s: Kim Jeong-jae, Park Kun-ja, Bang Hye-ja, Lee Shin-ja, Yoon Young-ja and Hong Jeong-hee. Because of their background training, their art was along abstract, modernist lines, and again had no noticeable feminist content.
  • 1970s saw the emergence of the first group of women artists who worked together in research and collaborative work. Their work was abstract expressionist, at odds with the predominantly monochrome style of the male mainstream. Members of this group were Yoo Yeon-hee, Son Bok-hee, Lee Seon-ok, Park Young-ok, Yoon Hyo-joon and Kim Hyeong joo. They were aligned with international movements such as the Fluxus movement in New York. Their work tended to be performative and site-specific, focusing on women?s biological characteristics, and on the place of women in a patriarchal society, but their understanding of the social, political or historical context was limited.
  • The 1980s saw the rise of the Minjung art movement. The establishment of the Women and Reality group in 1987 became the seed of true feminist art in Korea. Also during the 1980s there were regular exhibitions of work by women artists: “People’s Art Association” in 1985, “From Half to Whole” (the first feminist art show to bring together both professional and non-professional artists), while in 1988 with the formation of the Women’s Art Association there came an annual “Women and Reality” art show. Key members of the movement were Kim In-soon, Kim Jin-sook and Yoon Seok-nam. The movement was significant in being the first indigenous, rather than “imported”, women’s art movement in Korea, but it has been criticised for a shallow understanding of socialism, or for trying to emulate socialism without a proper critique or understanding of its context. In common with the interests of the minjung movement generally, they focused on women as an oppressed working class, rather than the position in society of women generally.
  • With the 1990s, feminist art could be seen as part of the post-modern art mainstream. Representative artists are Lee Soo-kyung, Yoo Hyun-mi, Lee Yoon and Lee Bul. There were virtually annual feminist art shows: “Korean Women’s Art, femininity in expression, expression in femininity” (1991, curated by Kim Young-soon), “Women – Empty Scene” (1992, curated by Lee Young-chul), and “Women and Power” (1994, curated by Kim Hong-hee). Also, for the first time, male artists became involved in dealing with feminist issues.

The work of four female artists was featured: Na Hye-seok (나혜석), Chun Kyeong-ja (천경자), Lee Bul and Lee Hye-rim.

  • Na Hye-seok self portraitNa Hye-seok was the best-known of the woman artists to emerge in the 1920s and 30s. Na became better known for her short novels such as Kyunghui (1918) and Doll’s House (1921) which were more feminist in outlook. Her art itself was fairly mainstream in character. Her self-portrait is reproduced here —>
  • Chun Kyeong-ja, though she won the President’s prize in the 1950s, was most active in the 1970s. She is now very sought after in art auctions, and is regarded as the first mainstream Korean artist with recognisable feminine aesthetics. The colours and style of some of her paintings recall Rousseau, while others are more pastel. Themes are of dreams, love and maternity, with pictures of female nudes in dream landscapes surrounded by flowers (below).

Chung Kyeong-ja image

  • Lee Bul started with paintings which used mother-of-pearl, moved on to part-performance art, part monstrous self-portrait, part sculpture, with Hydra (1999), gained notoriety with stinking fish with beads, and now is best known for her large suspended cyborg body-parts.
  • Lee Hye-rim, based in New Zealand, who had a tragic past involving cancer, focuses on animation and media art involving parts of the female body.


2 thoughts on “Feminism and women artists in Korean art

  1. Hey, thanks so much for that breakdown and also for the interesting articles on Lee Bul and Lee Hye-Rim. It’s really useful to have this information because otherwise cyberspace is an endless place, if you don’t know where to look! Also, there are few books on any Korean art in Britain, let alone solely female art history!

    Does anyone know if either of these artists are exhibiting in Europe?


  2. Hi Ken
    I learned from Jiyoon today that Lee Bul will have a show to herself in Paris in April, at the Cartier Foundation. I just visited their website, which is pretty horrible, and could find nothing about it. I’ll check. But it must be a good excuse for a springtime weekend away…

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