KOREA FOCUS
Korean Modern Art in the World
Seo Seong-rok

Art Critic; Professor of Art
Andong University


While those in the art circle have yet to agree on the starting point of Korean modern art, it can be roughly dated to around 1945, when the country was liberated from Japanese colonial rule. That is when Korean art really began to take shape after enduring some rough times under colonial rule, when Japanese sensibility crept in. With the establishment of the Republic of Korea, colleges of art were opened one after another at schools such as Seoul National University, Hongik University and Ewha Womans University. The first batch of graduates produced a few years later became the artists who are now leading the local art scene.
 
Looking back at the course of Korean modern art, it began to take firm root in the 1970s, after passing the turbulent years of Liberation and the Korean War (1950-53). Then with the emergence of talented artists in the 1980s and 1990s, Korea started to figure prominently in the Asian art world. An exhibition showing the development timeline was held from May 26 to July 23, at Kim Dal-jin Museum of Art Materials near Hongik University.
 
The exhibition titled “Overseas Advance of Korean Modern Art,” held to review the achievements and failures of the past 40 years, featured foreign art and exhibition materials from the 1950s, when Korean art started to become known, to the 1990s. While a few exhibitions in the past have explored trends and movements in Korean art, this one was rare for its condensed revelation of the history of Korean art overseas through exhibition-related materials. As such, the exhibition had historical significance for its review of the progress of Korean art. Though a little moth-eaten and faded now, these old materials seem to carry the echoes of people walking through galleries long ago. Seeing them, the heart beats a little faster with the thrill of it all.
 
International Inroads
 
“The Biennale museum was located on the grounds of Ibirapuera Park. When I arrived at the museum after twelve o’clock, I saw the flags of participating countries lined up in front of the building to the left. There were 56 countries represented. The Korean flag stood right in the middle. The feeling was indescribable...”
 
Under the headline “The Not-so-long Road to an International Exhibition,” the Dong-a Ilbo edition of December 2, 1963 published comments by an artist, Kim Whan-ki. At the time, Kim was the Korean commissioner for the Seventh Sao Paulo Biennale and was the first Korean artist to participate in the event. No doubt the biennale made a strong impression on him.
 

 
The first overseas exhibitions by Korean artists were held in the late 1950s, after the war. Celia Zimmerman, founder of Bando Gallery, was famous for organizing an art club in Seoul and providing support for artists to show overseas.
 
When Zimmerman returned to the United States, she continued to work with Korean artists and promote Korean art. She published a book titled “Korean Artists,” which carried the works of 14 artists and their photographs, and in 1957 she loaned some of the works by artists such as Park Soo-keun, Seong Jae-hyu, Kim Yeong-gi, Kim Ki-chang, and Park Rae-hyun in her own collection for the Korean section of UNESCO’s “Asian Art Exhibition” held at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
 

 
The exhibition that really signaled the international advance of Korean artists was the “Korean Modern Art Exhibition,” held at World House Galleries in New York in 1958, organized by Ellen D. Pesetti, art professor at the University of Georgia. Commissioned by the gallery, Zimmerman came to Korea and visited artists’ studios, selecting 62 works by 35 artists for the exhibition, the first overseas show of Korean artists since national liberation.
 
In addition, artists began to exhibit their works overseas on an individual basis. For an international exhibition of lithography at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1958, the participating Korean artists were recruited by a private organization called “Sin Misul Sa” (New Art Co.), which placed an ad in the Dong-a Ilbo (December 25, 1957) that read: “We are looking for works to be submitted to the Fifth International Biennial of Contemporary Color Lithography to be held in Ohio at the end of February next year.” Artists such as Lee Hang-sung, Yu Kang-yul and Jeong Gyu participated, and the results were promising with Lee winning an award.
 
On a state or national basis, Korean artists’ first international exhibition was the Second Paris Biennale in 1961. Featuring young artists under the age of 35, the Paris Biennale was full of abstract works, reflecting the trend of Art Informel, which was then at its height. Participating Korean artists included Kim Tschang-yeul, Jang Seong-sun, Jeong Chang-seop and Cho Yong-ik, with Kim Byeong-gi serving as commissioner. At the following biennale in 1963, Kim Tschang-yeul was commissioner and participating artists included Park Seo-bo, Yun Myeong-no, Kim Bong-tae and Choi Gi-won.
 
At the same time, Galerie Lambert in Paris opened the “Four Young Korean Artists” exhibition, focusing on the void, or empty space, featured in Korean art. Art critic Lee Il, who happened to be living in Paris at the time, reminisced about the event: “I remember feeling very happy when Andre Malraux said they were excellent artists. In fact, because he was such a famous person, you could say that I was overwhelmed with gratitude.”
 
In 1968, an exhibition of modern Korean art was held at the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art to mark the normalization of relations between Korea and Japan. This exhibition encompassed the full range of modern and abstract art in Korea, featuring the works of Kwak In-sik and Lee U-fan, who were working in Japan at the time, established artists such as Kwon Ok-yeon, Kim Yeong-ju, Nam Kwan, Byun Chong-ha, Yu Yeong-guk, Choi Yeong-lim, and Lee Seong-ja, and younger artists such as Park Seo-bo, Jeong Chang-seop, Yun Myeong-no, Kim Jong-hak, and Ha Jong-hyeon. As an event commemorating diplomatic relations, the exhibition was focused on showing a wide range of trends rather than any particular art movement.
Flood of Exhibitions Abroad
 

 
In the 1970s, there was an overseas rush to participate in national-level exhibitions. After the Paris Biennale and the Tokyo International Print Biennale, Korean artists took part in the Triennale-India in 1971, the Cagnes International Festival of Painting in 1970, the Spain Biennale in 1972, the Uruguay Biennale in 1975, the Sydney Biennale in 1976, and the British International Print Biennale in 1979. In this way, Korean artists widened their scope of activity to many different countries.
 
Meanwhile, the exhibition “White Korea: Five Artists, Five Hinsek” held at Tokyo Gallery in 1975 played a pivotal role in introducing Korean monochrome art. The artists were chosen by Yusuke Nakahara, who honed in on the unique aesthetic aspects underlying Korean art, which distinguishes it from the art of other countries. Korean monochrome art, combining contemporary trends with native ideals of beauty, represented immense development considering the short history of Western art in the country. “Facet: Korean Contemporary Art,” held two years later at Tokyo Central Museum of Art, also featured many monochrome artists and was indicative of the positive response to monochrome art in Japan.
 
The 1980s saw a rush of Korean artists making a foray into Japan. “The Phase of Korean Contemporary Art” and “Contemporary Formative Exhibition of Paper of Korea” were held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1982 and 1983, respectively, while “Korean Contemporary Art Exhibition: The Latter Half of the 1970s, An Aspect” was held at the Tokyo Art Museum in 1983. There were also exhibitions that focused on drawings such as “Korea Drawing Now” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, “Drawings by Korean Contemporary Artists” at the LA Artcore Gallery, “Korean Prints and Drawings” in Yugoslavia, “Korean Contemporary Paper Exhibition” at the University of Washington, and “Contemporary Formative Exhibition of Paper” in Kyoto.
 
In addition, exhibitions of minjung misul (“people’s art”), which was a big movement in the 1980s, were also held overseas, the most notable being “Minjung Art, a New Cultural Movement in Korea” at Artist Space in New York in 1988. “Across the Pacific: Contemporary Korean and Korean American Art” held at the Queens Museum of Art in 1993, featured works of social criticism by Korean-American artists based in New York and Korean activist artists. The Seoul-Paris Exhibition held at Centre National des Arts Plastiques in Paris in 1986 was particularly significant in that it was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and France, which are close relations when it comes to art.
 

 
Korean art started to become a real presence in the international scene in the 1990s and the 2000s. Monochrome artists held a successful exhibition titled “Working with Nature” at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool in 1992, “The Tiger’s Tail” exhibition was held to commemorate the foundation of the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995, and the same year Yuk Keun-byung became the first Korean artist after Paik Nam-june to be invited to take part in Kassel Documenta in Germany. Korean artists started to receive international recognition with three artists receiving special awards at three consecutive Venice Biennales, Jeon Soo-cheon in 1995, Kang Ik-joong in 1997, and Lee Bul in 1999, a feat matched by few countries. Korea first took part in the Venice Biennale in 1986 with the art critic Lee Il as commissioner and artists Koh Yeong-hun and Ha Dong-cheol participating.
 
In the new millennium, art fairs have all but taken over the overseas exhibition scene. Korea’s first step in this direction was taken in 1984 when Jin Gallery took part in FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain), which was held at Grand Palais in Paris. Since then Korean artists have been appearing at art fairs all over the world, including Chicago, Basel, Miami, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, Dubai, and Taipei. Such international art fairs showed there was a market for Korean art and at the same time infused artists with confidence in their international appeal. Indeed, in 2007, Korea became the first Asian nation to be the guest country at the 26th ARCO Art Fair held in Madrid, Spain. Some 90 artists affiliated with 14 galleries took part in the fair, which featured a special exhibition of Korean art.
 
Korea’s participation in art fairs is steadily growing. While no country is completely free from the effects of the global economic crisis, Korean artists are seeing good results at art fairs around the world. In 2010, 24 domestic galleries took part in some 10 art fairs, showing the world the progress in Korean art so far. The Korean International Art Fair (KIAF), held in Seoul, is vying for a leading position in Asia with similar events based in Melbourne, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei, and Singapore.
 
The exhibition “Overseas Advance of Korean Modern Art” held at Kim Dal-jin Museum of Art Materials featured a range of catalogs, leaflets, and video materials from overseas exhibitions such as the Paris Biennale, the first to involve Korean artists on a national level, to exhibitions in the 1990s. The collection of materials scattered around the world is an impressive feat, and the major contents have been compiled into a digital database that provides an overview of Koreans participating at overseas exhibitions.
 
More than just a simple display of related materials, the exhibition encapsulated and attested to developments in the Korean art scene. While looking round the museum, I couldn’t help thinking that, while participation in an overseas exhibition was no more than a dream in the 1950s, it has now become so common that we don’t think twice about it. But the exhibition made it evident that today’s achievements were built on the sacrifices and labor of early modern artists.
 
What is it that made Korean artists so emotional about taking part in an overseas exhibition? Rather than individual concerns, the artists tended to feel the kind of pride that athletes would feel when competing for Korea in the Olympic Games. Like David boldly taking on the giant Goliath, the artists went overseas armed with the same kind of bravado. These artists from an emerging country overcame the adverse conditions surrounding them with their passion for creation and the originality of their works. Compared to the 1950s and 60s when the nation did not have the money to send artists overseas, the art environment has improved greatly with artists taking part in overseas exhibitions under the support of various organizations. In this respect, it’s a great joy to monitor the progress of Korean artists.
Contemporary Developments
 
It’s not yet time to sit back and relax, however. There’s no set prescription for Korean art’s expansion into the international market and, to be honest, there is still a long way to go. Objectively, compared to Korea’s position in the international art scene, the number and quality of Korean exhibitions, which can be considered an index of its cultural level, is behind that of other countries.
 
There has been no significant overseas exhibition since “5,000 Years of Korean Art” in 1979, which toured eight cities and attracted two million visitors. Moreover, most of the exhibitions are focused on old, traditional works of art. It is unfortunate that, despite continuous progress, there have been few opportunities for showing modern and contemporary art on the international scene over the past decades. In the new millennium particularly, aside from commercial art fairs and the exhibitions of a handful of star artists, there has been no good overseas exhibitions showing the stream of Korean art.
 
Of course, some meaningful attempts have been made. As part of a project to “globalize Korean art,” the National Museum of Contemporary Art held two touring exhibitions in Central and South America in 2007 and 2008 under the title of “Peppermint Candy,” and in 2009 it organized the “Korean Contemporary Art Exhibition,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, featuring young artists and mid-career artists who have been active in the last 10 years. In 2008, “Korean Contemporary Art Exhibition” was held at the Singapore Art Museum as part of the Korean Festival 2008 in Singapore, featuring works from 12 artists, both young and old.
 
It is gratifying to know that aside from “Peppermint Candy,” the aforementioned exhibitions were all organized by the museum concerned. But it does seem to suggest a lack of effort on Korea’s part to promote artists internationally. While Korea is attempting to hold international events such as the Gwangju Biennale, the Busan Biennale, and the Seoul Art Media Biennale, in terms of creating opportunities for artists to show overseas, it remains far behind other countries.
 
The Japanese government, on the contrary, strongly felt the need to make inroads overseas and since the end of World War II has officially organized 65 exhibitions abroad, including 32 in the United States. “Scream against the Sky,” held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1994, was the biggest exhibition of Japanese avant-garde art held in the United States and showed visitors that Japanese artists were in tune with the flow of world culture.
 
The exhibition covered the full spectrum of contemporary Japanese art, from the work of the Gutai Group, an early avant-garde art community in Japan, and the Fluxus (an international avant-garde movement of the 60s and 70s) artists, to work associated with the Mono-ha movement and postmodern art dealing with social issues such as the Madonna craze and AIDS. Though the exhibition was organized by the American curator Alexandra Munroe, the major sponsor was the Japanese government. This exhibition is credited with improving Japan’s image, which had been so badly damaged by the war, and increasing mutual understanding. By shedding light on post-war development in Japan, the exhibition cast Japan in the light of an art loving country rather than an aggressive one.
 
While it can be said Japan’s energetic moves to promote its art internationally were partially rooted in the political cause of improving its post-war image as a loser in the war, few would hesitate to give them credit for their efforts. If Japan had the pressing need to shake off its image as an instigator of war, Korea had just as urgent a call to change its image from a poor country devastated by war to one that had made amazing economic development. In fact, if anything, Korea had greater reason than Japan to promote itself overseas through art exhibitions.
 
For the Korean art circle, which has the task of raising its profile in the world, there is no leisure to sit and “watch the fire on the other side of the river,” as the Korean saying goes. Private exhibitions can be held overseas with the support of the government, and overseas exhibitions can be organized by public institutions such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art. In this respect, it is very important to form partnerships with museums in other countries.
 
Korean art has shown continued qualitative improvement since national liberation in 1945. Just as the country surprised the world with the level of its information technology, significant progress has been made in art. While some Korean artists have gained worldwide fame and worked all over the globe, there are even more very talented artists toiling quietly at home. Indeed the pool of artists has expanded and art styles have diversified. The international competitiveness of Korean artists has been proven in prestigious international art biennales and exhibitions around the world. But it is my belief that Korean art is still underrated compared to that of neighboring countries, mainly due to a lack of publicity. Korean art has the potential to rise much higher in the international scene with greater support from the government.
 
As a member nation of the G20 and a strong player in the international community, Korea should not neglect to promote the excellence of its art to the world and increase mutual understanding with allied nations through art exchange. This is a good time to set mid- and long-term plans to provide support for training professionals in the field, reinforcing networks, and mapping out art-related strategies.
[Quarterly Zeitgeist (Sidae Jeongsin), Autumn 2011,
published by Sidae Jeongsin Co.]