THE INTERSECTION OF
KOREAN ART AND
WESTERN GRAPHIC DESIGN
Art history has historically centered around Western and European art. This project explores what Western graphic design movements could look like merged with Korean themes and subject matter. The movements in question include Art Nouveau, Plakatstil, Constructivism, Pop Art, and Memphis Design. What would Alphonse Mucha’s allegorical beauties look like if they were Asian? What would Korea look like represented through Ludwig Hohlwein’s reductive planes of color? Who would the celebrity-obsessed Andy Warhol make art about if it was a Korean actress? Each movement is combined with Korean events that occurred within the art movement’s lifespan. This amalgamation not only serves to put Korean history into chronological perspective but also shows the Westernization of Korea as the timeline surveyed begins before Japan’s colonization of Korea in the early 1900s and ends after Korea divides into two separate governments in 1984.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF KOREAN HISTORY
Korea has historically had a very rocky narrative of partition and reunification. Its geographical location has allowed Korea to always have a culturally diverse history as new ideas were always passing through from China to Japan or vice versa.
Korea had four dynasties before becoming the divided country it is today. The first dynasty is known as the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. - 668 A.D.). Originally formed as a reaction against China’s military commanderies during the Han dynasty, Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche grew from powerful tribal clans into fierce kingdoms that constantly vied for control over one another. Silla succeeded in gaining control over all three kingdoms in 668 A.D. which led to the formation of the second dynasty: the Unified Silla dynasty (668-935). The new government declared Buddhism, which had been introduced by China in the previous dynasty, the religion of the state. This caused an influx of new art dedicated to Buddhist imagery and temples to pop up around Korea.
In 918, Wang Kon, a high-ranking military official, reunited all three kingdoms under the Kingdom of Koryo. This formed the third dynasty: the Koryo dynasty (918-1392). An infatuation with Chinese culture infiltrated the Koryo kingdom which led to the introduction of Confucianism. China was ravaged and later taken over by Mongol forces. Mongol armies invaded Korea six times forcing the Koryo court to broker a peace treaty with Mongol rulers. This led to several decades of close relations, including intermarriage, with the Mongol Yuan emperors.
When China overthrew the Mongol government and created the Ming dynasty, the Koryo court was divided between pro-Ming and pro-Mongal alliances. In response to the formation of the Ming dynasty, Koryo sent a military expedition to Manchuria. Yi Song-gye, a pro-Ming expedition commander turned his troops around and seized control of Koryo instead thus forming the Choson dynasty (1392-1910). Buddhism was highly discouraged as it was tied to the corrupt Koryo court, and Neo-Confucianism was embraced. Neo-Confucianism’s austere ideologies caused a massive change in Korea’s art scene.
In 1592 and 1598, Japan launched two devastating military campaigns on Korea. Despite Choson’s close political relations with the Ming court, Ming troops failed to aid Korea during the Japanese attacks which caused a rift in the Choson court, this time pro-Chinese and anti-Chinese factions. In 1905 Japan coerced Korea into signing the Treaty of Ulsa which made Korea a protectorate of Japan and relinquished all control over Korea’s foreign relations to the whims of the Japanese government. Following the Russo-Japanese War, Japan annexed Korea beginning its 35-year colonization over the peninsula in 1910. Korea’s exposure to European art increased during this time.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II caused Japan to surrender to the Allies. The signing of the Potsdam Declaration guaranteed Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization in 1945. In its newfound freedom, Korea struggled to find an identity as a nation. The North was under Soviet control while the South was under U.S. control. This caused a major division between communist and imperialist ideals. Left-wing artists believed that art should serve a social purpose for the benefit of the state and advocated for Korea’s fresh start, however, right-wing artists didn’t agree with the erasure of Korea’s past and argued for a return to aesthetics and art for art’s sake. In 1948 two governments were established in Korea. Syngman Rhee became the first president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Kim Il-sung became the first communist leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).
I wanted to recreate a piece that represented Korean art before Western influence shifted it’s long standing visual language. Tigers play a large role in Korean history and can be seen in many early paintings such as minwhas (Korean folk paintings). Originally these tigers were often depicted in ways that celebrated their strength and superiority. The tigers often posed twisted and glowering straight out at viewers. Gim Hongdo’s version put great care into the realistic representation of the tiger’s fur with each line deliniating a strand of fur. I wanted to take this attention to the fur one step further as I experimented with rug making to create a three-dimensional representation of the fur.
The Art Nouveau movement is known for its ornate decorative elements and allegorical figures. The swirling, organic floral motifs were in direct reaction against the mechanical aesthetic brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Artists believed that all aspects of life deserved to be beautiful and well designed. It began around 1880 in France and faded out around 1914 with the changing of times and the push towards a more modern look.
My poster is dedicated to a Korean kisaeng named Hwang Jini (황진이). Kisaeng are the Korean equivalent of Japanese geishas. They are trained in music, dance, poetry, and art and go on to entertain the aristocracy. The Choson dynasty practiced Confucianism and was an extremely patriarchal society that demanded that women be extraordinarily selfless. Women were given little leeway in self-identity, were not allowed to have contact with men outside of their family, and were often divorced if they showed signs of jealousy over a husband’s mistress. In an oppressive time like this, kisaeng were given much more freedom. They were allowed to express themselves artistically, were given an education, and had much more financial stability and independence. However, they were still women of an outcast demographic and were hardly given the recognition they deserved while they were alive. Hwang Jini was a tour de force with lovers and left a lasting impact as well as an accomplished poet which has led to her becoming an almost allegorical figure in Korea.
Korean Art During
the Choson Dynasty
Korea had a Bureau of Painting during the Choson dynasty. Having come out of one hundred years of Mongolian domination, there was a huge push in creating a distinctly Korean visual language. Artists were chosen through an examination system and usually painted Korean landscapes and genre paintings that focused on Korean culture and society. These paintings could include rituals and ceremonies, the daily life of Korean citizens of all social classes, and portraits.
Korea’s earliest exposure to western art occurred during the Choson dynasty. Arnold Henry Savage-Landor, a British explorer, painted portraits as he journeyed throughout the globe. He was the first to show European painting techniques like light, color, realism, and linear perspective. Hubert Vos was the first Western painter to work for the Choson court. Paintings of Emperor Kojong and Prince Min Sang-ho were exhibited in the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris.
Plakatstil, also known as Sachplakat, was founded in Germany during the early 1900s. This new style came about as a rebellion against the Art Nouveau and Victorian style of art. It is known for its simplicity in shapes and use of white space to draw all focus on the subject matter at hand. Because of this style’s ability to remove all unnecessary and distracting flair, many companies started shifting their advertisements to this art style.
The photo I wanted to recreate shows a Korean aristocrat, yangban, riding in a rickshaw. I thought this photo was a nice snapshot of Korea right before Japanese colonization in 1910. I originally was very excited to emulate the suit patterns in Hohlwein’s poster, however, after considering the lack of patterns on the original photograph, I stuck to flat planes of white for the figure’s clothes. Most Koreans could not afford the brightly colored fabric that royalty wore. I thought that keeping the figures in white clothing would also be the most historically accurate.
Korean Art During Japanese Colonization
Korea was annexed and colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945. During this period of time, Japan had complete control over Korean foreign affairs. In the beginning, Korean education was limited. As Japan began to paint a picture that showed foreign countries that Korea was wholly dependent on Japan for the continued growth and survival of its country, Japan began expanding Korea’s education system to match those of Japan.
Western ideas were slowly trickled into Korea via Japanese artists who studied abroad and brought back European techniques like oil painting, impressionism, and abstract art. Over time the number of Korean student allowed to study abroad increased and a flourishing art scene established itself in Korea. Debates between western versus eastern art arose. One of the first Korean students to study abroad was Ko Hui-dong. He believed that ink painting was not innovative and all ink paintings were copies of old Chinese paintings.
Lee Chong-woo was one of the first Korean artists who got an art education influenced by Western ideas. He thought that oil painting was a nice change of pace from the traditional minimalistic ink paintings of the East and sought to spread oil painting to his fellow artists in Korea. I choose this piece in particular becuase I thought it represented a time period that was specific to the turning point where Korean art started becoming westernized. I wanted to explore textures through embroidery just like Lee Chong-woo would have explored the new textural opportunities that oil painting brought that ink painting could never have achieved.
Constructivism rejected the idea of art for arts sake. Instead it adhered to the idea that art should serve a social purpose. After WWI, the Bolsheviks used agitprop, agitation propagation, to see communism to citizens. The style of these propagation posters became the constructivist art movement. Posters usually leaned away from the use of bright colors and combined abstracted backgrounds with geometric forms.
I choose to recreate Lissitzky’s USSR, Russische Ausstellung because I could see the Korean narrative within the composition of the poster. The 1940s was a time where Korea was liberated from Japan, struggled to find a joint national identity among its citizens, and split into two separate governments by the end of the decade. The two heads that are merged are Syngman Rhee, the first South Korean president (left), and Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s first communist leader (right). The building at the base of the poster is Korea’s last emperor’s quarters called Gangnyeongjeon. Theposter translates to: “Korea’s lost dreams of reunification” and “a split people”.
Korean Art Post Liberation from Japan
With the Korean liberation came a period of cultural uncertainty. After Japan had attempted to overwrite all Korean culture during its reign over 35 years, Korea struggled to define what its true identity was. Korea was occupied by Russia in the north and the U.S. in the south for three years after liberation. Those who prescribed to communist thoughts believed that this was the perfect opportunity to start fresh. They’d create art for social use and promote a new way of living that aligned with communism. Those who aligned more with imperialism thought that Korea disagreed with throwing away the past. They saw the importance of tradition and cultural history. These people wanted to continue creating art for art’s sake.
Eventually, when separate North and South Korean governments were formed, North Korean artists were encouraged to adhere to realism while the youth in South Korea embraced abstraction for its newness and modernity.
Pop art was a reaction against abstract expressionism and reveled in popular culture. It is known for its two-dimensional, colorful compositions, commercialization of art, and even for its use of appropriated imagery whether from celebrity headshots, comic books, or cans of soup.
I took heavy inspiration from several of Andy Warhol’s iterations of his Marilyn Monroe screenprints. I thought that the appropriation of his Monroes added a welcome familiarity in contrast to Choi who would be a relatively foreign face to those who are familiar with the Pop Art movement. Choi Eun-hee was one of South Korea’s most famous actresses in the 60s. So famous that she and her ex-husband movie director, Shin Sang-ok, were abducted to North Korea to make propaganda films for the North Korean regime. Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok were held captive in North Korea for 8 years before they made their escape to the U.S. embassy in Vienna in 1986. They stayed in the U.S. for several years before finally returning back to Korea in 1999.
Korean Art in the 80s
With the dawning of the 80s, South Korea came out of an authoritarian dictatorship and straight into another authoritarian military regime. Citizens held demonstrations crying out for a civilian government. In May 1980, a bloody, large-scale demonstration called the Kwangju Uprising lasted ten days which ended in more than one hundred civilian deaths. The minjung movement called for democratization and was a huge force in pushing the South Korean government away from a military government. Minjung art played a huge role in the movement. It criticized the flaws in social classes and political conditions.
“Minjung are the producers and at the same time the uprooted, they are the oppressed masses and at the same time the revolutionary subjects.”
— Jee-sook Beck
Memphis design is denoted by bright, often clashing colors, paired with bold geometric shapes and repetitive patterns. The movement was started by a group of artists called the Memphis Group in Italy. They aimed to create a whole new visual aesthetic from the mid-century modern and minimalistic trends of the time. It’s outrageous, kitschy, and encapsulates the visual world of the 80s.
Compared to the subdued art of Korea’s past, Memphis
Design presents a completely different perspective on visual communication. I wanted to see what it looked like if I were to apply loud splashes of color to a Korean landscape. I noticed that this particular pagoda had been painted similar to Buddhist temples. I saw similarities with Memphis Design in its bright colors and geometrical patterns. However, I wanted to go bigger and I decided to add key Memphis Design characteristics to the exterior world. It was interesting to see what a Memphis Design landscape might look like considering most pieces were more concerned with interior design and furniture.
Kim HyunJung makes beautiful pieces with commentary on the traditions of the past but in a very modern context. While her subjects wear traditional Korean dresses, they can be seen participating in modern activies such as texting or posing next to objects like Chanel purses. I thought her work tied in with my exploration of more modern/Westernized art versus the traditional Korean art I discovered throughout my research process. I played with depth through stacking layers of painted plexiglass to bring the piece to another dimension.