The Historical Development of Fine Arts in Korea from 1950 to Present


Korean fine art entails different forms of art that originate from Korea such as pottery, calligraphy, literature, painting, music among other genres, which are characteristically identified by their bold colors, surface decorations, and natural forms. The history of Korean art spans back to the Stone Age period with the introduction of votive sculptures and petro glyphs, which can be dated back to the Neolithic art, Bronze Age art, and the Iron Age art eras (Cavendish 961; Armstrong 92).

Subsequently, different styles of art were introduced during the reign of different kingdoms and dynasties (Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, Gaya, Unified Silla, Goryeo Dynasty, and the Joseon Dynasty) whereby the Chinese culture is credited for influencing the development of different styles of art that displayed elegance and spontaneity (Mayo, Rimer, and Kerkham 134).

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However, contemporary art scholars note that the Korean culture, both traditional and modern, consists of a unique style of art that transmits the Chinese culture while assimilating its own unique art culture.

Therefore, it is apparent that Korea particularly South Korea offers vibrant art scenes characterized by creativity and innovation in different art genres (Cavendish 961). This paper explores the development of different genres of fine art such as traditional and contemporary dance, music, paintings, sculpture, and drama in Korea from 1950 to present.

The History of Fine Arts in Korea

Visual Arts

The fall of different Korean kingdoms and dynasties coincided with the development of Korean art from the ancient Chinese-influenced forms of art to more distinctive and unique styles of Korean art. During the 20th century, Korean calligraphy, painting, animation, comics, wood-blocks, and printing were influenced by the transition from Korean Shamanist art through Buddhist art, and finally, to Confucian art.

During this period, brush-strokes were used to communicate the artist’s personality through calligraphy, which also enriched the subject matter of the painted works.

Moreover, fabric arts as captured through Choe Eun-sun’s work involved embroidery in screen-work, wall decorations, weaving, and designing costumes. Fabric art was also represented through the works of carpet and rug weavers who produced different saddle blankets, imperial dragon carpets, saddle covers, and tiger rugs for different occasions and personalities.

In addition, paper artistry included the use of hand-made paper-works in designing window screens, floor covers, paper fans, paper figures, and for printing. In fact, the use of paper derived from mulberry roots dates back to thousands of years according to studies conducted in 1960, which revealed that the paper could last about 1000 years (Cavendish 961-963; Connor 265).

Painting is another form of visual art, which has been used to celebrate nature and religious themes over the years. However, beginning the 18th century to the present, many artists use painting to depict daily life and different landscapes.

For example, the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) is credited for the introduction of western oil-painting, which has since influenced the contemporary South Korean paintings most of which are housed in the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Mayo, Rimer, and Kerkham 135). Through these 20th century art paintings, it is evident that the South Korean artists have continued to employ the western oil-painting styles with a redefined mixture of classical Korean themes, which demonstrate their originality.

Moreover, the contemporary painting styles used in Korea demand that the artist understands the Korean ceramics, pottery, and textures considering that brush-strokes weigh more in judging the Korean artist’s work. Notable Korean artists who combine the contemporary western and distinctive Korean painting styles include Suh Yongsun, Tschoon Su Kim, and Junggeun Oh among others (Cavendish 963).

As opposed to South Korea, which still embraces the socialistic art styles, North Korean artists have introduced completely different forms of visual arts exemplified through the production of patriotic films that have dominated the North Korean culture from 1949-1994.

These patriotic films have revived the use of architecture, neo-traditional painting, and fabric art to communicate political statements and represent various dramatic landscapes. This revolution has seen the emergence of politically-charged revolutionary posters, documentary films, visual crafts, realistic paintings, and exportable needlework by renowned North Korean painters such as the Fwhang sisters whose painting style is a mixture of western and Far East techniques (Armstrong 92; Cavendish 900).

Ceramics, Sculpture and Metal Crafts

The production of different forms of ceramics spans six centuries since the introduction of the celadon vases (blue-green in color) production techniques by the Chinese. Since then, the Korean people have owned the techniques with a few changes such as the introduction of the inlaid designs, which represent different natural motifs.

Currently, pottery that combines the traditional and modern techniques is the most famous activity taking place in Inchon whereby artisans are involved in producing quality ceramics. On the other hand, the introduction of sculpture dates back to the Buddhism era whereby stone, bronze, and wood were the main raw materials used to carve images of Buddha and pagodas as exemplified by the Buddhist sculpture at the Sokkuram Gotto Shrine (Kyongju).

Despite the decline of Buddhist sculpture with the emergence of Confucianism, modern sculpture has been widely practiced since the 1960s in different places including plazas, streets, and parks across South Korea (Cavendish 961-969). Metal craft is another form of ancient art exemplified by the ancient decorated bronze structures that can be found all over South Korea.

Furthermore, history has it that the ancient Shilla artisans are well known for the use of gold and jade in cramming tombs and producing bronze bells such as the Divine Bell of King Songdok. Many other ancient handicrafts such as gilt crowns, ornaments, and pots have been excavated and are now available at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.

Currently, handicrafts are uniquely designed for specific purposes as opposed to their aesthetic value. Furthermore, there has been a sporadic change from the traditional techniques of using metal, fabric, and wood to the modern techniques employing glass, paper, and leather (Cavendish 970).

Korean architecture and interior design has a long history, which can be seen through the traditional Korean gardens and palaces. In these gardens and palaces, ancient ideographs can be seen. The ideographs display various geometric, animal, plant, and nature patterns (motifs), which offer an aesthetic value to different architectural structures. Some of the most famous geometric designs and patterns, which have stood the test of time, include squares, triangles, concentric circles, and diamonds among others.

Conversely, some rock carvings were designed to represent animal patterns, and in most cases they coincided with the food-gathering seasons. However, the current use of different architectural and interior design patterns involves the decoration of doors, temples, shrines, spoons, furniture, and other objects to add an aesthetic value (Cavendish 965-970; Connor 265).

Performing Arts

Performing arts in Korea encompass the art of story-telling/comedy, tea ceremonies, musical arts and theatre, dance, literature, and poetry. The tea ceremony is usually held in a specific house characterized by its own unique architecture within the garden. In the tea house, ritualized conversations, pottery, traditional costumes, and poetry are important aspects of art that offer an artistic and cultural experience for the attendees.

On the other hand, musical arts and theatre have had a long history in South Korea with a few changes, which have led to the emergence of different categories of music in Korea including traditional, western, and a mixture of Western and Eastern styles. Traditionally, music was categorized into folk music and p’ansori (a musical narrative involving folktales and novels).

These categories of traditional music have been preserved and classically developed into new music since the establishment of the Korean Traditional Performing Arts Center in 1951 (Cavendish 961-980). Contemporary music in Korea has the same test of audiences as other forms of western music despite that most Korean artists perform using various stringed instruments while some are well known for their prowess as symphony directors.

World music has also influenced Korean music despite efforts made to differentiate it from other Western and Eastern forms, and currently, the Korean musicals is a representative of various innovations and revivals of Korean music in the 21st century. Conversely, post 1945, the Korean masks have found extensive use in folk-art dramas and as tourist artifacts (Cavendish 976-981).

Dance and Theatre are other important forms of performing arts, which have been rediscovered in South Korea as early as the 1980s with the declaration by the government that the few remaining dances should be preserved and protected by the Intellectual Property protection laws.

Furthermore, the establishment of the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation has also accelerated the development of performing arts and the preservation of traditional dramas. Currently, contemporary dance and ballet thrives in the presence of many companies and ballet troops housed in the National Theatre in Seoul, which is basically dedicated to promoting traditional music, drama, and dance.

Moreover, the Sejong Cultural Center in Seoul is also dedicated to the development of orchestras, choirs, and dance. Despite narrative storytelling based on dramatic songs or physical comedians thriving over the years, it is still dominated by male performers (Connor 265-270; Cavendish 990). Moreover, South Korea and Korea in general has not seen the emergence of Stand-up Comedy due to the underlying cultural considerations, and thus, more needs to be done to promote performing arts from this perspective.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Charles, A. The North Korean revolution, 1945-1950. New York: Cornell University Press, 2004. Print.

Cavendish, Marshall. World and its Peoples: eastern and Southern Asia. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation. Print.

Connor, Mary, E. The Koreas. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Publishers, 2009. Print.

Mayo, Marlene J., Rimer, Thomas J., and Kerkham, Eleanor, H. War, occupation, and creativity: Japan and East Asia, 1920-1960. United States of America: University of Hawaii Press. Print.


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