Today, the definition of art is almost infinite. Various forms of art such as abstract painting, conceptual art and performance showcase the complex and challenging world of modern art, which departed from the world after photography was invented in the 19th century.
However, figurative painting still holds great importance in the history of modern art and even nowadays. According to Alina Cohen of Artsy, figurative painting can be just as challenging, stimulating and groundbreaking when done well.
A new look at the traditional genre of painting can bring a new perspective on history. 《Portrait, Figure and People ― Modern and Contemporary Figure Paintings of Korea》, an exhibition currently on view at Gallery Hyundai in central Seoul, sheds light on the turbulent modern history of Korea through paintings depicting human figures, while commemorating the 50th anniversary of one of the most prominent art galleries in Korea.
The exhibition was organized with the help of five consultants ― art critic and emeritus professor at Myongji University You Hong-june; art historian Mok Soo-hyun; art historian Cho Eun―jung; art critic Choi Youl and Gallery Hyundai founder Park Myung-ja.
Park said this exhibition would provide an opportunity for people to rediscover Korean figurative painting.
"These works leave a subtle yet resounding impression even to us in the present ― they impart the warm sensibilities of the Korean people that survived the pains of Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and democratization movement; they show the joy and sorrow of individuals in their respective lives, as well as love and caring among families," Park said.
"We hope this exhibition will provide an opportunity to shed new light on Korean figurative paintings and to increase awareness of the importance and uniqueness of Korean modern and contemporary art."
You, best known for his travelogue series 『My Exploration of Cultural Heritage』 and former Cultural Heritage Administrator from 2004 to 2008, said the five advisory members had a number of discussions before selecting the theme of figurative paintings for the anniversary exhibition.
"Though we limited the genre to portraits and figure paintings, these pieces best represent Korea's modern art history over the past 100 years. As figurative paintings have a certain concreteness and they reflect the times more precisely. If we have an exhibition of landscape paintings of a century, it wouldn't be as powerful and impactful as this one," You said.
New exhibition shows changing representation of human form
On Oct. 24, 1916, the Maeil Sinbo, a Korean daily published in the period when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, printed a story celebrating Korean artist Kim Kwan-ho (1890-1959) receiving the Special Selection at the Ministry of Education Art Exhibition after graduating from Tokyo University of Arts. Kim was the first Korean to receive the award in Japan.
"Oh, Special Selection! Special Selection is equivalent of the first place at state examinations in the art world... we are so very proud of you, Kim!"
Despite the newspaper's glowing review, Kim's award-winning painting 〈Sunset〉 was not printed alongside the story even though a picture of the painting had arrived from Japan. The paper replaced it with a landscape painting by Kim and apologized for not publishing the actual painting because it showed nudity.
Kim's 〈Sunset〉 is considered the first Western style nude painting in Korea and it shocked those in the Confucian society who were not used to seeing pictures of naked bodies. However, artists trained in Western painting suggested a different perspective, just seeing them as objects of art.
Five self-portraits by Ko Hui-dong, Kim Kwan-ho, Lee Chong-woo, Kim Yong-jun and Oh Ji-ho, also from the collection of Tokyo University of Arts, shows a modern way of artists identifying themselves.
"All graduates of Tokyo University of Arts were asked to paint a self-portrait. Three of them are wearing 'hanbok' (traditional Korean clothing), displaying their Korean identity," Mok explained.
Among them, Ko is considered the first Western-style artist of Korea. Ko drew himself wearing "jeongjagwan," a type of traditional hat for the upper class, representing his consciousness as a man of letters.
Lee In-sung's 〈One Autumn Day〉 shows a stark contrast between deep blue sky and darkened skin color of a woman and a child. The painting, winner of the 13th Joseon Art Exhibition in 1934, is a textbook example of early 20th century Korean modern art.
Pai Un-soung's 〈A Big Family〉 (1930-35) shows how the concept of family and class changed amid modernization. Pai, who studied in Germany, was a servant to a rich family and the "family" members in his painting are the ones he served. Pai painted himself in a corner representing his marginal status.
Lee Que-de's 〈Crowd〉 series signaled the start of realism in Korean modern art, featuring Western-style facial features and body proportions.
After 1950s, the primary concerns of figure painting shifted from depicting a specific person to people in general.
"Artists started to embody their message through human figures," Cho said. "Since the artist is an observer to his subject matter, he would have shared the thoughts prevalent in the times and translated them into paintings. The forms of people in paintings particularize events and tasks of their time."
The 1950-53 Korean War wielded a great influence upon the life of Korean people.
〈Jars and Women〉 (1951) is one of the early pieces of Kim Whan-ki; a painter famed for the work 〈19-VII-71 #209〉 which fetched the highest recorded price of a Korean artwork at auction in 2015.
"(Jars and Women) features Kim's repeating objectives such as white porcelain, women and the sea, which are developed forms of indigenous Korean style. However, the khaki tents in the background reflect Kim's days in Busan when he fled to the southern city during the Korean War," Cho said.
Chang Ree-souk's 〈Old Real Estate Broker〉 (1958) captures a moment of an ordinary old man of the times. "At the time, during the Korean War, old men working in real estate were employed in government municipal offices. Just a job jotting down things on government documents," Chang once wrote.
"The old men depicted on the canvas were chosen precisely for being weathered and being witnesses to the periods of war," Cho explained.
Kwon Ok-yon painted his wife as a model in 〈Woman〉 (1951), in which he transcended the experience of war through symbolism and romanticism.
Cho pointed out that most people see Lee Jung-seob, one of Korea's most famous artists, as a tragic figure but forget that his tragedy is closely related to the history of Korea.
"He was born to a wealthy family in South Pyongan Province in present-day North Korea, but he moved to the South and his family was parted because of the war. His life was an unfortunate byproduct of the war," Cho said.
Chun Kyung-ja's 〈At the Cotton Field〉 (1954) captures the artist's dream of an ideal family, while mystical self-portrait 〈Tango Flowing at Dusk〉 (1978) shows an expression of female desire.
Kim In-soong's 〈Wearing Makeup after Bathing〉 (1955) features a woman wearing makeup in her underclothes.
The artists delved deeper into the lives of regular people in the 1970s and female artists started to gain their voices.
Along with "Minjung Art," a political and populist art movement in Korea, the narratives of the painted figures were emphasized more than the identity of the object.
Lim Ok-sangs 〈Barley Field〉 (1983) expresses a simmering moment under suppression by an unnamed man fiercely looking out from the canvas. Lee Jong-gu's 〈Hwalmok Grandmother〉 (1990), painted on rice paper sack features one of the most famous figures in Korean rural art.
"After the 1980s, more female artists painted women, presenting an active perspective," Choi said. "Artists started to depict women… placing them in the dominant space thus spearheading the portrayal of active womanhood in a revolutionary way."
Kim Myoung-hi's 〈Preparing Kimchi〉 (2000) represents the life of a typical Korean housewife and how the artist balances her identity between being an artist and housewife.
The exhibit runs through March 1.