The history of Korean painting stretches back to the early murals painted on the walls of tombs during the fourth century, and continues to the present, in which a great number of Korean artists keep the styles and forms of the traditional artists alive, blend the traditional styles with modern motifs, or paint in a completely modern style. Just as today, painters from many countries study abroad to learn the styles of other countries master's or their traditions, so did the early Korean painters travel abroad to study the works of those that were considered the masters. In the fourth century, China was considered, both by itself, as well as by many Asian countries under its influence, to be the center of the universe. As such, many Korean painters were sent to China to learn modern Chinese painting styles. What they learned, influenced not only the paintings of Korea, but also the art of Japan, as many Korean artisans migrated to Japan.
Three Kingdoms Period
The Three Kingdoms period in Korea consisted of the separate kingdoms of Shilla (37 B.C. - 668)(see a graphical display of the Korean, Japanese and Chinese timelines here), which absorbed the other two kingdoms and became Unified Shilla by 668, the Paekje Kingdom, which began in 18 B.C. and lasted until it was absorbed by the Unified Shilla Kingdom in 663, and the Koguryo kingdom which lasted from 37 B.C. until its unification with Shilla in 668. Each of the three kingdoms had its own unique painting style, each of which was influenced by a geographical region in China with which that kingdom had relations. Early Shilla paintings, while said to be inferior in technique to those of Koguryo and Paekche, tended to be more fanciful and free-spirited. Some of them could almost be considered impressionistic. Paekche paintings did not lean toward realism and were more stylized in an elegant free-flowing style. In marked contrast to the paintings of Shilla and Paekche, the paintings of Koguryo were dynamic and active and often showed scenes of tigers fleeing archers on horseback. Following the assimilation of Paekche and Koguryo into the Unified Shilla Kingdom, the three uniquely different painting styles grew into one and were further influenced by continued contact with China by the Shilla state.
The Koryo period (918-1392) was marked by a proliferation of painters as many aristocrats and began painting for the intellectual stimulation, and the flourishing of Buddhism, just as it had created a need for celadon wares for religious ceremonies, likewise created a need for paintings with Buddhist motifs. Though elegant and refined, the Buddhist paintings of the Koryo period could also be considered gaudy by today's standards. Another trend which has its roots in the Koryo era was the practice of painting scenes based on their actual appearance which would later become common during the Chosun period.
The Chosun period (1392-1910) is marked by a great number of changes that occurred in Korean painting. The decline of the strong Buddhist culture which helped lead to a reduction in quality celadon products, also helped to move Korean painting away from its emphasis on religious motifs. At the same time, Korean artists continued to be influenced by the painters of China but were able to transcend the Chinese mold, and develop a stronger sense of native Korean painting. This stronger sense, of their native land, was further strengthened by the Silhak, or practical learning movement, which emphasized understanding based on actual observance. Korean paintings began to be based on actual scenes of the Korean countryside or Korean people engaged in common activities. The uniquely Korean flavor of painting also could be seen in the stylized depiction of animals, and plants..
The Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) nearly wiped out the tradition of Korean painting. During this time, many things Korean were suppressed, such as the language, in an attempt to assimilate the Koreans into the Japanese culture. Korean painting culture was likewise suppressed by the Japanese in favor of Western or Chinese styles - both of which had been adopted by the Japanese. After Korea's liberation from Japan in 1945, Korea's painting tradition was revived by a number of Korean artisans in the same way the art of making celadon was revived.
Categorizing the large numbers of Korean painting styles could be a daunting task and would require a work of greater scope than this article, but in general, Korean paintings can be broken down into the following, periods or categories.
Paintings from the three kingdoms period include the energetic style of the Koguryo, the elegant paintings of Paekche, and the fanciful lines of the the Shilla works. A great number of the paintings during the Koryo period were of the religious variety due to the powerful influence of Buddhism at that time. Also, during this period, the idea of paintings based on actual scenery or scenes rather than stylized ideas began to increase in popularity.
The paintings of the Chosun era offer the richest variety and are the styles most imitated today. While some of these types of paintings did exist in the earlier three kingdoms, and Koryo periods, it was during the Chosun period that they came into their own. The paintings of the Chosun period can be broken down into five categories: landscape paintings, genre, Minhwa, the Four Gracious Plants, and portraits.
Often called the realistic landscape school, the practice of painting landscapes based on actual scenes became more popular during the mid-Chosun period. During this time, many painters traveled the countryside in search of beautiful scenery to paint.
At the same time as the interest in realistic landscapes surged, so did the practice of painting the realistic scenes of ordinary people doing ordinary things. Genre painting, as this has come to be called, is the most uniquely Korean of all the painting styles and gives us a historic look into the daily lives of the people of the Chosun period. Some of the most notable of the genre painters were Kim Hong-do (1745-1818?) who left a large collection of paintings portraying many different scenes from Korea's past in vivid colors (see some of his paintings here). Another of the great genre painters was Shin Yun-bok (1758-?), who's paintings of often risque scenes were both romantic and sensual (see some of his paintings here).
Minhwa, or folk paintings are by far the most interesting of the traditional Korean paintings. The characteristics of Minhwa paintings are that they were all painted by unknown artists, and all were painted near the end of, or after the Chosun period. Though many of them appear rather childish, and unrefined, quite a number display great painting skill. Under the Minhwa category of paintings are many sub-categories. In brief they are:
Landscape Paintings - Some of the most common of the Minhwa genre,
Minhwa landscape paintings can follow any of the traditional styles from
the earlier periods.
The Four Gracious Plants, alternately called the Four Gentlemanly Plants, or the Four Seasons symbols, consist of plum blossoms, orchids or wild orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboo. They were originally Confucian symbols for the four qualities of a learned man, but are now more commonly associated with the four seasons. They are plum blossoms which represented courage, the orchid stood for refinement, the chrysanthemum was a sign of a productive, and fruitful life, and bamboo represented integrity. In modern times, the four have come to be associated with the seasons as well; plums blossoms bravely bloom in the cold of an early spring, orchids disseminate a dim fragrance far in the heat of summer, chrysanthemums overcome the first cold of a late fall and bloom, and bamboo bares its green leaves even in the winter.
Portraits were painted throughout Korean history but were produced in greater numbers during the Chosun period. The main subjects of the portraits were kings, meritorious subjects, elderly officials, literati or aristocrats, women, and Buddhist monks.
Korean-Arts' collection of paintings are all
hand painted by Korean artisans and represent the rich traditions of landscape,
genre, Minhwa, and the Four Gracious Plants.