Idealism and Realism in Modern Korean Painting
In order to interpret certain aspects of modem Korean painting, one has to start by marking the temporal boundaries of the modem age, which depend on the definition of modernity. In Korean history, modernity is understood as having two aspects: self-awakening and Westernization. Although the two may have acted upon each other, nationalistic historians place greater emphasis on self-awakening, characterized as the result of the natural growth of consciousness without external stimuli. Self-awakening as reflected in art is viewed to have come about towards the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century, during the late Choson dynasty (1392-1910). This was the time when the School of Practical Learning, Sirhak (a group of scholars who developed a concern for matters of relevance to the actual needs of society and nation, rather than spending their time theorizing in the traditional manner), was at its mature stage, and it is this that is believed to have formed the background for the shift in artistic orientation towards 'reality'. Depiction of life in the immediate environment and real scenery began to surface as the major artistic trend, whereas previously the 'ideal gentlemanly life' or nature as an ideal retreat, without specific topographical details but similar to the Chinese model, were the usual themes in Korean painting. The establishment of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in China is viewed also as having contributed to the shift of interest in Korea towards a concern with 'reality', as Korean scholars became self-confident and turned inward now that China, under the rule of the Manchu 'barbarians', ceased to be a source of cultural aspiration. The emergence of realism is used as the point that marks the late Choson dynasty as the beginning of the modem age. Thus, realism, however complex its definition, was in
Korea originally closely associated with a sense of national identity. On the other hand, those who regard the concept of modernity in Korea to be primarily dependent on the influence of the West place the beginning of modem art in the early twentieth century, when the realistic depiction of subject matter with shading reflecting the presence of light and onepoint perspective, as practised by Western painters, began to be actively adopted. There is also disagreement in setting the terminus for the modem age, since varied interpretations of modernity exist. In this paper, the 1960s will be taken as the terminus ad quem, as during the subsequent decade there was a gradual shift in the generation of painters and a consequent change in the style of painting, moving into the contemporary period.
While modem art in Korea is primarily marked by two aspects of realism - mental orientation towards reality on the one hand and visual duplication of the real world on the other - idealistic representation, which is regarded as an element of the pre-modern age, also remained a prevalent trend. This discussion will present an analysis of the interaction of idealism and realism in modem Korean art, beginning with the early eighteenth century but focusing mainly on the early twentieth century, when the influence of Western art was becoming prominent.