Korean art

Korean art is art, whether modern or ancient, that originated in or is practised in Korea or by Korean artists or performers. Early so-called "stone age art" dates back to 3000 BCE, mostly consisting of votive sculptures, although petroglyphs have been found recently. This early period was followed by a series of art dynasties, most of which lasted several hundred years (though the important Joseon Dynasty lasted almost six centuries). The 20th century has seen a change from handmade individual works of art to mass produced machine-made works, and a western separation of the arts into distinct and isolated categories. Nationalism in Korea has encouraged a return to traditional art-forms.



Since Korean art is integrated across traditional western borders, and does not fit into specific categories, this article aims at putting together an integrated approach to Korean art.

The key to Korean art is naturalness and fluidity across other arts. Unlike the West, there are no simple categories of art that do not obtrude directly into other arts. All Korean art is cross-over art.

An example of Korean art, patterns, designed by people to decorate homes and empty spaces. This is done in order to make the atmosphere more lively. Patterns are not only useful for ornament but symbolize human thought and philosophical and aesthetic pursuits. Patterns often have their origins in early ideographs. Geometric patterns and patterns of plant, animal and nature motifs are the four most basic patterns. Geometric patterns include triangles, squares, diamonds, zigzags, latticework, frets, spirals sawteeth, circles, ovals and concentric circles. It is interesting to note that most of these geometric patterns have their roots in primitive religious thoughts. Most popular plant motifs were trees, flowers, fruits and grass. Nature motifs include landscapes, rocks, waves and clouds. Stone Age rock carvings feature animal designs in order to relate to food-gathering activities. Dualism patterns have become very popular, especially the ying and yang. These patterns are found in such places like the doors of temples and shrines, clothes, furniture and daily objects such as fans and spoons.

Similarly in the performing arts, Korean storytelling is done in both ritualistic shamanistic ways, in the songs of yangban scholars, and the cross-overs between the visual arts and the performing arts which are more intense and fluid than in the west.

In the Korean tea ceremony which is held within a special Korean tea house with particular architecture contained often within Korean gardens and served in a way with ritualized conversation, formal poetry on wall-scrolls, and with specific Korean pottery and expected Korean costumes, the environment itself is a series of naturally flowing events that provide a totality of artistic experience.

Out of these three examples, the Korean art framework can be seen and understood. Understanding contemporary Korean painting needs an understanding of Korean ceramics and Korean pottery as the glazes used in these works and the textures of the glazes make Korean art more in the tradition of ceramic art, than of western painterly traditions, even if the subjects appear to be of western origin. Brush-strokes as well are far more important than they are to the western artist; and paintings are judged on brush-strokes more often than pure technique.

While there have been only rare studies on Korean aesthetics, a useful place to begin for understanding how Korean art developed an aesthetic is in Korean philosophy, and subsidiary articles on Korean buddhism, and Korean Confucianism.

Performing arts

The performing arts of Korea grew out of ancient rituals that predate history. Depicted on petroglyphs and in pottery shards, as well as wall-paintings in tombs, the various performing arts nearly always incorporated Korean masks, costumes with Korean knots, Korean embroidery, and a dense overlay of art in combination with other arts. There was no "pure art", but always arts in assemblage. This approach in art was continuous throughout Korean history with the brief interruption during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Japan from the 1890s through to 1945 when the production of Korean art in Korea was forbidden unless it followed Japanese rules in style, form, and function; and such restrictions as one act of every play performed being required to be done in Japanese if a play was performed on a Korean stage.

Briefly these are the main elements of the performing arts, with in some cases specific dances themselves being defined as important cultural heritage pieces of art by the Korean governments. As well, the performing arts have always been linked to the fabric arts: not just in costumery, but in woven screens behind the plays, ornaments woven or embroidered or knotted to indicate rank, position, or as shamanistic charms; and in other forms to be indicated.

Historically the division of the performing arts is between arts done almost exclusively by women in costume, danceworks; and those done exclusively by men in costume, storytelling. And those done as a group by both sexes with women's numbers in performances reduced as time goes on as it became reputable for men to function as public entertainers.


Dance is divided traditionally into religious rites and rituals, and secular entertainment. The Russian influence of ballet is still new, and modern dance has had limited success. Non-creative popular dance, such as the formal rigid repetition of ball-room dancing, disco, the tango, and hip-hop though have had much success in Korea. Popular female singers like Boa are famous for dancing while singing but do not choreograph themselves, and meticulously dance the same dances throughout all performances, live or on television, timed to second without change. Jazz dance or improvised dance is not a feature of Korean culture.

Storytelling and comedy

Narrative storytelling, either in poetic dramatic song by yangban scholars, or in rough-housing by physical comedians, is generally a male performance. There is as yet virtually no stand-up comedy in Korea because of cultural restrictions on insult-humour, personal comments, and respect for seniors, despite globally successful Korean comic films which depend on comedy of error, and situations with no apparent easy resolution under tight social restraints.

  • Korean oral history includes narrative myths, legends, folk tales; songs, folksongs, shaman songs and p'ansori; proverbs that expand into short historical tales, riddles, and suspicious words which have their own stories. They have been studied by Cho Dong-Il; Choi In-hak, and Zong In-sop, and published often in editions in English for foreigners, or for primary school teachers.

Musical arts and musical theatre

The skill of contemporary Korean performing artists, who have had great recognition abroad, particularly in stringed instruments and as symphony directors, or operatic sopranos and mezzos, takes part in a long musical history.

Korean music in contemporary times is generally divided into the same audiences as the west: with the same kind of audiences for music based on age, and city (classical, pop, techno, house, hip-hop, jazz; traditional) and provincial divisions (folk, country, traditional, classical, rock). World music influences are very strong provincially, with traditional musical instruments once more gaining ground. Competition with China for tourists has forced a much larger attention to traditional Korean musical forms in order to differentiate itself from the west, and east.

The new Seoul Opera house, which will be the anchor for Korean opera has just been given the go-ahead, is set for a $300 million dollar home on an island on the Han river. Korean opera and an entirely redeveloped western opera season, and opera school, to compete with the Beijing opera house, and Japan's historical centre for western operas in the far east is the present focus.

  • Korean court music has a history going back to the Silla where Tang court music was played; later Sung dynasty inspired "A-ak" a Korean version played on Chinese instruments within the Joseon era. Recreations of this music are done in Seoul primarily under the auspices of the Korea Foundation and the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts (NCKTPA).

Court musicians appear in traditional costume, maintain a rigid proper formal posture, and play stringed five-stringed instruments. Teaching by this the "yeak sasang" principles of Confucianism, perfection of tone and acoustic space is put ahead of coarse emotionality. Famous works of court music include: jongmyo jeryeak, designated a UNESCO world cultural heritage, Cheoyongmu, Taepyeongmu, and Sujecheon.

  • Korean folk music or p'ansori is the base from which most new music originates being strongly simple and rhythmic.
  • Korean musicals are a recent innovation, encouraged by the success of Broadway revivals, like Showboat, recent productions such as the musical based on Queen Min have toured globally. There are precedents for popular musical dance-dramas in kamuguk popular in Koryo times, with some 21st century concert revivals.
  • Korean stage set design again has a long history and has always drawn inspiration from landscapes, beginning with outdoor theatre, and replicating this by the use of screens within court and temple stagings of rituals and plays. There are few if any books on this potentially interesting area. A rule of thumb has been that the designs have much open space, more two-dimensional space, and subdued tone and colour, and been done by artists to evoke traditional brush painting subjects. Modern plays have tended towards western scenic flats, or minimalist atonality to force a greater attention on the actors. Stage lighting still has to catch up to western standards, and does not reflect a photographer's approach to painting in colour and light, quite surprisingly.
  • Korean masks are generally used in shamanistic performances that have increasingly been secularized as folkart dramas. At the same time the masks themselves have become tourist artefacts post 1945, and reproduced in large numbers as souveniers.

Visual art

Korean visual art is extensive and has had an exceptionally wide cultural influence on Japanese art that is still little known in the west. Korea has primarily functioned as a transition point that modified and enhanced Chinese art, added more common and naturalistic elements, and served as an entry into Japan from the trade restrictions after fall of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Qing dynasty emperors.

Trade missions from Korea to Japan which were frequent, and the extensive Korean-Japan export trade, transferred Chinese art styles and trends through Korean hands and Korean variations on those themes onwards.

The slow constant growth of visual arts in Korea goes back almost 6000 years. It is characterized by disjunction, and by constant motion and has been moved often by transitions in the main religions at the time: early Korean shamanist art, through Korean Buddhist art influences, through Korean Confucian art, and in the 20th century through the western influence of American Christianity and American Christian art, shown in the many missionary stations, churches, and cathedrals built in the republic.

In the north, changing political systems from Communism merging with the old yangban class of Korean nationalistic leaders have brought out a different kind of visual arts that again is quite distinctive from the Russian architecture and people's art or socialist art styles. This is so particularly in the patriotic films that dominated that culture from 1949 to 1994, and the reawakened architecture, calligraphy, fabric work and neo-traditional painting, that has occurred from 1994 to date.

North Korean artists, some of whom are very good, but little known, have gone through two periods of influence in the middle 20th century, Russian art, and then Chinese art and this very very quickly. The impact was greatest on revolutionary posters, lithography and multiples, dramatic and documentary film, realistic painting, grand architecture, and least in areas of domestic pottery, ceramics, exportable needlework, and the visual crafts. Sports art and politically charged revolutionary posters have been the most sophisticated and internationally collectible by auction houses and specialty collectors.

Most of the art market takes place in the Insadong district of Seoul where over 50 small galleries exhibit and there are occasional fine arts auctions. Galleries are co-operatively run, small, with very often highly curated well designed exhibits. In every town there are smaller regional galleries, with local artists showing in traditional and contemporary media. Art galleries always have a mix of all medias. Attempts at bringing western conceptual art into the foreground have usually had their best success outside of Korea in NY, San Francisco, London and Paris.

All along though specific Korean themes and artistic features have continued making the art easily recognizable and different.

Summary of Korean visual arts

Korean pottery is the most famous and senior art in Korea, it is closely tied to Korean ceramics which represents tile work, large scale ceramic murals, and architectural elements.

Korean calligraphy is seen as an art where brush-strokes reveal the artist's personality enhancing the subject matter that is painted. This is the second most important Korean art form and represents the apogee of Korean Confucian art.

Korean fabric arts have a long history, are extensive, including everything from Korean embroidery used in costumes and screenwork; Korean knots as best represented in the work of Choe Eun-sun, used in costumes and as wall-decorations; and lesser known weaving skills as indicated below in rarer arts. There is no real tradition of Korean carpets or rugs, although saddle blankets and saddle covers were made from naturally dyed wool, and are extremely rare. Imperial dragon carpets, tiger rugs for judges or magistrates or generals, and smaller chair-covers were imported from China and are traditionally in either yellow or red. Few if any imperial carpets remain. Village rug weavers do not exist.

Korean paper art includes all manner of hand-made paper, used for architectural purposes (window screens, floor covering), for printing, artwork, and the Korean folded arts (paper fans, paper figures), and as well Korean paper clothing which has an annual fashion show in Jeonju city attracting world attention. In the 1960s Korean paper made from mulberry roots was discovered when the Pulguk temple complex in Kyongju was remodelled. The date on the Buddhist documents converts to a western calendar date of 751, and indicated that indeed the oft quoted claim that Korean paper can last a thousand years was proved irrevocably. Sadly after repeated invasions, very little early Korean paper art exists, however contemporary paper artists are very active.

Korean arts that use paint or ink for illustrative purposes on flat surfaces other than Korean calligraphy are increasingly important.

The history of Korean photography and cinema is as long as the west, however there have been few if any retrospectives for the great photographers; even if Korean film has out-distanced Hong Kong action and romance films by degree, number, and skill.

Three-dimensional formed arts are long historied but do not have much attention. They include these.

Elements of art are nearly always foregrounded within Korean houses, offices, commercial buildings, and government buildings. While critics have seen historic works of Korean architecture being works of art; it is only with the atelier architects from the late 1970s onward who have built buildings that have design and style triumphing over mere utilitarian needs. While there is a long tradition of Korean gardens, often linked with palaces, and the Korean Tea ceremony most buildings built in Korea have a neglect for landscape architecture, and Korean cities are very often devoid of public parks as they are known in western cities. Seoul has the fewest public parks of any country in the world. Few new cities, if any, build parks into their urban planning designs.

The more familiar arts are listed above, while below we have rarer arts of which there are far fewer modern masters.

Traditional Korean visual arts

Art works in metal, jade, works woven in bamboo or in textiles, have had a limited resurgence. The government of the republic has tgried to encourage the maintenance of cultural continuity by awards, and by scholarships for younger students in rarer Korean art forms. The rarity of these forms abroad force a separate category below with a brief explanation of the major contemporary figures, what the work is, and the representative kinds of art now produced. The penultimate citation in the webography is a gallery of these works for fast visuals.

Among the modern masters who are recognized in these areas are:

  • Korean bronze as represented in the work of Kim Jong-dae, master of yundo or bronze mirror casting; and Yi Bong-ju, who works in hammered bronze metalware.
  • Korean silver as represented in the work of Kim Cheol-ju in circular silver containers.
  • Korean jade carving as represented in the work of Master Jang-Ju won typically in Joseon dynasty imperial style, with complex jade knotwork, buddhist motifs, and Korean shamanistic grotesques.
  • Korean grass weaving as represented in the work of Master Yi Sang-jae, in his legendary wancho weaving containers.
  • Korean bamboo pyrography as represented in the work of Kim Gi-chan in this unique artwork involved with burning patterns and art on circular bamboo containers.
  • Korean ox-horn inlaying as represented in the work of Yi Jae-man in his small storage box, and commissioned gift furniture.
  • Korean blinds weaving as represented in the work of seventh generation master, Jo Dae-yong, and descended from Jo Rak-sin, who created his first masterworks for King Cheoljong; and through Jo Seong-yun, and Jo Jae-gyu. Winners of Joseon Craft Contests. The artwork known as Tongyeong blinds has gained more recognition with the appointment of Jo Dae-yong as Master Craftsman of Bamboo Blinds weaving *Yeomjang) by the Korean government, and his artworks as "Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 114", with Jo at age 51 becoming the youngest 'human cultural property' in the republic.

Written arts

In general, the written arts have a tradition in epigraphic inscriptions on stones, in early tombs, and on rarely found bamboo pieces that formed early books. Repeated invasions and sacking of the east and west capitals, as well as the difficulty in preserving written texts on bamboo, make works before 1000 rare. Those works were entirely written in Chinese, the language of scholars, but of course incorporated Korean words and mindset. Medieval scholars in Korea learnt Chinese as western schoolmen learned Latin: as a lingua franca for the region. It helped cultural exchanges extensively.

Noteable examples of historical records are very well documented from early times, and as well Korean books with moveable type, often imperial encyclopaedias or historical records, were circulated as early as the 7th century during the Three Kingdoms era from printing wood-blocks; and in the Goryeo era the world's first metal type, and books printed by metal type, most probably of copper, were produced. Fully two hundred years before the work of Johann Gutenberg or William Caxton whom, to most westerners, "invented" the first printing presses.

Scriptoria have existed since the beginning of the culture, and rose to great importance in Buddhist and Confucianist schools with circulation of texts, inter-lineal glosses, and commentaries from those religions. Most Buddhist literature was recited aloud, had limited repeated vocabulary, and was used for deeply impressing religious states, or for memory training or mnemonics.

The primary language of the Korean educated classes was Chinese throughout history, and even today sophisticated writing is a mix of hangul or hunminjongum; with writing in the vernacular being in these alphabets from the time of King Sejong. With the allied liberation of Korea, Chinese script has been slowly lessened; and at one point General MacArthur considered in both Japan and Korea eliminating all ideograms in favour of romanization.

The literature of Korea requires a larger entry. To some extent 20th century literature under American influence has moved to quite distinct separation between integrated art forms such as calligraphy to the standardization of printed books. The 21st century though has revived integrated artforms of literature in Korean animated blogs, and over-designed, visually dense homepages and websites. Comics and comic novels, or illustrated novels, are very popular; but there has yet to be cross-overs into film, videogames, or television series.

Genres are very similar to Chinese, and even western ones. There are epics, poetry, religious texts and exigetical commentaries on Buddhist and Confucianist learning; translations of foreign works; plays and court rituals; comedies, tragedies, mixed genres; and various kinds of novels. Radioplays and screenplays are extensive, few have been translated, many are archived but not available to the public. And no research work has been done in this area. Translation work of the most famous Korean literature has been slow, during the Japanese occupation, creative writing in Korean was forbidden and there are few works of literature published at home from 1910-1945.

Works by exiles in Shanghai, and other regions, are little known. The overseas Korean writers, expatriates, have had limited success other than in travel literature which is widely read.

Christian literature is very heavily funded and supported, with it is said far more funding than any other kind of indigenous Korean literary work. Most Christian literature has been funded since the late 19th century by American missionary groups, churches, and as well American foundations. They have not funded transference of Korean works into English reciprocally, which is unexpected.

Contemporary Korean literature is robust as Korea is a nation of readers. Book prices are low, and writers are respected, with many having academic positions as well as being well known on television. Internet blogs, and bloggers are creating the next generation of novelists, and writings by women are extremely well regarded. There are few if any attempts to promote Korean literature overseas, and small printings of translations, with few experts to teach the works make recognition of masterworks slow to the west.

  • Korean epic is best represented by works such as Yi Kyu-bo's King Tongmyong, which derives much of its influence from narrative histories done by writers such as Yi Che-hyon, and before that Yi Il-lo, Yi Ky-bo, and Ch'oe Chu for battlefield histories and stories.
  • Korean poetry began to flourish under Confucian scholarship in the Goryeo period, prior to that most models imitated were of Chinese lyric poetry. Collections were repeatedly printed. With the rise of Joseon nationalism, poetry developed increasingly so and reached its apex in the late 18th century. There were attempts at introducing imagist and modern poetry methods in the early 20th century, and in the early republic period, patriotic works were very successful. Lyrical poetry dominated from the 1970s onwards.

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