GO: Contemporary Korean Art at LACMA

Korean Art has long been overshadowed by Chinese and Japanese art, both of which have had longstanding influence on Western art and even had specific terms associated with them (e.g. Chinoiserie and Japonisme). Korean art has been celebrated for both its celadon ceramics and its development of the keum-boo gilding technique, but both of these are centuries old. LACMA through a generous grant from Hyundai Motor Company currently has two lively major exhibits on contemporary Korean art: “The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art” and “Park Dae Sung: Virtuous Ink and Contemporary Brush.”

Historically, Korea has been both an ally and a combatant of both China and Japan, but like both countries, was subject to unequal treaties with Western and American powers. The first exhibit “The Space Between” looks at the development of modern art when Korea encountered foreign influences during three distinct periods: European influenced art via Japan in the Korean Empire (1897-1910), the colonial period (1910-1945) and the American influences resulting from the Korean War (1950-1953).


This is the first exhibition of its kind, with over 130 works by 88 artists that reflect the incorporation of new media introduced during these times periods such as oil paints, photography and certain types of sculpture. The exhibition is divided into five sections: Modern Encounter, Modern Response, Modern Momentum, The Pageantry of Sinyeonseong (New Woman) and Evolving into the Contemporary.

“Modern Encounter” looks at the move toward realism. In 1897, the last two kings of the Joseon dynasty converted Korea into an empire as part of its move toward modernization. Photographers were brought to Korea from Japan by invitation from the imperial family to document the changes. One of those changes was how traditional ink painters approached their art as seen in Kim Eunho’s “Portrait of King Sunjong” (1923). The unfinished draft was based on a 1909 photograph.

Photo: © National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, South Korea

“Modern Response” covers the period of colonization (1910-1945) where access to art schools and new styles were through Japan. Traditional processes continued, but those who studied Western styles of painting and sculpture in Japan, returned to Korea and spread the knowledge gained. Art can be and often is a reaction to social conditions and in the period, a growing sense of nationalism and activism emerges.

“Modern Momentum”  shows works of Korean artists who have now adopted foreign materials and processes, but adapted it to Korean sensibilities. Now more comfortable with the new media, artists were able to confidently express their ideas in their work.

“The Pageantry of Sinyeonseong (New Woman)” was not originally a movement started by women. According to the press kit, men initiated the concept of the new woman, one who would be educated in order to educate their children in turn. Yet education brought new opportunities for women. Women began to leave more independent lives and their growing independence and outside influences brought changes in women’s outward appearances. Of course, the male-oriented and Confucian-based society didn’t easily accept all these new radical ideas and “most of the society regarded Singyeoseong as a superficial pageantry of modernization.”

Evolving into the Contemporary

When did contemporary art begin in South Korea? When modern art began might not be so easy to figure out in many countries, but for South Korea there was an artists’ uprising in 1957 where a group of disgruntled creators publicly displayed their artworks along the perimeter walls of Deoksu Palace in Central Seoul, protesting the government-sponsored National Art Exhibits because of elitist attitudes and continuing colonial practices. Art can be protest and South Korean artists made their move.

“The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art” invites you to walk around and view the rooms and how the works of art interact with each other. You can feel the different moods  and aspirations of this lively mix of pieces.  The energy is in stark contrast with “Park Dae Sung: Virtuous Ink and Contemporary Brush” which is more contemplative.

Park Dae Sung: Virtuous Ink and Contemporary Brush

Set in a large separate room, these works are meant to be contemplated at a distance and yet still inspected close up to see the beautiful details.

Park Dae Sung was born the year that World War II ended, signaling the end of the Japanese colonization of Korea. Yet the years following World War II weren’t easy. The Korean War erupted and Park’s parents both were killed by Communist soldiers. Finding solace in painting, Park would spend time in China, walk one of the Silk routes and even look into the meanings of “hanja” (Chinese characters). This work is large and worth contemplating from afar after one has looked closely at the details, some of which only reveal themselves on closer inspection.

Both exhibits are outstanding both in the works and the aesthetic arrangement.

“Park Dae Sung: Virtuous Ink and Contemporary Brush” opened in July, but closes 5 February 2023

“The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art” opened in September and runs until 19 February 2023. Both exhibits are the the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036).

For tickets and more information visit LACMA.org. LACMA is open New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, 10 am–7 pm


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