Meanwhile, in Korea

by johnmccreery

We have now translated the second article I mentioned, the one about representations of family in modern art in Korea. Turned out that it wasn’t about the Japanese colonial period but, instead, about the post-Korean War period. If the author is to be believed, paintings of families were rare before the Korean War. And, if the example she uses is typical, they showed families arrayed in clear hierarchical order, with stony faces staring straight out of the picture and no emotional interaction. Family equaled household and households were people stuck together inside the walls of a house by kinship or marriage. After the war, we see nuclear families; but, at least to this Korean art historian, what is more important is that we see the emotional interaction missing in earlier family images. Parents and children now look at each other; in one case they dance naked together in a space without walls. The author attributes this change to the experience of the Korean War in which families were often divided, family members were lost, and the “big family” structures of the past turned out to be less important in the struggle for survival than the personal ties of mothers and children. Male artists were fantasizing about being able to reunite their families but retain that kind of intimacy. Interestingly, however, while postwar visual art depicted happy families, postwar literature was filled with stories of suffering families broken by the war. Why the visual arts became a vehicle for positive fantasy while the literary arts became a vehicle for gloomy retrospection remains a puzzle.

Any ideas?

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4 Comments to “Meanwhile, in Korea”

  1. Super interesting, John. I’m wondering if the difference in tone and perspective stems not from the difference between visual and literary work but from the difference in high art vs. low (or common) art. The intended audience for low art is the consumer and it often serves as a tool for escapism or nostalgia (think Thomas Kinkade). As I am reminded everyday with my own art, mainstream consumers want comfort and products that promote that feeling. With high art (which of course includes literature) the intended audience is the academy, the cognoscenti– the too-cool-for-school types that value rawness and innovation over aesthetic pleasure. So I’m wondering if what you are seeing with your two contrasting representations of post-war Korean life are examples of works with two very differnt intended audiences.

  2. Rachel, are you insinuating that family portraiture is not high art? I am shocked and the photographers down at Sears will be deeply offended. Velazquez is rolling over in his grave.

    Interesting in this connection to note the evidence for the development of consumer culture in Korea post-war as family portraiture became more widespread. Is it also possible that there’s a difference in class norms of representation reflected in the change? Perhaps the dourly ‘classy’ posed portraits of the upper crust were crowded out in the sample by the more informal ‘snapshot’ portraits of the middle class?

  3. Rachel, good question. What I know about Korea is sparse in the extreme, so what follows should be taken with large quantities of soy sauce. What I can say is that there is no internal evidence in the article that we translated to suggest that the visual versus literary art distinction in question is a low versus high art one. All of the artists in question are given precisely the same treatment as other famous painters in other things that we have translated. Thus, I infer, but only infer, that they are, at least in their local art world, regarded producers of fine art instead of commercial illustration.

    Also, re Carl’s suggestion: I see no evidence that “family portraiture became more widespread.” All I see is a piece about a handful of locally famous artists for family was a compelling theme. Given that the volume for which the paper is written is devoted to portrayals of family and childhood in the arts, this may reflect a narrow selection from a much wider field.

    What caught my eye in the author’s argument is what strikes me as a feeble suggestion that the visual arts are unsuitable for portrayals of tragic subjects. To me that seems feeble because I instantly think of “Guernica,” “The Scream,” Goya, all manner of medieval and Renaissance martyrdoms. But that sets me to thinking; could we be seeing here a cultural difference in what different media are deemed appropriate for? Could there be some reason why art like that I’ve just pointed to wasn’t created in Korea?

    I think of China, which I know better than Korea, where gruesome themes are confined to portrayals of hell on temple walls and I’m having serious trouble remembering even a single instance of high art painting with a tragic theme.

    I think of the former USSR and wonder if politics made it possible to circulate bad news or critical thinking in written form — a kind of local samizdat—but art produced for public display had to conform to the tenets of socialist realism.

    Just brainstorming…what do you think.

  4. It’s entirely possible that the visual arts in Korea remain tied to the direct patronage mode, similar to Europe up through the early modern period. Tragic themes appeared precisely on church walls in Europe during that time, because they were part of Christian iconography. “Guernica” and “The Scream” were enabled by a different funding model for art that I can’t say much about in detail, I’m afraid. But the point is that art is entrained to the pedagogical-graphical or status-performing interests of its funders, and it takes a peculiar situation for that relationship to become loose enough for artists to ‘do what they want’ and be paid for it.

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