Shin Ji-yeong

“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” : The Establishment of ‘Korean-ness’ and Masculinity of ‘Korean’ Abstract Art

Opening a Dialogue—Concerning the Title, Why Do We Ask Again?

I do not believe it necessary to explain in detail the choice of title. It should be evident that the title is of a paper written by Linda Nochlin, an American historian of feminist art. But in the year 1971, when the paper was first published, there were no people who were asking these questions. As a result, this provocative paper triggered the emergence of feminist art history. The question arises from a simple fact of things that we experience each and every day. For almost 20,000 years, from the context of the Altamira caves to the present day, not only have women artists been rarely spoken of, but there have been none that are counted among the “greats.” For all individuals, the history of people with whom one identifies contributes to one's own identity. That is why nations cherish their ancestors and families speak of their grandfathers and their fathers. That there was an ancestor or grandfather who was great means that I myself in the present can also be “great.”

All questions have a logical conclusion. And the conclusion to this question is self-evident. That the history of art has been unable to produce a great woman artist means that the abilities and talents of women lack in comparison to those of men. If women were as capable as men, this would have been demonstrated by the historical fact of the existence of great women artists. Whether the cause lies in sex hormones or wombs, people that are born with the body of a woman are clearly second-class citizens. There are even those who think that it is fair that women, who have not produced anyone worthy of being remembered in history, are therefore treated as such, since it is only natural that those who are capable are treated better. This question to history is therefore a question to the reality of the present, to my identity. The fact that there were so few women artists worthy of being recorded and remembered in the past 20,000 years cannot be relegated to the past nor can it be swept aside as someone else's matter. If the women that came before were unable to accomplish this, could I as a woman do any better? The same applies to Korean women artists in the 21st century. If there were no great women artists in the past, then there is no need to expect anything for these women artists in the future. That is why, after so much time has passed since the question was first asked, I cannot help but once again ask this question today.

Nochlin’s paper presented a feminist viewpoint in Western art history, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it determined the future direction of feminist art history. Feminist art history progressed quickly following the publication of the paper, as it was a process of trying to answer the question that she posed. Nochlin argued that the reason behind the absence of great women artists must be found in how art history was written, in a paradigm shift. In other words, she argued that writing history as if there were undiscovered women Rembrandts and Rubenses is not, in fact, the correct approach. The reason, she argued, must be found in the sort of writing and structure of art history that limited women to the present and prevented them from using the moniker of “great.”1 This requires a reflection upon the tacit premises of art history regarding what should be regarded as a historic event in writing art history.

This is the reason why feminist art historian Griselda Pollock emphasized Nochlin’s position and raised questions about modernist art history in her own work. Modernist art history is obsessed with the idea of the ‘genius‘ artist. In each and every watershed moment in history, from Impressionism to Fauvism, Cubism, and abstraction, there have been geniuses of form whose work has served as the breaking point from the previous generation. The historic events worthy of being recorded in art history are therefore based on the tacit premise of form and geniuses. Take, for example, the exhibition titled Cubism and Abstract Art held at MoMA in 1936. Pollock’s examination of modernist art history begins with this exhibition, which organizes the paradigms of modernist art history into a clear diagram. Alfred H. Barr Jr., the curator who organized the exhibition, portrayed the theme of the exhibition “Cubism and abstract art” into a neatly organized, easily understandable diagram of modern art history. In his flowchart, from the fathers of modern art, including Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne, styles such as Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, and geometric abstraction are successively mapped with clearly marked arrows, and this history undergoes “progression” and “revolution,” ultimately ending up at abstract art.2 Barr, no doubt, wished to speak of the prestigious status of Cubism and abstraction within such a great historical chain of events. This is the type of history that we are intimately familiar with: the modernist/formalist art history, which constitutes a dominant discourse in art history.

As can be seen in Barr’s diagram, important historical events worthy of being recorded and remembered are limited to matters of form. Should art and artists be excluded from the historical context, the political, social, and historical circumstances that people have had to deal with? This is neither historically fair nor accurate. This is because a historical paradigm that demands the examination of only form is a paradigm that requires us to examine nothing else. If there is something that is disconnected in Barr’s chart, wherein one stylistic revolution hastily leads into another, so Pollock says, it would be the history that we have lived.3 As such, Pollock stresses the importance of historical and sociocultural conditions, which allows us to understand her texts under the category of social history of art before we call them feminist art history.

The reason why I am explaining the progression of feminism in the West is to achieve logical validity for the work that I am trying to do. Like the West, we too accept formalist art, or modernist art, as the truth of art history. History of contemporary art in this country is not long. The year 1957, when Abstract Expressionism was first introduced, is regarded as its origin.4 If this is so, the history of contemporary Korean art does not even span half a century. The history of Korean contemporary art history as a discipline is even shorter. In the poverty-stricken times of the 1950s, when our per capita income was less than 500 USD in the aftermath of the Korean War, art and art history were irrelevant to most people. In this regard, it can be said that the history of Korean contemporary art began to be written from the 1970s, when commercial galleries appeared. And soon we became accustomed to the art historical paradigm of formalism. During the last 30 years of being exposed to such contemporary art, we have been obsessed with a bizarre set of questions.

Who are the Impressionists of Korea? Who are the Fauvists of Korea? Who are the Cubists of Korea? Who are the Abstract Expressionists of Korea? And What about Korean Minimalists? Each and every person and country has a different past, and they experience these pasts differently. And so, history must be written differently. But strangely, in Korean history, historic events that have occurred elsewhere are repeated. If there is anything that is different, it is not the history, but the artists. The history of Korean contemporary art observes a repetition of historic events that occurred on the opposite side of the globe, such as Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and abstract art. In a sense, history in Korean art history is predetermined. Like filling in the blanks, all we had to do is to fill in the artists in a preordained historical paradigm. The great masters of Korean art, from Oh Chiho the Impressionist, Gu Bonung the Fauvist, and finally to the abstract artists, are all born from this method of writing history. And, of course, there are no women artists among the greats.

Pollock argues that formalist art history fundamentally embodies a gender ideology. This is because, being obsessed with the notions of artistic genius, it is based on the concept of heroes, who overthrow the existing order and bring about the emergence of a new order. In essence, the concept of an artist adopts the premise of masculine sexuality to begin with. She describes formalist art as a cavalcade of great heroes that dismantle the rigid order of their fathers and establish a new one, thereby fulfilling their Oedipal desires. Art history, which progresses from revolution to revolution and from hero to hero, can be described as a consistent narrative that reads into masculinity. As such, Pollock says that if there is anyone who has nothing to lose from challenging formalist art history, it is a woman.5 Since women are not born to be heroes to begin with, they are excluded from the ranks of the greats and from history. This is the reason why Griselda Pollock readily agrees with Nochlin and, rather than trying to find the female Michelangelo, suggests that we examine the historical paradigms and contexts of art history.

The Paradigm of Korean Art History: Modernist Art History

In Korean art history, there are clearly great masters who represent the Republic of Korea. The artists that immediately come to mind when we think of contemporary art belong to those ranks. The artists who represent our contemporary art, such as Kim Whanki, Park Sookeun, Park Seobo, Lee Ufan, and Suh Seok, are examples of such artists, whose work is closely related to the genre of abstraction. Let us examine concrete examples. The exhibition, held at the Ho-Am Art Gallery in 1996, is a concrete demonstration of how abstract art is viewed in Korean society.This exhibition showcased the work of all masters of Korean art, whether they work in East Asian ink painting or Western oil painting. The featured artists included everyone from Kim Whanki, Park Seobo, Lee Ufan, Suh Seok, to Lee Jongsang, and yet the exhibition could be placed under the simple category of abstract art. This exhibition, which was able to gather all the greats of Korea under the category of abstract art, is a definitive example of how closely the idea of greatness in Korean art is linked to the Western style of abstraction.

But such an evaluation of abstraction requires two unspoken premises of art history: among these is the idea of modernist/formalist art history, which regards abstraction as the most progressive, contemporary style of art. Ever since postmodernism became widespread in academia, “the death of metaphysics” has often been brought up. This is because of the flawed methodology of Western philosophy, which had been obsessed with the question of what is the truth. And asking what is the truth, truth becomes a thing that already exists. Like homework that needs to be finished, there is a task that we must tackle, but this task is to discover and define a truth that is hidden somewhere. Rather than the real and concrete experiences of life, abstract concepts, or truth, come first. Rather than explaining the concrete past and experiences that we have lived, the abstract concepts come to formulate judgments and definitions of our past. And so Michel Foucault argues that in Western philosophy, which had worked so hard to define truth, there was in fact no truth, but a history of truth, in which an attempt is made to define the nature of truth.This is the aforementioned death of metaphysics, which requires the existence of an absolute truth.

The same applies to the field of history, which concerns the past that we have lived. Formalist art history is based on the singular theme and concept of progression of form. It is based on the tacit premise that in art, form is what is the most important, and that form inevitably develops over time. Modernist art history is therefore a Progressive history with an unending optimism towards time and modernity. But with metaphysics having lost its academic validity, any historical paradigm that prioritizes abstract concepts over lived experiences and memories bears reflecting upon. It is time to reconsider the historical methodology of using one or two concepts to organize hundreds or even thousands of years into a single narrative. It is truly time to reconsider the methods with which we write history, where events that do not fit into the designated conception of truth are relegated to the status of apocrypha.

The issue of historical paradigm in Korean art history is related to the discussion of decolonization, which has received a considerable amount of attention in recent years. Mainstream academia argues that Western discourse should not be imported and applied abstractly to Korean reality, and that Koreans should not internalize Western perspectives and marginalize themselves. Mainstream academia therefore argues that it is necessary to discuss the distinct modernity of East Asia. There is no reason why a geographically and historically different East Asia should resemble Western history, which developed from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution. Therefore, now is the time to rethink the modern mythology, the discourse of truth with which we are so obsessed. Because our histories and cultures are different, we must rethink our own modernity, which is also necessarily different from Western modernity. Furthermore, has not the discourse on modernist art history already been dismantled in Western paradigm?So why is the history of truth, which occurred in the West, being repeated in Korean art history? If it were ever suggested that the historical events that had happened in the United Kingdom or the United States also occurred the same way in Korea, it would inevitably raise questions. But Barr’s chart applies not only to the West but to Korean art history as well. The genealogy of great artists of Korea, which progresses from Oh Chiho, Gu Bonung, Yoo Youngkuk, and Kim Whanki to abstract artists, would have no basis for greatness without the discourse on form. And once again, there are no women artists in these ranks. Decolonization remains impossible as long as the historical paradigm of the West is repeated in Korea. Given this logic, our future is predetermined. In this version of history, the East will always be 10 years behind the West, and all that we have to do is to wait for what happened in the West to happen to us. Their past becomes our future and our destiny.

The “Greatness” of Art: Koreanness=Abstraction

In this context, I would describe my work as a process of decolonization and deconstruction before I describe it as feminist. Concerning the reason why I describe it as a process of decolonization, I have already elaborated above. And the reason why I describe it as a process of deconstruction is that an examination of modernity for the purposes of decolonization will result in the deconstruction of the mainstream discourses of Korean art history, of modernist art history. Abstraction has a solid foundation in Korean contemporary art history. But the evaluation of abstract art does not limit itself to the matter of evaluation concerning abstract art. As abstract art occupies the pinnacle of modernist/formalist art, its assessment necessarily constitutes a discourse on modernist/formalist art.

The greatness of abstract art requires a few tacit premises regarding art history: one is the primacy of modernist art history, which was described in detail earlier; the other is Koreanness. In Korean art history, abstraction is often combined with the concept of Koreanness. As to the reason why abstraction has a feature of Koreanness, it is often described as “freehand brushwork.” Traditional painting is divided into “realistic art” and “freehand brushwork,” and Western abstract art disregards visual realism and emphasizes ideas. Western abstract art, therefore, aligns with the Korean practice of painting and calligraphy, which seek to depict ideas rather than the visible external world. These discussions inevitably give rise to a sense of pride in the fact that, unlike the West, which arrived at abstraction after a long period of time, Korea had adopted this advanced approach as a long-standing tradition.

As illustrated by the 1996 Ho-Am Art Gallery exhibition, Korean abstraction is often said to be based on the distinct East Asian philosophy. Where Western philosophy is dualistic, East Asian philosophy is monistic. Western philosophy views all natural things as subjects of analysis. It strictly defines subject and object. However, Eastern philosophy values the idea of unity, of becoming one with nature. Korean abstract art has many examples of calligraphic abstraction, where the physical gestures of the artist are evident in the work. This is regarded as an expression of the monistic Eastern style, which emphasizes unity.9 Whether it be “freehand brushwork” art or “Eastern philosophy that seeks communion with nature,” it appears that the Korean art community has achieved a consensus that abstraction is a genre in which Korean traditions live and breathe, that it is the most Korean genre of art. In other words, what is the most progressive form of art is at the same time the most Korean and traditional. In this context, how are Koreans to not describe abstraction as great?

To be certain, realism, which requires careful observation and detailed depiction, is almost completely unrelated to Koreanness in our art history. The use of color and solid dessin are foundational skills in fine art, which primarily relies on hand-eye coordination, but this is not so in Korean art. Diverse forms and colors do not meld into the idea of Koreanness. In Korean art, form and color must be simplified for the artwork to receive praise. As such, there is no relation between what is commonly known as figurative art and Korean art. But that is not to say that all abstract art is interpreted as Korean. Cold, mechanical geometric abstraction, where spaces are divided as if by rulers or intersected by knives, does not evoke the idea of Koreanness. If one were to attempt to categorize Koreanness, the monumentally important national identity of Korean art, it would fall under the type of abstraction that is at times known as lyrical or calligraphic abstraction. Only those artworks that display subdued tones of brown and white as well as repetitive and simplistic forms are seen as relevant to Koreanness.

I intend to approach these artworks as signs. This is because abstract art is a visual style that is clearly connected to the specific meanings contained in the idea of Koreanness. Like hieroglyphs, form and meaning combine in defined pairs in the relationship between abstract art and Koreanness. Many people in Korea read Koreanness from the imagery of abstraction, as if it were a sign. In short, Koreans have been habitually interpreting abstraction—not figuration, specifically lyrical or calligraphic abstraction, as opposed to geometric abstraction—as a container of Korean national identity, and the important truth-concept of Koreanness. The connection between the signifier and the signified appears so obvious that nobody questions it.

For the past half century, Korean art history has developed opposing terminology, including hot abstraction versus cool abstraction, abstraction versus figuration, and color paintings versus ink wash paintings. From a semiotic perspective, it is the process of naming. And regarding art, the meaning of Koreanness arises from the differences between the images that are differently named. What modern semiotics teaches us is a new theoretical sensibility regarding signifier and signified. Ferdinand de Saussure declared these combinations as arbitrary and thus departed from traditional linguistics. The meanings of signifiers, the signified, are not inherent to the signifiers. Rather, within the overall structure of language, signifiers continuously generate differences which give rise to signifieds. The method by which abstraction, which was introduced to Korea in 1957, acquired meaning was by naming the prior style of abstraction as “cool abstraction,” and by defining itself as the opposite. Within the dichotomy of “hot and cool,” the new style defined itself as distinct from the prior. Abstraction achieved such status that, in 1969 and 1970, National Art Exhibition’s Ink Painting Department and Western Painting Department both began to include their own abstract art sections. And the means by which it defined itself is by naming the prior style of art as figurative. The means by which ink and wash defined itself is by creating another dichotomy with color as the opposition. Within this linguistic structure, where the differences between signifier give rise to signified, the link between signifier and signified cannot be inherent. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida take this one step further and speak of the historical context that contributed to the creation of these signifiers. A society's semiotic history, the history of naming, where pains are taken to create specific dichotomies to differentiate specific signifiers and those specific meanings are arrived at, undoubtedly requires a specific historical context. Derrida and Barthes argue that when the link between signifier and signified are described as essential, when the historical context is erased, ideologies emerge.10

Koreans often say that the inherent philosophical characteristics of the East facilitated the adoption of the unfamiliar western mode of thinking. It is commonly mentioned that Korean traditions are naturally in tune with abstraction. From a semiotic perspective, what is being said is that the link between the signifier abstraction and the signified Koreanness or Eastern thinking is essential. What is obscured with the use of adjectives natural and inherent is the historical and social context. If Korean thinking is described as inherently aligning with abstraction, if this is described as the natural order of things, there is no room for historical curiosity or room for debate. To borrow Barthes’s terminology, it is the birth of a mythology, and unquestionable, absolute truth-discourse.11

But is this true? Why is Koreanness—the important truth of Korean society, or the idea of national identity—combined with the specific artistic style of abstraction? Why must it be lyrical or calligraphic abstraction, and why must the colors and forms be subdued? Why not geometric abstract art or figurative art? I have difficulty accepting the logic that the Korean people are naturally disposed as such. Korean tradition also comprises dancheong (painting on traditional Korean architecture), the ancient tombs of Goguryeo, and rainbow-striped garments. Korea had a realist painting tradition as well. What reason is there for lyrical abstraction, which neglects the diversity of the visual world, to be linked with Korean national identity, with Koreanness, instead of geometric abstraction or figuration? Why was this signifier chosen? The process of abstraction being linked to Koreanness is clearly underlined by a historical context, which had been pushed aside by modernist art history and its insistence that only form can be historical truth.

Abstraction: The Art of Trauma, Koreanness=Abstraction=The Free World

As has been stated, Korean art history views 1957 as the beginning of Korean contemporary art. This was the year when the Hyundae Fine Artists Association was founded by artists such as Park Seobo and the so-called “hot abstraction” was introduced to Korea. Hot abstraction is regarded as the foundation of Korean contemporary art.12 But consider the context of 1957. It was only four years after the end of the Korean War. In Korean art history, it is not as if there was no discussion on the historical context of abstract art. Park Seobo, who first introduced abstraction to Korea, was also the first to point to the war as its historical background. In unfair circumstances, where everything had been destroyed, Park argued, unconventional art was in fact what is natural. Park’s interpretation, which links the devastation of the Korean War and existential philosophy, was widely accepted within the art community. A different interpretation of the social and historical circumstances led to a criticism of the harm resulting from the exclusivity of the National Art Exhibition. Hot abstraction was regarded as a revolution driven by the young artists who challenged the institutionalized, academicist National Art Exhibition.13

But to understand the historical and cultural context, it is necessary to consider the concrete time and space of the late-1950s Korea. It is necessary to speak not of existential human issues of unfairness, but rather of the more specific experiences that are contained in the memories of our mothers, fathers, and the elderly woman next door, stories with which people who have survived the war can empathize. The Korean War is remembered for its fratricidal nature, and in the 1950s Korea, life was stifled by words like Military Demarcation Line, Roosevelt, MacArthur, refugees, and Bodo League Massacre. Wartime orphans filled the streets, and meals were hard to come by. Above all, what caused the greatest amount of pain was the fact that the Military Demarcation Line, which had been open until 1948, had closed completely.

1957 was also a year when there proliferated a feeling of betrayal by the inaugural government. It had just been a few years ago that the people of Seoul did not rush to evacuate the city, trusting in the government’s announcement that it would defend the city at all costs, only to then despair upon seeing the destroyed Hangang Bridge. Three days after the outbreak of the war, Seoul fell to ‘enemy’ hands, and three months later it was retaken. This happened as a result of the Second Battle of Seoul. No less than 90 percent of the citizens of Seoul had remained in Seoul under the rule of the ’enemy.’14 In the reclaimed city, neologisms such as dogangpa (river-crosser faction) and janryupa (remainer faction) emerged, and tensions rose concerning the issue of “collaboration.” According to historian Seo Joongseok, what was almost as terrifying as the government itself was the dogangpa, who had gained influence in various areas of society as a result of the debates surrounding collaboration.15 The 1950s was a time when people learned just what it meant to spend three months under the rule of the “enemy,” and it was the time that gave rise to the nightmares surrounding the moniker of ppalgaengi (communist).

Above all, this is the time that serves as the setting of novels written by the author Park Wanseo, who was born in 1931, experienced the war in her twenties, and is 73 years of age at present. It is also the literary basis of the author Lee Moonyeol, who was born in 1948 and was thus too young to remember the war, but who had a father who was a communist and therefore bore the stigma of having a defector to the North for a father.16 “That was when people were the most frightening of all,” Park recalls. In the recaptured city of Seoul, all manner of ‘patriotic’ organizations emerged, and in that time, people were hunted under the guise of ‘patriotism.’17 According to the anthropologist Yoon Taek-Lim’s investigations, this is the time when, after years of Japanese occupation, people openly expressed their suppressed hatred and resentment by calling each other “ppalgaengi” in the name of “patriotism.”18 1957 was less than five years after the ceasefire was negotiated. Koreans were forced to internalize the newly established borders. Even if Koreans were heartbroken at the closing of the Military Demarcation Line, they were unable to speak out for fear of being accused of collaboration, and out of a sense of guilt. That is what the 1950s was like for Koreans. Hot abstraction, which was spearheaded by Park Seobo and the Hyundae Fine Artists Association, achieved a significant amount of popularity within the art community, and in the 1960s, some young artists in their twenties held exhibitions at the Jeongdong Hill and outside the walls of Deoksugung Palace. What significance did this extraordinary public exhibition of hot abstraction have for the citizens of Seoul in the 1960?

In historical circles, Korea is often described as possessing “a history in inverse perspective.” In other words, the further an event is from the present day the more actively historical research is focused on the event. But concerning recent history, i.e., the history of the 1950s, for which memories are still fresh, there is a unanimous silence. This moment in time was only a few years after the ceasefire was signed, and by official statistics alone there were 10 million separated families. Consider these scenes in conjunction with the historical context of the time when people were caught within the Military Demarcation Line and who despaired at the destruction of the Hangang Bridge. Consider these scenes within the wider context of the history of the Republic of Korea, which was experienced by anyone who belongs to our mothers’ and fathers’ generation. For people who, in the 1960s, had only just picked themselves up from the ashes on war, brushstrokes tossed and streaked across a large canvas were far too ‘free’ to be described as art, and the method of exhibition where such paintings were hung on the outside walls of the former royal palace were probably nothing but strange. It is safe to say that the layperson knew nothing of modernist art history. It would rather be the vivid memories of the war that the Seoul citizens, who passed by Jeongdong Hill and Deoksugung Palace, might have shared. War leads to the development of a keen sense of enemy and friend. The Republic of Korea was finally emerging into the “Free world,” and what the layperson was to read from these paintings was, if anything, images of the ‘Free world.’ The “free” art style that was carelessly applied across the canvas was as “free” as the American servicemen, who chewed gum on the march, winked at women, and gave children big hugs.19

This correlation between the American military and hot abstraction is one that is also recognized by art historian Lee Gu-yeol, who once worked as an art correspondent. According to his recollection, scraps of the U.S. magazines such as Life and Time were stuck to the walls of Park Seobo’s studio.20 Furthermore, Park testifies that these paintings came to Korea under the “boots of American servicemen.”21 At the very least, these paintings were completely distinct from the realist portraits of Kim Il-sung and Stalin that many artists had to paint during the three months after Seoul fell to the North in just three days after the start of the war. Whether of their own volition or not, the artists who were unable to cross the Hangang Bridge in time gathered in a building in Chungmu-ro, where they painted portraits of Kim Il-sung and Stalin. As a result, following the reclamation of Seoul, the art community was similarly subject to the debate of collaboration initiated by the dogangpa.22
Many of the Korean artists loved this style of painting. Abstraction quickly gained prominence within the art community. From the late 1950s to early 1960s, when the scars of the war ran deep, the Republic of Korea loved these paintings. From a psychological standpoint, love and fear are closely related.23 Are these paintings not the means to demonstrate the political ideologies of those who paint them and those who appreciate them? Are these not the effective ways to announce to the world that they are citizens of the Free World? Once Abstract Expressionism was imported, abstraction became the mainstream. And soon after that, Korean art community began to say that abstraction had already been deeply rooted in Korean tradition. As one can see, abstract art was imported into Korea in such an aggressive way. Without understanding fear and anger, guilt and wistfulness, and above all the deep wounds and the trauma of the ‘red complex,’24 one cannot understand the absolute appeal these paintings have had for the Republic of Korea for half a century.

A Shift in Abstract Art: Koreanness=Anti-Color Paintings=Japan

Hot abstraction became established as a foundation of Korean contemporary art. This is because the following half century was the history of abstract art, both in the realm of Eastern-style painting and Western-style painting. I Within the art community, abstraction was generally accepted as a contemporary style of art. This goes true not just in the Western-style painting circle but in the Eastern-style painting circle as well. Ink wash painters actively experimented with abstraction,25 which led to combining with the literati painting movement.26 Literati painting is the art of “freehand brushwork,” and its subject matter comprises ideas. It is not “realist” art, art that is based on observation. In that regard, it is not unlike writing, and this is precisely the reason why literati painting was regarded as the abstract art of the East.27 But how could abstraction, which clearly originated in the West, become the center of a nationalist discourse of Koreanness? Was abstract art not imported under the “boots of American servicemen,” as Park Seobo testified? I began writing this article from the perspective of semiotics. Within the context of Korean art, the reemergence of literati painting and its meaning arise from the differences between images that transcend national boundaries, from the dichotomy between ink wash painting and color painting. This is the reason why it is necessary to consider Koreanness alongside Japaneseness, and reflect on the opposing terminology in Korean art such as ink wash painting and color painting.

The idea of Koreanness is based on the nationalist discourse. The category of nation is necessarily predicated on the exclusivity, in which a nation is distinguished from other groups. This is why, when people ask what is Koreanness, the answer inevitably takes into consideration Japaneseness. It is ambiguous as to what Korean art is, but it is often said that it is different from Japanese art. For the past half century, following Korean liberation from Japanese colonial rule, Korean art community has worked so hard to distinguish its art from that of the adjacent Japan, ingraining the national border on its artistic images. In short, Koreanness is said to be un-Japanese, that is to say, of which the implication is defined by negation. Semiotically speaking, Japan and Korean constitute a dichotomy in which they require each other to define themselves, finally ending up forming a pair of antonyms.  Ironically, this means that Korea cannot be defined without Japan.

Following the liberation of Korea, the controversy surrounding Japaneseness occupied the center stage of Korean art like in all facets of society. The shift from Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, which was overly free in manner and thus completely Western in character, to lyrical, calligraphic abstraction occurred after the debate surrounding Japaneseness. The reemergence of literati painting in Korean art history is a notable example of this. The art community's understanding that the concept of East Asian calligraphy and painting is closely connected to the Western style of abstraction created a consensus that literati painting was in fact the most contemporary style of art. Literati painting was all the more celebrated because it was recognized as an artistic style of the nation. Literati painting was the art style of Joseon, and would that not mean that it is the art style of Korea before it was occupied by Imperial Japan? Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts was established in 1946, and Chang Woosoung of Seoul National University was the first to take an interest in literati painting. The development of national art style was equated to erasing traces of Japaneseness, and immediately following the liberation, Japanese painting, or color painting, which was characterized by vivid colors and fine brushwork, became taboo.28 Japanese painting, or color painting, was highly influential at the Joseon Art Exhibition during the Japanese colonial period, and at the same time, they were considered to be modern paintings before the liberation. This is because, while the general methodology of ink painting was to imitate a handful of ancient artworks, color painters had adopted Western realistic techniques, such as observation, depiction, and dessin.29

The younger generations who were educated at the art colleges of Korea were the ones who spearheaded the development of the literati painting movement. These were young artists, graduates of Seoul National University, who thanks to their youth did not suffer from accusations of collaborating with the Japanese colonial administration. In 1960, Mook Lim-Hoe, which was led by Suh Seok, took an interest in literati painting as a part of the abstract art movement.30 But as Hong Sun-Pyo has pointed out, ink wash painting and color painting diverged into opposing lineages in the 1920s, when the Joseon Art Exhibition was established and traditional Joseon art was re-categorized into Eastern-style painting. This occurred under the Japanese occupation, when modern Japanese painting was established, and this dichotomy inherently contains a sense of Japan-centrism, which places Japan at the center of the East. The color painting of Japan, or Japanese painting, which reached into modernity as a pioneer within East Asia, was defined in opposition to Chinese painting, particularly the ink wash painting of the Chinese Southern School. This dichotomy was intensified through the Joseon Art Exhibition.31 With this in mind, the true aftermath of the 36 years of Japanese colonial rule is in fact the dichotomy of ink wash painting and color painting rather than color painting itself. Almost half a century has passed since the Japanese colonial rule of Korea. But the dichotomy of ink wash painting and color painting still forms the core of the discourse surrounding Koreanness in Korean art circles. This is something that should be reconsidered from a decolonization perspective, and it is something we must reflect upon as a sense of Orientalism deeply ingrained within ourselves.

Literati painting also influenced the Western-style art community. Descriptors of the Western-style art community in the 1970s include a reduction of color and form, or baeksaekjueui (whiteness). This was a critique of the western style art community of the 1970s, which, like calligraphy, favored repetitive forms but discouraged the use of color. Park Seobo, who imported hot abstraction, once again served as a driving engine of the 1970s art community, after meeting the Japan-based Lee Ufan in 1968.32 In 1975, Park established the École de Seoul exhibition, and drove the expansion of baeksaekjueui, a style in which color and form are minimized to the extreme.33 In fact, Park’s later Écriture paintings use Western art materials such as canvases and paints, but in style they are closer to Eastern paintings. His style of applying thick layers of paint and writing as if with a pencil is almost identical to that of literati paintings. Park himself identifies his artistic philosophy with Korean tradition. He said that his artistic philosophy is that of Muwi, of obliviating the self and becoming one with art.34 It is a resurrection of the concept of calligraphy and painting, which unifies writing and images. Here, contemporary Korean art transforms into calligraphy and painting. Song Soonam’s calligraphy and painting movement in the 1980s can also be associated with the resurrection of calligraphy and painting in Korean art, or the resurrection of literati painting.

At the beginning, I started with a question of what Koreanness is. The question of national identity remains captivating for Koreans. I sought to answer this question from a semiotic perspective. In short, I examined which signifiers were linked to the important ’truth’ of Korean society, to Koreanness. Foucault said that there is no such thing as truth. What exists is the history of truth discourse, the process of defining truth. For the past half century, Korean art history has worked to discover what Koreanness is. There is even a sense of relief of having arrived at the truth of Korean art, of Koreanness. But in reality what happened in Korean art history was the unending production of truth discourse on the nature of Koreanness. It was taken for granted that there exists an abstract, metaphysical truth concept of Koreanness, and an unending discourse was produced surrounding this truth concept. But the reality of the discourse surrounding Koreanness can be discovered in the signifiers that were combined with Koreanness. Half a century ago, when abstract art was first introduced in this country, Koreans sought to combine Koreanness with abstraction. All of a sudden, Koreans chose abstraction as the signifier that represents Korean national identity. This sudden connection between signifier and signified cannot be understood without speaking of the historical context of the ’red complex,’ of the suffocating feelings of fear and guilt, and wistfulness and resentment during and after the Korean War.

The discourse surrounding Koreanness that followed was always linked to Japaneseness. Korean art regards Japaneseness almost with a sense of phobia. In a sense, contemporary Korean art history was being held to a tacit agreement that the entirety of the 36-year shameful history of Korea should be erased. That an antiquated Joseon-era art style, literati painting, became a source of inspiration, and that realistic paintings and color paintings of diverse forms and colors were regarded as taboo cannot be understood without consideration of the debate surrounding Japaneseness.35 The debates surrounding Japaneseness were inevitably accompanied by anger. Every time there was an attempt to define Korean national identity, the art community unexpectedly looked towards the colors and forms of its neighbor. The purpose was to erase these things. “Korean” abstract art, the great painting of Korea, took concrete form as a result of a process of erasing traces of the forms and colors of Japaneseness.

That Japaneseness and Koreanness are two sides of the same coin is evident in controversy that arose between Suh Seok and art critic Moon Myung-Dae in 1974. In March 1974, Suh Seok held a solo exhibition, and in June that year, Moondenounced Suh’s paintings for being of Japanese character. His argument was that the colors and soaking technique used in Seo’s paintings were remnants of the Japanese style.36 The debate took on a particularly vicious note, which led to a recall of the issues of Space that had already been circulated. Following this heated debate on Japaneseness, Seo’s paintings became all the more Korean in form. What little color there was completely disappeared, and he came to focus on brushstrokes (ts’un) as with calligraphy. His paintings, now lacking colors and the soaking technique that was at the heart of the debate on Japaneseness, expressed color by using only shades of black ink, and they invoke a repetition of forms, not unlike calligraphy. These works, which were quintessentially “contemporary abstract” and “Korean,” matured only after the emotionally draining experience of dividing colors and forms in accordance to national borders.

The controversy between Suh and Moon illustrates just how closely the discourse of Koreanness in Korean art circles is linked to the negative emotions towards its adjacent Japan. Anger towards a neighboring country is often interpreted as nationalism or patriotism. There is no inherent reason why signifier and signified should be interconnected. This is what we are taught by modern linguistics. The reasons for which a signifier is connected to an unrelated signified are not the result of an inherent inevitability but history. Barthes, Derrida and Lacan take a step further and reject the dichotomy of signifier and signified. The meaning of a word, the signified, is not an independent thing but rather just another signifier. Considering the structure of language, where signifieds emerge from the differences between signifiers, it is inevitable that the question of the meaning of signifiers can only be answered with other signifiers. In semiotics, meanings, or signifieds, are conveyed as part of a chain of signifiers instead of being independent.37 In Korean art, the discourse surrounding Koreanness emerges as a long chain of signifiers. Koreanness emerges as the signifier abstraction and the visual image of anti-color and anti-form. In the 21st-century Korea, nationalism is an absolute truth. To borrow from Barthes, it is the absolute truth discourse of our era, a mythology. There seems to be no disagreement that Korean national identity, or Koreanness, is a great admirable tradition that should be treasured. But a close examination of the signifiers of Koreanness shows that the reality is rather pitiful. Organizing these signifiers into a diagram clearly demonstrates the nature of the discourse surrounding Koreanness. Simply put, it is as follows: Korean=+abstraction=+Free World=-color painting=-Japan.

The meaning of Koreanness is often sought in East Asian philosophy. But the true meaning of the idea is more political, geographical, and historical rather than philosophical and metaphysical. This discourse is at the same time a discourse of love and hate. The reality of Koreanness, which contains a blind acceptance of the Free World and a hatred towards Japan, is that it has internalized a political and historical landscape of anticommunism. The nature of Korean colors and forms, which embodies a blind acceptance of one country as well as a blind hatred of a geographically close neighbor, cannot be understood without considering the historical, social, psychological context of the past half century of the Republic of Korea.

Korean Abstraction and Women Artists: Koreanness=Literati Painting= Premodern Men and Women=Premodern Sexuality

The reason why I must examine the canon of art history to produce a value judgment on Korean art is because of my gender identity as a woman, who, like it or not, must inevitably coexist with others. Lyrical and calligraphic abstraction, which are known as Korean abstraction, is an artistic style of abstraction that has been newly transformed within the tradition of literati painting. However, literati painting was not a style painted by just anyone. The style required a vast knowledge of classical East Asian culture. It was a sophisticated genre that combined poetry and painting. It was a style of painting produced by educated genteel scholars, who had become bored of reading and contemplation. As such, these paintings were in fact no different from writing. However, in premodern Joseon, reading and writing was in and of itself a symbol of status and gender; the privilege of spending one's entire life reading and writing was an option available only to the yangban class, specifically to men. Therefore, literati painting is in and of itself a genre with subtexts of class and gender ideology. This is why, as a feminist, I must examine the discourse of Koreanness. It is because the meaning of Koreanness combines with the signifier of literati painting. Also, it is because it connects not to modern men but premodern Joseon-era sexuality. In Joseon, the model man was a literatus, a scholar. Joseon distinguished between the martial and the scholarly. It was a society where well-read, scholarly literati wielded more power and garnered more respect than generals who demonstrated physical prowess and courage. This aspiration towards literati masculinity is, in fact, a characteristic of Korean culture, which has its roots in Joseon-era Confucianism.

Here, abstract art, which had ingrained its forms and colors into the political and historical landscape of the Republic of Korea, combines with the premodern sexuality. In art, Koreanness links to the art of male yangban and the premodern patriarchy that they represent. In a society characterized by concubinage, early marriage, namjonyeobi (the belief that men are superior to women), and polygyny, women were relegated to a second class. According to Lee Kyu-tae who was famous for his historical investigations into Korean customs, women in premodern Korea were often called saenggu. Saenggu means a living mouth, a general term for animals, which alluded to the low status of women.38) In premodern Korea, family was not a private domain. In a premodern society where industry and occupations did not develop separately from family, family was the site of day-to-day livelihoods. But women had trouble gaining full membership in the family. According to the laws of naewe (prohibition of interaction between men and women), samjongjido (three obediences), and chulgawein (women who marry become a part of their husband’s families), daughters were not members of the family. That is because once they are married, they become part of a different family. So, daughters were often abandoned or sold. They were sold during barley humps, and they were sold for the benefit of the family. Above all, women, who were bound by the law of naewe, were not taught to read and write, and they were not given names. This is why Mary F. Scranton, the missionary who opened the Ewha Girls School for abandoned girls in 19th-century Joseon, considered naming the girls to be her most important task.39)

The resurrection of the tradition in Korean art remains bound to the historical context of the traditionalist movements and movements to restore Confucianism in society during the 1960s and 1970s. Above all, compared to the previous generation of pro-Western politicians, such as Rhee Syngman and Chang Myon, Park Chung-hee was a nationalist who cried out for the establishment of a national self.40) It was during his regime that Confucian fidelity was resurrected as a national ideology in place of Western democracy and liberalism, and that an attempt was made to revive traditions—such as gugak (traditional Korean music), Confucianism, hyanggyo (government-run Confucian schools), and Hwarang (elite group of male youth in the Kingdom of Silla)—to build upon a national ideology. Even democracy was regarded as Western, and slogans such as “Korean democracy” and “indigenous democracy” became popularized. Confucian ideology reemerged as the core of the Korean national spirit. The resurrection of literati painting in Korean art reflects this temporal context.

In present-day Korean society, Koreanness, or nationalism, is an ethical discourse that has a tangible effect on reality. In Korean modern history, which has undergone colonialization, war, and division, the idea of nation has become an inviolable creed of Korean society. From a historical perspective that regards all ills of modern Korea as having resulted from foreign powers, the cultural influence of nationalism, of Koreanness, is at times even destructive. Following the liberation, Korean society has long suffered from the issue of collaboration. Whether the target is a chinilpa (pro-Japanese) or a ppalgaengi, the binary thinking of “Koreans” and “enemies” remains. But that meaning of national identity, of Koreanness, is linked to premodern culture and Confucianism. In art, this combines with the signifier of literati painting. The more things materially become western and contemporary, the more it is said that we must retain what is Korean in spirit, i.e. Koreanness. In addition, the Confucian view of sexuality was adopted as a Korean spiritual tradition. As can be seen in Park Sookeun’s paintings, the traditional woman or old-fashioned woman who devotes herself to her family became the signifier of Koreanness over the ’new woman‘ who values herself. It is the same as saying that no matter how much the world changes, there should be no changes at least with regards to sexuality.41) As with racism, the issues women face largely arise from cultural norms, and as long as the dominant ethical discourse of Korean society, Koreanness, internalizes premodern gender ideology, it is unlikely that a cultural shift will occur.

There is another reason why, as a feminist, I cannot help but reexamine the discourse of Koreanness, which has dominated our art scene. I genuinely wonder whether Korean women artists are able to practice this ’Korean‘ abstraction, this ’great‘ art, this contemporary form of literati painting. To be certain, the lineage of greats in the art community comprises only men. Literati painting was the domain of scholars, and well-educated scholars were believed to be upright in character as well. It was believed that a scholar who has read 10,000 books possesses the spiritual depth to contemplate the lives of humans and the nature of the universe. As such, the great scholars of the East did not concern themselves with secular matters such as status or wealth. Kim Si-seup, the Joseon-era scholar-poet, wandered the country as a beggar, and Seo Gyeong-deok, courtesy name Hwadam, refused to enter government service and spent his life in the countryside, drinking and composing poetry.42) Hwang Jin-yi’s relationship with Hwadam is an example of such simple enjoyment of life, and Li Bai, the poet-saint, is said to have been able to consume three-hundred drinks of alcohol in a single day. These are the moments in which poems and paintings that will be celebrated for days to come are composed and created. Once inspiration and ideas came to mind, literati paintings and poems were composed upon tree trunks and upon the dresses of a gisaeng (courtesan).43) However many years pass, could a woman ever become such a literatus, such a poet? It appears that the path for women to participate in the arts lies elsewhere. They must, like Hwang Jin-yi, become gisaeng who possess both intellect and beauty. A clever woman is able to identify when a great scholar has had an idea for a poem, and she can spread her dress so that the moment of artistic inspiration is not lost. Literati painting is the painting of men. As such, there is no place for women in Korean abstraction, the artistic soul of which arises from an antiquated notion of sexuality.

In Ending, and In Beginning

At the beginning, I described my work as engaged in a process of decolonization and deconstruction before it is feminist. This because in an era that is fixated on modernist art history, the dominant discourse of Korean art, and premodern Confucian sexuality, it is impossible to practice feminist art history without examining the modernity of Korean society. Many people view deconstruction with trepidation. This is likely because of the destructive connotations of the word deconstruction. But a history in which one truth discourse arises is a process where the Other are continuously produced and relegated to the waysides of history. In a history of Korean contemporary art, where abstraction rose to prominence, art that is not abstract is designated as figurative. It is a history where color painting, as opposed to literati painting, and cool abstraction, as opposed to hot abstraction, are relegated relative to the status of the Other. As such, deconstruction always opens up new horizons. It is when the dominant discourse, which had throughout history defined itself by its differences with the Other, is deconstructed that the shackles of binary thinking are broken and the unheard voice of the Other emerges to the surface of history.

There are not that many women artists in Korea. The women artists that are commonly recognized are perhaps Rha Hyeseok and Chun Kyungja. But in their lives and paintings, they are always in conflict to Koreanness. Their paintings are generally described as Western, as containing remnants of Japaneseness, and in terms of form, as figurative, not abstract. According to the Korean canon, in which art is only great when it is Korean, their work is Western and Japanese, and also figurative, and therefore cannot be great. In their lives also they do not align with Koreanness at all. These are “new women” famous for divorces and liberal love lives, not “old-fashioned women” who observe samjongjido. In truth, the emergence of women artists in and of itself conflicts with Koreanness. For traditional women bound by the law of naewe, neither working nor learning was allowed. The emergence of women artists is in and of itself a “modern” phenomenon arising from the collapse of the ancient regime of Joseon and traditional culture, and the influx of foreign, modern culture. Women artists, therefore, did not undergo traditional apprenticeships to become artists but were instead educated at universities, the “modern” educational institutes that did not exist in Joseon. Rha Hyeseok, who was born in 1896, the turning point of modernity, studied Western-style painting at a women’s art school in Tokyo in 1913, and she thus became a woman artist. Chun Kyungja, born in 1924, studied Japanese painting at the Tokyo Women’s School of Fine Arts in 1941 and thus became a woman artist. This is an example of how the nationalist discourse of Koreanness cannot but conflict with the writing of women’s art history, and it is the reason why we must not reduce the history of the 20th century to a single narrative of nation in the process of shining a light on othered women. Such a narrative would inevitably become another dichotomy that labels foreign things as the “enemy,” one that promotes premodern culture and its oppressive sexuality as the noble ethics of the 21st-century Korea. In the end, the resulting tale of good and evil would be nothing more than a saga of great heroes who defeat evil, a story of opposition between “us” and “them.”