Kim Mikyung

Women Artists and the Social Landscape: A Study of South Korea in the 1960s–1970s

I. Introduction

As is well known, the work of women artists within Western art history began to be rediscovered and reevaluated in earnest from the 1970s onward. Ever since Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1970) examined the subject of women in relation to social and gender circumstances, the field of women’s art has consistently been engaged in a broad range of work. This includes unearthing and illuminating women’s art heretofore denigrated in art history; reflecting on the significance which art depicting women has had in art history and the position which women have been allowed within the historical narrative amid the influence of social institutions and preconceived notions concerning women; combing through art and society to discover the meaning of womanhood through components such as sex and gender. This effort has ultimately transformed the viewpoint from which we see the overarching framework of Western art history.

Awareness surrounding the aforementioned course of Western feminism did not take on definitive form in South Korea until the early 1980s. It was around the mid-1980s that groups such as Women and Reality started to touch on women’s issues in line with Minjung art and its criticism of modernism. Consequently, while Rha Hyeseok and countless women artists after her have long held their own in the history of modern Korean art, their bodies of work and the critical assessments of the work have only recently been taken as the subjects of substantial research. For the most part, this focus occurred from the 1980s–1990s onward, the period which witnessed the proper launch of feminist discourse within South Korea.  Publications on Korean women artists are likewise a relatively new development, as the larger record concerning this particular area has tended to organize itself with exhibitions at its center.  At the same time, the now fairly hefty archive of research on modern Korean art history has been expanded to include material on and discussions of modern women artists predating the 1950s–1960s.

In the 1990s, we discover projects on feminism and art—including introductions to feminist critique from overseas—in numerous art magazines, most notably Feminism and Art (SUN Art Quarterly, Winter 1991) and the Society∙Women∙Art special edition (Misul Segye, November 1993). Woman, the Difference and the Power (Hanguk Art Museum, March 26–April 25, 1994) constitutes a similarly noteworthy example in the exhibition field, a comprehensive Korean feminist exhibit whose collection of diverse women’s voices was highlighted as both its strength and its shortcoming and whose statement went beyond merely transplanting the staples of Western feminism and instead drew a clear trajectory toward a Korean historical consciousness and Korean women’s perspectives.

However, if we take women’s art as stemming from a drive to become self-aware and express woman’s intrinsic place and power in politics, society, and culture, why is it that discussions of women’s art during the turbulent period of South Korea’s 1960s–1970s failed to achieve such introspection and raise such issues? The domestic record here appears ill-kept considering the socio-political upheaval of the 1960s–1970s, as well as the international shift toward a more impassioned feminist discourse. What might be the reason behind the aforementioned deficit? Can we categorically conclude that this state of affairs came about due to the impossibility of highlighting the role of pioneers such as the modern women artists headed by Rha Hyeseok and the scarcity of women artists capable of shoring up and elevating feminist voices as in the 1980s and beyond?

Art and social phenomena are themselves proof of their consistent historical entwinement. What portrait does the art of the 1960s–1970s paint in comparison to that of its literary counterpart? When it comes to the modern Korean art of this period, should our library stacks by rights be crammed with exposition on modernism and ‘art for art’s sake’? Did work by the women artists of the 1960s–1970s develop in tandem with the social history of women? Such are the questions that surface one after another. The following paper constitutes an attempt to self-provide answers to this series of questions.

The two decades or so of international history before and after 1970 illicit the reverberations from sharp winds of change such as the anti-war movement, the civil rights struggle, environmental initiatives, the hippy movement, the Prague Spring, the Red Guards and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, worldwide student power and protest, and the women’s rights movement. For South Korea, this was a period defined by the April 19 Revolution and the May 16 military coup d’état, the New Village Movement and economic development, acoustic guitar and folk music, draft beer and jeans, as well as the declaration of Yushin Constitution, public demonstrations, and the imprisonment of the political protestors. Politically speaking, it spanned Park Chung-hee’s 18-year presidential regime, from its seizure of government via the May 16 coup d’état until its termination with the Gungjeong-dong assassination.

Western feminism began in tandem with reconsiderations of social structure such as the civil unrest of May 68, in which criticisms of contradictions embedded in modern capitalist society proliferated. It likewise progressed in keeping with the intellectual modes of poststructuralism and postmodernism, which reexamined established knowledge system from new perspectives. The contemporaneous realities of South Korea, however, dictated that the country undergo a series of economic development policies which would rush it headlong toward advanced industrialization rather than cultural enhancement in addition to plunging it into the political and cultural bleakness of what is commonly referred to as the Yushin order. South Korean civil society was stripped of its freedom of thought during this period, as the division of the peninsula driven by the superpowers of the U.S. and the Soviet Union and the Park Chung-hee administration’s emphasis on such circumstances rendered everything from social commentary to opinions divergent from government mandate proof of either communism or sedition.

This paper draws a chronological demarcation between the economically growth-driven 1960s and the Yushin-controlled 1970s. Women’s organizations and social movements likewise shift in character according to the changes of the two periods. The intent here is to deliberate on the women artists of the time while examining how women viewed society under these social conditions and how society conversely viewed women.

Although the Korean women’s rights movement made positive strides toward self-reflection while passing through the 1960s–1970s, the women of the Korean art scene were, with exceptions few and far between, largely detached from the general backdrop in terms of their social consciousness. This applies not only to the conservative women artists whose careers revolved around the National Art Exhibition (Gukjeon) but also to the younger generation capable of espousing more liberal views.

The following paper bases its exploration of women artists and their work on primary sources and artist interviews published via the seven Korean newspapers in circulation during the 1960s–1970s  and the Japanese magazines that were easily accessible to Korean artists,  placing particular emphasis on illuminating the rift between women artists and society and attempting to trace its roots to the two-pronged attack of the country’s circumscribed freedom of thought and its unseasoned cognizance of women’s issues. The paper also offers new insight into the work of women artists who in certain instances appear to have gone against the prejudices of their time and thrown into relief their own sense of self-awareness within the social landscape. Under what form of consciousness did Korean women artists navigate the 1960s–1970s, and in what form was this consciousness delineated through their work? What meaning, if any, can we discover therein? While the body of work in question is hemmed in by the fact that it lacked both decisive individual voice and continuity, our purpose is to highlight the overlooked achievements of women artists in connection to the circumstances and limitations of the 1960s–1970s South Korea, interpret them as media reflective of the time, and reframe their creators as women within society.

It is all too tempting to begin our discussion of feminism in modern and contemporary Korean art and Korean women artists under the fountainhead of Western feminism—its contextual origins, its social positioning, the entirety of its concepts—but as the Korean women artists of the 1960s–1970s remained altogether unaware of such feminist thought and established no association between women’s movements and women’s art, any attempt which comprehensively applied the Western feminist framework to these artists would venture down an avenue far removed from the argument presented in the paper at hand. Nevertheless, this paper would not exist were it not for Western feminist discourse, and it does converge with Western feminism in the sense that it also deals with the work of women artists in Korean society and art, just as Western feminism looks to women’s issues in Western society and art. However, we for the most part take on a broadly socio-historical approach to our subject in that we position and interpret the work of Korean women artists from the 1960s–1970s within the social phenomena of the period.

Around 1971 or so, Western feminist artists, critics, and art historians—bolstered by Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and Judy Chicago’s Womanhouse project—set out to give full-fledged prominence to and rectify the aspersions cast on women artists, as well as excavate the bedrock of the preconceived notions surrounding women’s art. Afterward, 1975 was designated as the ‘International Women’s Year,’ and feminism, by way of separatism, has long since plunged headlong into foundational issues of humanity and environment. Over the passing of a generation, we now find ourselves in the 21st century. Against such a backdrop, what sort of position do we currently occupy in our observation of Korean women’s art?

II. Women’s Movements and Women Artists in the 1960s Korean Society

The late 1960s marked the pinnacle of ‘the rebellion of the angry young men’ as they broke with the conservatism of the older generation in relation to circumstances such as the May 68 protests, student activism, and racism and social disenfranchisement. Fifty countries across the world seethed with student-fueled youth and resistance. Murakami Haruki, himself a young witness to the aftermath of the international furor that occurred over and following May 1968, recounts the following:

“Thinking back on the year 1969, all that comes to mind for me is a swamp—a deep, sticky bog that feels as if it’s going to suck my shoe off each time I take a step. I walk through the mud, exhausted. In front of me, behind, I can see nothing but an endless swampy darkness.”
“Where was I now? … Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place?” 5

Choi In-ho’s novel Heavenly Homecoming to Stars, already serialized and popularized in Korea during the early 1970s before Murakami penned Norwegian Wood, ends on this note:
“Why are we here? … What place is this that we now find ourselves sitting here?” 6

The protagonists of these times share the same question: ‘Where are we?’ To interrogate the place that one inhabits and thereby one’s own identity and directionality paradoxically demonstrates that they are losing their grip on those very aspects of life. We see such signs represented in the sense of emptiness, yearning, and precarity distinctive to the youth of the period.

South Korea, lacking Jean-Paul Sartre or Herbert Marcuse as ideological idols during the 1960s–1970s, had instead blue jeans, acoustic guitars, and draft beer. The country’s younger generation would at certain times exemplify extreme nihilism and on other occasions develop unbounded experimental spirit, as well as perhaps wander about in the grip of naive fantasies or make up the ranks at impassioned protests, but these, too, were undoubtedly part of the insurgent landscape epitomized by dyed military uniforms, dense Sasanggye magazines, and shantytown rice wine.7 

Did the Korean women artists of the 1960s–1970s breathe that same air? Did they see themselves as social constituents? Did they speak out and retain consistent strength as such? The social landscape was caught up in such a vortex that its artists were given no quarter to revel in the formative principles and stylistic modes of fine art alone. We see a stark break from the turbulence of this reality in the fact that its women artists were nonetheless complacent with or engrossed in the idea of ‘art for art’s sake.’

1. Society and Women’s Movements

The April 19 Revolution and the May 16 coup d’état sparked brisk movement from a spate of new women’s organizations. The Korean Society of Working Women had opened its doors (August 27, 1960) and already joined the membership of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women;8 nearly twenty groups had pledged mutual aid and established a representative institution called the Council of Women’s Organizations under the slogan of the ‘New Life Movement,’ dedicating themselves to the improvement of actionable enlightenment across women’s everyday lives as a whole.9
However, until the mid-1960s, Korean women’s organizations were oriented toward issues of nurturing, their mottos revolving around the housewife’s role in the home or frugal household management.10 These initiatives went hand in hand with the post-May 16 governmental policies of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction; rather than hold for a division of labor between men and women in the social and domestic spheres, they called for women to demonstrate a new and modernized rendition of social engagement in addition to fulfilling their traditional role of presiding over the household. Only in the late 1960s did the women’s movement begin a period of gradual introspection concerning its institutional and internal challenges.11 

South Korea had at the time just begun to claw its way into a progression leading out of its status as a developing country and ushering it into the ranks of the developed world. National Reconstruction and the New Village Movement—both components of the Five-Year Economic Development Plan set in motion from 1962 onward—propelled the country straight toward industrialization, yet food shortages, rural flight, and urban poverty remained formidable obstacles even until the late 1960s.12 

Kim Jiha, the quintessential dissident poet of the period, gives voice to the sorrows of those who left their farms behind in “Seoul-bound (Seoulgil),” one of the poems published in his collection The Yellow Earth (Hwangto). Protests against the Korea-Japan talks by the 63 generation rose to a fever pitch; the government leaned on foreign loans and cheap domestic labor to pursue over-ambitious economic development policies. Low wages in the name of industrialization necessarily tied into low grain prices, which ultimately generated widespread agricultural collapse and caused countless farmers to move off their land and find themselves subsumed within the populations of the factory workers and urban poor. The modernization of the homeland in the 1960s pitted industrialization against democratization, marking the destructive opening chapters of modern Korean history. Nevertheless, as seen in the New Village song lyric “for once, let us also try to live good lives,” there was no escaping the dire need to provide an industrial solution to absolute poverty.

The art-related articles in domestic newspapers distanced themselves at great length from such social desperation, gliding through a series of diligent introductions to the avant-garde movement which was a byproduct of the exuberant consumer culture of the West during the 1960s. These articles covered the likes of the avant-garde art of Jean Dubuffet and Hans Hartung, the Art Informel of Georges Mathieu,13  Yves Klein14  and the Mouvement exhibition,15 the shooting paintings of Niki de Saint Phalle,16  destructive art, happening,17  Christo Javacheff, César Baldaccini, and op art,18  with Nam June Paik cropping up fairly consistently in such writings.19 

2. The Women Artists

How do the circumstances of women artists in modern Korean art compare to those mentioned above? Chun Kyungja—who started off early as the recipient of the Presidential Award at the 1955 Great Korean Art Association (Daehan misul hyeophoe) Exhibition and who in 1963 became the first postwar Korean artist to exhibit her work at the Nishimura Gallery in Japan20—consistently produced dreamy paintings with a figurative bent,21  while Park Rehyun —who likewise won the Presidential Award at the 1956 Great Korean Art Association Exhibition for her semi-abstract work—continued with her abstract tendencies and composed highly regulated pure abstract works out of obsessively microscopic partitions of space.22 

Throughout the 1960s–1970s, the women artists mentioned in the newspapers with greatest frequency were Bang Hai Ja, Lee Soojai, Rhee Seundja, Chun Kyungja, Park Rehyun, and Kim Chungsook. These artists comprised two ink painters who had studied in Japan, three abstract painters who had been educated in Paris and the U.S., and one abstract sculptor. All six had gained social acclaim and were, with the exception of Chun Kyungja, representative of Korea’s first generation in abstract art.23  The media and the public eye had essentially afforded somewhat preferential treatment toward overseas credentials. Starting with a 1960 article on the sculpture of Lee Byung-bok, who turned a theater actress afterwards,24  we see predominantly lyrical abstraction from the majority of women artists from this period, including Hwang Ilji, Bae Myeongja,25  Bang Hai Ja,26 Seok Ranhui,27 Oh Minja,28  Yun Jihyeon,29 Kim Yunshin,30  as well as Park Heeja, Li Jagyong, and Cha Myeonghui of the Painting '68 group.

One of the preliminary conclusions that we might draw here is that Korean women artists increased in number around the mid-1960s but remained largely insensible to the keener edges of their social circumstances and instead focused on making traditional figurative works and lyrical abstract paintings.31 While a broad spectrum of international avant-garde art was widely publicized in South Korea via newspapers and the Japanese art magazine Bijutsu techō, it seems that few if any women artists attempted to take part in such experimental art forms and play a more pioneering role in the modern Korean art scene or at the very least use them as a springboard through which to reinvigorate their own work. This would indicate that most of the women artists at the time, being rather content with expressing the lyricism of the inner sphere, showed no marked response to either the dire state of domestic affairs or the latest advancements in international avant-garde art.

Mirroring the Korean women’s movement of the 1960s and the wider insistence on underscoring the duties of the homemaker in her household, the prevalent attitude toward women artists was likewise exceedingly androcentric.32 Contemporary art reviews ran rife with vocabulary that emphasized so-called ‘womanly virtues,’ exposing a blatant cross-section of Korean society. Such tendencies were all the more pronounced in the average lay article, which routinely used expressions now impossible to regard as anything approaching artistic commendation thirty years down the road. For example, Kim Hyerim was commended on her solo exhibition, saying “a girlish lady painter had managed to achieve this small measure of abstract beauty with a highly feminine spirit.”33  Yun Mija was described as “a darling currently 23 years of age,”34 and Oh Minja’s work was remarked upon as being “uncommonly large in scale for a woman’s.”35 

3. Noteworthy Phenomena

None of this is to say that South Korea was utterly devoid of women artists reacting sensitive to the avant-garde art made available from overseas. Jung Kangja—now chiefly producing flat paintings of women reminiscent of the work of Paul Gauguin or Chun Kyungja—was, at the time, an artist whose career demonstrated an intrepid departure from the wholesome lyrical abstraction of her fellow women artists, starting out in the 1960s as a member of the Sinjeon Group and continuing to venture into experimental work and bold statements on ‘womanhood’ well into the early 1970s.36 

By the late 1960s—having already taken her graduation exhibition as an opportunity to go against circumscriptions of her work on the flat plane by attaching objects such as glasses, rubber gloves, and light bulbs onto the canvas—Jung was endeavoring to tear down the barriers between genres by bringing together sculpture, painting, and light in a holistic fashion. For example, Kiss Me, put on display at the Union Exhibition of Korean Young Artists (1967) around the time of her graduation, was a massive, three-dimensional work of plaster which, at two meters across and one point two meters in height, more than delivered a dramatic effect enough to snag media attention. The large-scale plaster lips, painted pink, held carpenter-crafted wooden teeth that were in turn draped with rubber kitchen gloves, a brown-hued plaster mask, and sunglasses; lights flashed from the electrical installment dispersed throughout the piece.

Murderous Demon, shown at the same exhibition, erected a cement barrack with white dividers like a four-panel folding screen and had lights filtering out of the circular holes drilled into the installation. On the opposite side were displayed women’s shoes and a collage in the shape of a woman’s legs. According to Jung, she intended this to be a depiction of the woman’s urge to break away from the mold of norms and conventions—in other words, a method of self-expression.37 Gas masks were tacked to one side of Murderous Demon, a metaphor for the artist’s physical and psychological self-protective barriers against social and artistic institutions. At the time, Jung had never even heard of feminism or women’s liberation, yet her work itself proves that the latter is precisely the message to which she wished to give voice.

This series of themes on women carries over into Stop.38 Stop featured a bald-headed woman lying at an angle on a bench with a heart stamped on her enormously magnified backside and a ticking clock affixed to her chest. Interestingly enough, the piece embodied ‘women’s art as an emphasis on women by women,’ in the sense that it threw on the sexual dimension of womanhood through its augmentation of the subject’s lips and buttocks. From a feminist perspective, a lack of social awareness most often leads to essentialist qualities tinged with an inclination toward unassuming sentimentalism. Jung’s work, however, exemplifies a commanding and self-assured sense of womanhood instead of grounding itself in an essentialist conception of ‘woman’ born out of sentimentalism, self-pity, and seething grief (han).

Although a woman’s lips and buttocks constitute elements of ‘female sexual attraction’ on the receiving end of the furtive male gaze, once magnified, set out in the open, and thus rendered explicit, the veil of secrecy surrounding them dissolves. The after-effects of Stop accordingly become comparable to the outcome of enlargement in Niki de Saint Phalle’s Hon and Nana statues,39 or the blatant shockwaves of Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series. Seemingly passive components of sexuality are now actively articulated by the woman artist as social gender. Granted, the conservative and male-driven consensus on her achievements pronounced them “extremely sexy” and “provocative,”40  to the point that the artist’s more established colleagues demanded that she redo her work.

Soon after, in 1968, Jung took center stage at a happening entitled Transparent Balloon and Nude as part of an attempt to present her female body as a way out of the mores and affectations of the older generation.41 Three of the five participants in the happening were women, including Shim Sunhee (Sinjeon Group) and Kim Munja (WHAT Group). Several months earlier, there had of course been Happening with Vinyl Umbrella and Candle—the first happening staged at the Union Exhibition of Korean Young Artists—but while Kim Youngja was indeed at the heart of the performance with an umbrella in her hand, her role had little to do with underscoring and shedding light on ‘womanhood.’

Transparent Balloon and Nude began with the participants and spectators hard at work blowing up transparent balloons,42 to the backdrop of contemporary American composer Harry Partch’s blunt percussion notes and the music of John Cage (a soundtrack put together under the direction of Jin Iksang). Red balloons of fifty to sixty centimeters in diameter were scattered across the stage, flooded by turns in the three primary colors of the lights, and the participants kept blowing up and tacking on the more modern transparent balloons. Once Jung—clad in undergarments and tights and a white scarf around her head—appeared on stage to raucous applause and seated herself, the participants and spectators kept blowing up the transparent balloons and tacking them onto her body. Over the course of the happening, Jung’s undergarments were torn open with a knife and stripped off, revealing her upper body; her tights were also ripped, leaving her with nothing on except for a pair of underpants and the transparent balloons that continued to be tacked onto her body.43  The one-and-a-half-hour happening with spectator participation finally came to an end with the half-naked artist rising and the organizers rushing in to press against and burst the transparent balloons covering the entirety of her body. Jung then exited the stage and the work vanished along with her.

Whereas Yves Klein’s Anthropométries was the male-directed end result in a series of actions involving nude women, in Transparent Balloon and Nude, we see woman centered to a much more significant degree due to the woman artist’s active role in putting the project together and her own presence at the core of the happening. In being ‘seemingly poised to shatter,’ the transparent balloons decked and overwrote Jung’s naked body with a similarly characterized representation of womanhood. This layer of representation, however, eventually broke apart in its entirety with only the body of the woman left standing in its wake. This female body was not a sexualized figure covertly captured through the male gaze amid the gauzy sheen of see-through rubber; rather, it was a body unapologetically revealed—a body no longer shrouded in secrecy. Transparent Balloon and Nude constituted a comprehensive happening of body and act, light and music, and performer and audience in addition to providing the Korean art scene with its first feminist project on ‘womanhood.’ The happening having taken place seven years after the domestic introduction of Klein’s Anthropométries in 1961, it unfortunately found itself on the receiving end of a great deal of narrow-mindedness from both the art world and the general public.44 Despite the isolation and lack of a positive response surrounding Jung Kangja’s installations, objects, and happenings, however, her work carries a historical value in that it established the earliest example of woman-centric art in the face of the social prejudices against women which stayed rampant until the 1970s.

Jung also collaborated with Kang Kukjin and Chung Chanseung on Murder at the Han Riverside,45 an indictment and burning of cultural swindlers (pseudo-artists), the culturally blind (the civilization-phobic), culture avoiders (idealists), illicit stockpilers of cultural wealth (fraudulent masters), culture peddlers (political artists), and cultural acrobats (bandwagoners of the times). Though much more socially driven, this happening was anti-art in the sense of being a critique of established cultural influence rather than an act of socio-political participation or censure. On the other hand, the general public remained largely oblivious to the artists in question; reports show that the citizen onlookers viewing the happening stood by blinking, as if to express their utter confusion.46 

With the support of commercial director Choe Wonyeong and cameraman Ban Daegyu, Jung Kangja and Chung Chanseung also participated in Kim Kulim’s The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969),47 a 16mm film whose disjointed and illogical progression overlaid swift and slow cuts of destruction and cruelty, boredom and everyday life in a symbolic if partial representation of the realities lived out by those within modern Korean industrial society. However, as five feature films screened in Paris—including Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, My Love—had already been written up in the Korean papers in the early 1970s as part of the Nouvelle Vague films,48  the country’s experimental artists considered The Meaning of 1/24 Second to be the first instance of an avant-garde film produced and released to the public. Yet, this work was created in such a haphazard fashion that its significance went altogether overlooked in the art scene, apart from what little press the film received in the form of mostly inaccurate newspaper and magazine reports.

Untitled was released at the same time as The Meaning of 1/24 Second, a formative experiment under the label of environmental art featuring Jung Kangja, Kim Kulim, Chung Chanseung, and others playing the part of a screen while dressed in white tights,49 standing in front of a backdrop lit up in a manner reminiscent of a desert landscape or transmitting footage from four different projectors onto the large, protruding shape of an eye so that the eye would appear to blink while the footage rolled.50 Instead of using a static screen, Untitled projected abstract footage onto a blinking eye curved like a convex lens or onto the living screens of the artists’ moving bodies, creating an all-embracing art form that went beyond the categories of film, painting, and sculpture and constituted an astonishing attempt to include the viewer as part of the ‘screen’ by further projecting the footage onto ceilings and floors. However, while there was press on the Nouveau Roman movement51 and women in film production52 at the time and The Meaning of 1/24 Second also exemplified the discontinuity of absurdist film, some of its reviews were written without prior viewing and consequently muddled Untitled and The Meaning of 1/24 Second together as though they were a single work.

Shim Sunhee—one of Jung Kangja’s Sinjeon Group colleagues—started out with a focus on flat abstract works but shifted to pop art installations for the Union Exhibition of Korean Young Artists with the Mini 1 series.53  The Mini 1 series featured long and short cubes much akin to Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes scattered irregularly throughout the exhibition space; in front of the cubes were the body, arms, and legs of a woman in a modern striped outfit; on top of that was placed a Styrofoam head painted silver.54  This piece epitomizes a Korean woman artist’s take on and response to the imported mini furor that was sweeping through domestic social circles.55 It also provides us with a woman’s perspective on the responsive youthfulness and lighthearted mindset of the up and coming generation.

In Mini 2, Shim Sunhee molded her own face out of plaster, painted it silver, and planted antennae in its eyeballs. The cube below the face was decked in six brassiere foam inserts likewise painted silver and the artist applied optical techniques to the background radiating from the face like radar waves.56 The antennae jutting and extending out from the eyes and the waves framing the face were a fairly straightforward symbol of ‘the self-portrait of woman looking toward broader world horizons.’ And the three sets of foam inserts are interpreted as a metaphor intended to repeatedly call attention to ‘a self-awareness as maternal body and as woman,’ not merely an application of object and optical art. Despite its short-lived nature, Shim Sunhee’s Mini series accordingly furnishes us with yet another example of the artist’s understanding of her own womanhood and usage of contemporary art forms to express that very womanhood.57 

III. The Yushin and Folk Song Period and Women’s Art

1. Popular Music and Literature

As South Korea entered the 1970s, the folk wave began in earnest with folk singers taking their place as staple performers at university events. Korean folk first came onto the scene in the mid-1960s, when Jo Yeongnam, Yun Hyeongju, and Song Changsik brought their guitars to the C’est SI BON music hall in Mugyo-dong and started singing Korean renditions of American country folk songs. The movement then burst into full swing when the YMCA hosted the country’s first folk festival in 1970. However, the folk trend and its popularity with the younger generation were at the same time dogged by critics calling for serious introspection as to whether these songs ventured at all beyond sensory spontaneity or sentimentality and whether they operated under a sense of responsibility correspondent to the times.58 This development may seem analogous to the concurrence of Beatlemania and the pop art movement in Britain during the 1960s, but such a view would omit key differences between the nations in question. Considered a ‘third world’ country at this moment in time, South Korea diverged from the West in that it was grappling with the period-specific challenge of finding a balance between its traditions and an influx of more modern dynamics—in other words, of establishing its own identity while still introducing Western culture—as well as dealing with the politically restrictive and repressive Yushin order.

As for the literary scene, Choi In-ho with Heavenly Homecoming to the Stars and Kim Jiha with “The Five Bandits,” “Aengjeokga,” and “Bieo”59 had established themselves as the two great writers emblematic of Korean society in the 1960s–1970s. Kim Jiha’s work came under direct attack from the government, which further enabled the poet to be considered the voice of dissident literature and thereby a witness to the times. Heavenly Homecoming to the Stars  likewise garnered public acclaim for its depiction of the generations in proximity to the events of May 68, the melancholy hidden beneath their affected laughter, and the sense of loss ingrained in their benumbed lives. Granted, Kim Jiha unleashed the sort of poetic voice that would provide a plainspoken echo of the 1960s–1970s and receive a reciprocal degree of immediacy in response, whereas Choi In-ho spoke through a female protagonist named Gyeonga and communicated sensory elements on a near-epidermal level. This gained him an explosive following among the masses but conversely whetted criticism of the author’s supposed commercialism within the dissident ranks, with just a few literati having discerned the timeliness of his work.
Much like the 1960s, the 1970s continued to show fairly prolific evidence of newspaper coverage on international trends in art and culture. This focus spanned cutting-edge art such as Nouvelle Vague films,61 the wrapped work of Christo62 featured at the Tokyo Biennale,63 hyperrealism,64 Nam June Paik,65 and other forms of conjunction between art and science.66 It also aimed for a diversified balance in dealing with the major tides of the 19th- and 20th-century art worlds through featuring the likes of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Francisco Goya, the Impressionists and Expressionists, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso, Jean-François Millet, and Antoine Bourdelle.

2. The Social Landscape and the Women’s Movement

Another point of commonality between the 1960s and the 1970s lay in the fact that the domestic circumstances of South Korea showed a considerable gap with the Western foundation from which the aforementioned trends in art and culture emerged. While the nation outwardly emphasized economic progress via the building of expressways, development in the Seoul Jamsil area, and the expansion of the New Village Movement, its underbelly still roiled with social crises exacerbated by rural flight and urban poverty.67 These issues were coupled with ever-worsening unemployment rates up until the late 1970s,68 and served to deepen the monetary gap between the haves and have-nots.69 At the same time, the declaration of the Yushin Constitution ramped up political oppression and cast a pall over the social climate.70 With the ‘International Women’s Year’ of 1975 as its pinnacle, the women’s movement of the 1970s matured and branched out from socio-political struggle to touch on the concrete problems entangled in the lives of women and individuals. In South Korea, considerable attention was paid to covering women’s issues through avenues such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and the work of Gloria Steinem. Compared to the 1960s, the 1970s saw a substantial shift in the seminars held by women’s organizations and a call for women to bring a sense of selfhood and their pioneering spirit to the table and participate in the march toward social progress, to contribute to national enrichment by way of local community work,71 and in like manner exemplify self-awareness as women.72 While woman power in South Korea appeared to have forged ahead from its somewhat abstract past objective of enhancing woman’s standing and gained the ability to flourish in tangible collective power for women themselves,73 the undeniable truth of the matter was that there were those who still found fault with and reflected on the Korean women’s movement for its failing to be of any actual substance.74 The low-wage female workers who looked on from afar as women’s rights slogans passed them by and who made a living within the ‘chicken coop’ quarters near their factory complexes—to say nothing of the female bus attendants who endured dire working conditions under which they were equally underpaid and socially discriminated against—were part of the bigger picture that provided a keen example of the actualities of women’s rights and necessitated intellectual participation in women’s issues.75

3. The Various Phenomena of the Art Scene

The earlier sections of this paper took note of the general lack of social awareness among Korean women artists in the 1960s and their attending devotion to figurative and lyrical abstract work; they also delved into the few women artists who challenged the disparagement of women in society and attempted to give distinctive voice to ‘womanhood.’ With said history in mind, what sort of voice characterized the Korean women artists of the 1970s? The work of cataloging South Korea’s first woman painter Rha Hyeseok’s achievements began in 1974 and soon led to a posthumous exhibition.76 Whereas newspapers in the 1960s only allotted space for a smattering of women artists such as Bang Hai Ja, Rhee Seundja, Lee Soojai, Park Rehyun, Chun Kyungja, and Kim Chungsook, the 1970s made way for a massive swell in the number of women at work in the Korean art scene, including those who had studied abroad. Nevertheless, this paper does largely agree with the argument that the Korean women artists of the 1970s were women painters of a modernist bent who settled into a fundamentally patriarchal rendition of modernism and therefore exhibited the non-feminist or anti-feminist demeanor of those who had neither the time nor the need to develop an awareness of themselves as women.77 Another reason why the rift between women artists and their surrounding circumstances looms even larger is that it corresponded to the growing chasm between the lyrical infatuation of the modernist art scene and the intellectual/cultural repression carried out through the unyielding Yushin order of the 1970s.

Within the cultural scene, the art world appears to have been the farthest removed from the hardships of such social circumstances. Unlike its literary cousin—which operated according to a multi-layered structure represented by Kim Suyeong, Kim Jiha, and Choi In-ho—the art world found itself in these straits due to a younger generation that was under the dominant influence of modernism. Of the women artists during this period, Rhee Seundja featured most prominently in press coverage with exhibitions that bridged Paris and Seoul.78 However, as we see the cases of Kim Chungsook and Park Rehyun, the modernist typicality of Rhee Seundja’s work by definition renders it non-eligible for consideration in any reading of Korean women’s art which draws on socio-historical context. Most of the other women artists of the 1970s—including Seo Seogyeong;79 Jeon Geumsu;80 Son Bokhui, Noh Jungran, Yoo Yeunhee, and the rest of the Pyohyun Group;81 Cha Myeonghui, Seok Ranhui, and Hong Junghee82—continued to portray feminine sensibilities from a lyrical standpoint. The tendencies of the 1960s art reviews also carried over into the 1970s, from their expectations surrounding ‘ladylike’ paintings83 to their preferential treatment of artists who had studied abroad.84 

Because social perceptions likewise remained skewed toward tying women to the concept of housekeeping, the papers made sure to include the term ‘the homemaking painter’ when referring to Won Moonja, who won the Presidential Award at National Art Exhibition for her piece entitled Jeongwon.85 For similar reasons, the opening press on the Hyundai Hwarang86 was headlined as “[a] woman’s thrifty enterprise,” giving off the strong implication that the gallery was not being run in any professional capacity but rather as a housewife’s small contribution to the household budget.

Although the Korea Woman Artists Association and the Korean Sculptress Association were launched between 1973 and 1974,87 both lacked the organizational constitution to face up to the fundamental nature of women’s art and the realities confronting Korean women artists and from there on rally toward discovering a more collective and cohesive identity.

4. Women’s Art with a Voice

However, a few distinctly unique women artists endeavored to cast off wholesome lyrical abstraction, a development spearheaded by Na Hikyune88 and her light art and extended by individuals such as Choi Wook-kyung, who produced powerful abstraction not long after her return to South Korea from the U.S.;89 Li Jagyong, who created geometrical abstract paintings; Kim Wonsook, who was known for depicting everyday life from women’s perspectives;90 Kim Jomson; Kim Munja; and Jung Kangja.

Jung Kangja, having done work centered on ‘womanhood’ since the late 1960s, would begin to venture further beyond these themes in the 1970s. For the Korean Art Grand Award Exhibition in 1970, she installed a piece called Phenomenon and Perception—a white cotton cloth with glass and a mirror of thirty centimeters lengthwise and breadthwise glued onto it—but when the work was smashed entirely to smithereens the next day, the gallery swept it away without the artist’s consent, rendering this a short-lived happening both in theory and in reality.91

At the Incorporeality Exhibition by the Fourth Group,92  dry ice was dropped into water boiling on a kerosene heater until it carpeted the floor with clouds; sirens then abruptly filled the air, setting the viewers milling about the exhibition space. The poster for this exhibition featured Jung Kangja transformed into a grotesque collage diametrically opposed to a representation of conventional ‘feminine beauty,’ thereby broadening the horizons of her work in the 1960s and its illumination of and emphasis on ‘womanhood.’93 

We discover yet another variation on experimental avant-garde art by women through Kim Jomson’s participation in the production of one of the Kaidu Club’s experimental films in 1974.94 While The Meaning of 1/24 Second and Untitled were one-time events in 1969, the experimental films of the Kaidu Club in the 1970s came about in a much more consolidated manner.95 Established in March 1974 by six Ewha Womans University graduates, the group held the 1st Experimental Film Festival in July of the same year and there screened avant-garde art films composed only of visual elements and no plot whatsoever. Kim Jomson’s twelve-minute Film 74-A showed a series of marks seemingly scored with the tip of a knife against an aural backdrop of the words ‘hurry hurry’—a complete elimination of figuration in exchange for a rhythmic edit of the last visual abstract left standing.

Kim Jomson also put together The Hong Family House of Mourning, in which she depicted the landscape of Korean society as death itself.96 The notion behind the piece came from Kim Jomson’s graduate school days, when she received word that her friend and theater critic Kim Bangok wanted Kim Jomson to bring her flowers for her graduation. Kim Jomson, finding it impossible to celebrate an event that marked a sort of entryway into the precarious social circumstances of martial law, at first intended to take the dead flowers of a sorghum besom to the ceremony in protest of this figurative death, but later decided to organize a happening around the much more unmistakable symbol of mortality that was the coffin.97 

At the time, South Korea already operated under a sustained state of national emergency and its attending special measures. The October Restoration ultimately proclaimed in 1972 had an immediate chilling effect across all social spheres, yet there was simultaneously a resounding and all-encompassing call of “let us try to live good lives,” precipitating the nation’s rise to economic power according to the New Village Movement motto of ‘diligence, self-help, and cooperation.’ Intellectuals such as Baek Kiwan and Sasanggye’s founder Jang Jun-ha fell victim to political suppression and the work of dissident poets and songwriters such as Kim Jiha and Kim Min-ki was subjected to exhaustive regulation and surveillance while only melodramas, sports, female real estate speculators, and TV shows could survive. Following the assassination of First Lady Yuk Young-soo on National Liberation Day in 1974, the Yushin era reached the height of its oppressive chokehold with the implementation of Presidential Emergency Decree No. 9 (1975), which, in the name of national security, prohibited the dissemination of unfounded rumors and false information and placed an outright ban on assemblies and demonstrations. Media suppression—including events such as the mass advertisement cancellation undergone by the Dong-A Ilbo—cropped up by the dozen from 1974–1975, leaving an indelible stain on the freedom of the press in South Korean history.

The aforementioned coffin happening was conceived by Kim Jomson, who believed that each part of everyday life in our society can become a happening, and presented her male art school colleagues as its actors. Despite offering up a razor-sharp social critique, it was surprisingly considered little more than a bit of mischief on the part of a few un-tempered college students and accordingly received no social censure apart from a professorial dressing down. Rather, it was only outside South Korea that there were reports of how a group of students had put on a lively happening in the face of the precarity and rigidity of social circumstances following the declaration of martial law.98

However, the inflexibility of the Yushin era was such that experimental avant-garde art and the art world’s happenings in their entirety had their spaces constantly surveilled by police forces. With the Bureau of National Security banning long hair on men to the point that even foreigners were denied entry should their hair go against regulation (JoongAng Ilbo / August 29, 1970) and arresting women simply for walking about in public wearing miniskirts (Dong-A Ilbo / April 28, 1973), even the most resolute artists tended to implicitly avoid involvement in happenings that had the slightest tinge of social commentary. The Yushin regime clenched its iron fist around the neck of art-based experimentation, all in stark relief against the progressive nature of the overseas art world, where the work of the younger generation was crossing genre borders through unfettered exploration and thereby broadening artistic horizons. A non-figurative painting did, of course, win the Presidential Award at the 1969 National Art Exhibition and somewhat extend the confines of institutional artistry, but this by no means ensured open-mindedness and freedom within the art scene itself.

III. Conclusion

As we have already seen, the 1960s–1970s were a period of seismic change and high-spirited youthfulness across the globe. The art of the 1960s–1970s carries over into the present. The youth of the 1960s–1970s birthed British and American pop, the Nouveau Réalisme of the continent, and the genre-crossing art that came after. Noteworthy signs of looking back on and partially reviving the 1960s–1970s crop up throughout discussions of post pop art and postmodernism.

This paper took as its specific focus the women artists whose careers unfolded within South Korean society during the 1960s–1970s. We began by underscoring the social backdrop which brought about a more seasoned rendition of feminist discourse in the Western world, as it would hardly be feasible to omit the role of the social phenomena when considering the process through which women’s art and discussions of womanhood came about and forged more liberated modes of thought. Despite such international tumult, however, the South Korean art scene in the 1960s–1970s had the bizarre distinction of remaining insulated from society at large, showing barely any evidence of a corresponding reaction to the period characterized by the New Village Movement and the Yushin regime. Perhaps stranger still is the lack of research attempting to interpret what few signs there were in terms of their social implications.

For eighteen years, the protests and oppressive politics that riddled the Park Chung-hee administration allowed the art world precious little in the way of freedom of expression. While the numerous experimental art trends from the late 1960s to mid-1970s—which professor Lee Yil referred to as ‘diffusion’—brimmed with promise as to Korean contemporary art’s responsiveness to and ensuing diversification within the challenges of reality, such potential was all too quickly smothered beneath the mainstream predominance of monochrome painting. In this respect, while from an institutional perspective monochrome painting equipped the Korean contemporary art scene with the dynamism that it required to head to the international stage, insofar as the individual artist was concerned, the movement called for a highly introverted submersion into one’s inner consciousness, thus setting it apart from our socio-historical interest in art during the age of the New Village Movement, the Yushin dictatorship, and folk songs.

The first section of this paper interrogated the standpoint from which the women artists of the 1960s–1970s experienced and expressed the upheaval of a century. Its central goal was to touch on the understanding that the women artists of the period had of themselves. However, in spite of our conclusion that these women artists were largely detached from social circumstances, detachment alone unsurprisingly proved to fall short of encompassing the body of women’s art produced during the 1960s–1970s, as the times demanded a simultaneous examination of the socio-political conditions that provoked said detachment as indivisible from artistic phenomena. Of particular importance here is the subsequent orientation toward looking at the perspectives through which the women artists of the 1960s–1970s viewed society, considering whether we might indeed discover ‘women’s’ voices emanating from the women’s art of the period, and exploring the prospect of interpreting this art within a socio-historical context.

The difference between feminist art and women’s art corresponds to the difference between whether a woman can or cannot speak for her own sense of self as a social constituent. This paper acknowledges that the Korean women artists of the 1960s–1970s managed to make their distinctive mark and hold space for themselves in spite of the fact that many of them personally and professionally were and continue to be seen as disconnected from social issues. Only when we refocus on and reframe the long-overlooked work of the artists who did, in fact, give voice to ‘womanhood’ amidst the repressive social circumstances and androcentric art scene will the Korean contemporary art of the period in question reconstitute itself in more plentiful and enriched terms.