A History of Korean Art and Architecture



Yakcheonsa Buddhist Temple, Jeju Island, South Korea / Creative Commons


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.25.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief



1 – Before 1279 CE

1.1 – Three Kingdoms Period

1.1.1 – Introduction

The concept of the Three Kingdoms of Korea refers to Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE; later known as Goryeo, from which the name Korea is derived), Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE), and Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE). The three kingdoms occupied parts of Manchuria, present-day China and Russia, and the Korean Peninsula. The Baekje and Silla Kingdoms dominated the southern part of the peninsula while the Goguryeo Kingdom controlled the Liaodong Peninsula, Manchuria, and the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. In the 7th century, allied with China under Tang dynasty, Silla unified the Korean Peninsula for the first time in Korean history, forming a national identity.

After the fall of Goguryeo and Baekje, the Tang dynasty established a short-lived military government to administer parts of the Korean peninsula. However, as a result of the Silla-Tang Wars (670–676 CE), Silla forces expelled the Protectorate armies from the peninsula in 676. All three kingdoms shared a similar culture and language. Their original religions were shamanistic, but were increasingly influenced by Chinese culture, particularly Confucianism and Taoism . In the 4th century, Buddhism was introduced to the peninsula and spread rapidly, briefly becoming the official religion of all three kingdoms.

1.1.2 – Goguryeo

Goguryeo was located in the northern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula and the southern and central parts of inner and outer Manchuria. The Kingdom was an active participant in the power struggle for control of the Korean peninsula and was also associated with the foreign affairs of neighboring polities in China and Japan. Goguryeo was a powerful empire and one of the great powers in East Asia until it was defeated by a Silla–Tang China alliance in 668. After its fall, its territory was divided among the states of Later Silla, Balhae, and Tang China.

1.1.2.1 – Art in Goguryeo

Goguryeo Moon: A Goguryeo tomb mural.

Buddhism was introduced to Goguryeo in 372 CE because of its proximity to the northern Chinese states such as the Northern Wei. Buddhism inspired the Goguryeo kings to commission art and architecture dedicated to the Buddha. Notable aspects of Goguryeo art include tomb murals that vividly depict everyday aspects of life in the ancient kingdom as well as its culture. Goguryeo painting was influential in East Asia, including Japan, as seen in the wall murals of Horyu-ji. Mural painting spread to the Baekje and Silla kingdoms as well. The murals portray Buddhist themes and provide valuable insight into the kingdom, such as knowledge about architecture and clothing. These murals also marked the early beginnings of Korean landscape paintings and portraiture.

1.1.3 –  Baekje

Baekje, located in southwest Korea, alternately battled and allied with Goguryeo and Silla as the three kingdoms expanded control over the peninsula. At its peak in the 4th century, Baekje controlled most of the western Korean peninsula, expanded as far north as Pyongyang, and may have even held territories in China. It became a significant regional sea power with political and trade relations with China and Japan.

1.1.3.1 – Art in Baekje

Baekje is considered the kingdom with the greatest art among the three states; it also introduced a significant Korean influence into the art of Japan. Baekje Buddhist sculpture is characterized by its naturalness, warmth, and harmonious proportions that exhibit a unique Korean style. Another example of Korean influence is the use of the distinctive “Baekje smile,” a mysterious expression found on many Baekje statutes. While there are no surviving examples of wooden architecture, the Mireuksa site holds the foundation stones of a destroyed temple and two surviving granite pagodas , suggesting what Baekje architecture may have looked like. The tomb of King Muryeong also held a number of artifacts preserved from the Baekje era, including flame-like gold pins, gilt-bronze shoes, gold girdles (a symbol of royalty), and swords with gold hilts decorated with dragons and phoenixes.

1.1.4 – Silla

The Silla Kingdom was the most isolated from the Korean peninsula because it was situated in the southeast; the kingdom was also the last to adopt Buddhism and foreign cultural influences. Silla eventually conquered the other two kingdoms, Baekje in 660 and Goguryeo in 668. Thereafter, Unified Silla (or Later Silla) occupied most of the Korean Peninsula, while the northern part re-emerged as Balhae, a successor-state of Goguryeo. After nearly 1,000 years of rule, Silla fragmented into the brief Later Three Kingdoms, Silla, Hubaekje, and Taebong, handing over power to its successor dynasty Goryeo in 935.

1.1.4.1 – Art in Silla

The Silla Kingdom tombs were mostly inaccessible to looters, so many examples of Korean art have been preserved. The Silla craftsmen were famed for their gold-crafting ability, which has similarities to Etruscan and Greek techniques as exemplified by gold earrings and crowns. Silla crowns were made from pure gold and had tree and antler-like adornments, suggesting a shamanistic tradition. Because Silla gold artifacts bear similarities to European techniques and glass and beads depicting blue-eyed people were found in royal tombs, many believe the Silk Road extended all the way to Korea.

1.2 – Architecture and Art in the Unified Silla Period

The Silla craftsmen were famed for their gold-crafting ability and Buddhist architecture.

The Silla Kingdom was the most isolated of the Three Kingdoms Period because it was situated in the southeast part of the peninsula. As such, the kingdom was the last to adopt Buddhism and foreign cultural influences. Silla eventually conquered the other two kingdoms, Baekje in 660 and Goguryeo in 668; thereafter, Unified Silla occupied most of the Korean Peninsula for close to 1,000 years.

1.2.1 – Unified Silla Art

Unified Silla was a time of great artistic output in Korea, especially in Buddhist art. Because Silla Kingdom tombs were mostly inaccessible to looters, many examples of Korean art have survived from this era. The Silla craftsmen were famed for their gold-crafting ability, which shares similarities with Etruscan and Greek techniques as exemplified by gold earrings and crowns. Silla gold crows were made from pure gold and had tree and antler-like adornments, suggesting a shamanistic tradition. Because Silla gold artifacts bear similarities to European techniques—and because glass and beads depicting blue-eyed people were found in royal tombs—many believe that the Silk Road extended all the way to Korea.

Examples of Unified Silla art include the Seokguram grotto and the Bulguksa temple. Two pagodas on the ground , the Seokgatap and Dabotap, are also unique examples of Silla masonry and artistry. Craftsmen created massive temple bells, reliquaries , and statutes. The capital city of Unified Silla was nicknamed the “city of gold” because of the use of gold in many objects of art.

1.2.2 – Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple: Together with the Seokguram Grotto, the Bulguksa Temple was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

Bulguksa is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in the North Gyeongsang province in South Korea. It is home to seven national treasures, including the Dabotap and Seokgatap stone pagodas, Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge), and two gilt-bronze statues of Buddha. The temple is classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government, and in 1995, Bulguksa was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Seokguram Grotto.

The entrance to the temple, Sokgyemun, has a double-sectioned staircase and bridge that leads to the inside of the temple compound. The stairway is 33 steps high, corresponding to the 33 steps to enlightenment . There are two pagodas on the temple site, which is unusual. The three-story Seokgatap (Sakyamuni Pagoda), which stands at 8.2 meters, is a traditional Korean-style stone pagoda with simple lines and minimal detailing. Dabotap (Many Treasure Pagoda) is 10.4 meters tall and dedicated to the Many Treasures Buddha mentioned in the Lotus Sutra . In contrast to Seokgatap, Dabotap is known for its highly ornate structure.

Daeungjeon, the Hall of Great Enlightenment, is the main hall, which enshrines the Sakyamuni Buddha and was first built in 681. Behind the main hall stands Museoljeon, the Hall of No Words, which gets its name from the belief that Buddha’s teachings could not be taught by words alone. It is one of the oldest buildings in the complex and was probably first built in 670. The Gwaneumjeon (Avalokitesvara’s Shrine) houses an image of the Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Perfect Compassion, and stands at the highest point of the complex.

1.2.3 – Seokguram Grotto

Seokguram Buddha: Buddha at Seokguram in South Korea, World Heritage picture.

The Seokguram Grotto is a hermitage and part of the Bulguksa temple complex. It lies four kilometers east of the Bulguksa temple on Mt. Tohamsan, in Gyeongju, South Korea. The grotto overlooks the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and rests 750 meters above sea level. It is classified as National Treasure No. 24 by the South Korean government, and in 1995 it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Bulguksa Temple. It exemplifies some of the best Buddhist sculptures in the world.

An India tradition of carving the image of Buddha in stone and stupas in cliff walls and natural caves spread to China and Korea. The geology of the Korean Peninsula, which contains an abundance of hard granite, is not conducive to carving stone images into cliff walls, and so Seokguram is an artificial grotto made from granite and is unique in design. The small size of the grotto indicates that it was probably used exclusively by the Silla royalty.

The grotto is symbolic of a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Pilgrims were to start at Bulguksa or at the foot of Mt. Tohamsan, a holy mountain to the Silla. There was a fountain at the entrance of the shrine where pilgrims could refresh themselves. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represented the earth while the rotunda represented heaven. The grotto is shaped by hundreds of granite stones; no mortar was used and the structure was held together instead by stone rivets . The construction of the grotto also utilized natural ventilation.

The basic layout of the grotto includes an arched entrance which leads into a rectangular antechamber and then a narrow corridor lined with bas-reliefs leading into the main rotunda. The centerpiece of the granite sanctuary is a Buddha statue seated on a lotus throne with legs crossed. The Buddha has a serene expression of meditation; it is surrounded by fifteen panels of bodhisattvas, arhats, and ancient Indian gods and accompanied by ten statues in niches along the rotunda wall. The grotto also contains 40 different figures representing Buddhist principles and teachings; the grotto itself was built around these statues in order to protect them from weathering. The ceiling of the grotto is decorated with half moons, and the top is decorated with a lotus flower. Silla architects used symmetry and employed the concept of the golden rectangle.

1.3 – The Goguryeo Tombs

Notable aspects of Goguryeo art can be found in tomb murals that vividly depict everyday aspects of life in the ancient kingdom.

1.3.1 – The Goguryeo Kingdom

The Goguryeo Kingdom, which ruled from 37 BCE–668 CE, spanned much of Manchuria and the northern half of Korea. Goguryeo was an active participant in the power struggle for control of the Korean peninsula and was also associated with the foreign affairs of neighboring polities in China and Japan. Goguryeo was a powerful empire and one of the great powers in East Asia until it was defeated by a Silla–Tang China alliance in 668. After its fall, the territory was divided among the states of Later Silla, Balhae and Tang China.

Because of its proximity to the northern Chinese states such as the Northern Wei, Buddhism was first introduced to the Goguryeo Kingdom in 372 CE. Buddhism inspired the Goguryeo kings to commission art and architecture dedicated to the Buddha.

1.3.2 – Goguryeo Tombs

Goguryeo Mural Art: The murals of Goguryeo are strongly colored and show daily life and Korean mythologies of the time.

Notable aspects of art from this kingdom can be found in the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs, designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is thought the complex was used as a burial site for kings, queens and other members of the royal family. Tomb murals vividly depict everyday aspects of life and culture in the ancient kingdom, and Goguryeo painting was highly influential to other art throughout East Asia, including the wall murals of Horyu-ji in Japan. Goguryeo tomb paintings are noted for their vigor, imagery, detail, and originality.

While looting of the tombs has left little physical evidence of the kingdom, the murals portray varied Buddhist themes and provide valuable insight into the kingdom, including details such as its architecture and clothing. These murals also illustrate the early beginnings of Korean landscape paintings and portraiture. The murals are strongly colored and depict people of Goguryeo dancing, wearing elaborate white dresses, enjoying festivities such as the annual Dongmaeng Festival (held in October to worship the gods and ancestors), and hunting. Religious practices, from Buddhism to traditional mythologies, are also illustrated. The people of Goguryeo worshiped ancestors and considered mythical beasts and animals to be sacred, frequently depicting them in tomb paintings. The phoenix and dragon were both worshiped, while the Samjogo, the three-legged crow that represented the sun, was considered the most powerful of the three.

2 – The Joseon Dynasty

2.1 – Joseon Ceramics

2.1.1 – Introduction

During Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910, often referred to as “Choson”), ceramic wares were considered to represent the highest quality of achievement from imperial, city, and provincial kilns, the last of which were export-driven wares. This era marked the golden age of Korean pottery, with a long period of growth in imperial and provincial kilns and much work of the highest quality still preserved today. Generally, the ceramics of this dynasty are divided into the early period (roughly 1300–1500), middle period (1500–1700), and late period (1700–1910).

2.1.2 – Early Period

Joseon Dynasty pottery, Korea. Dongguk University Museum, Seoul: This blue and white porcelain jar with pine and bamboo designs was made in 1489 during the early Joseon Dynasty.

In the early period, wares were evolved alongside Chinese lines in terms of color, shape, and technique. Celadon, white porcelain, and storage pottery were similar but with slight variations in glazes, incision designs, florality, and weight. The influence of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in blue and white wares using cobalt blue glazes could be seen in Joseon pottery, but Joseon work tended to lack the phthalo blue range and the three-dimensional glassine color depth of Ming Dynasty Chinese works. Ceramics from the Joseon period differed from other periods because artists felt that each piece of art deserved its own uniquely cultivated personality.

Simplified designs emerged early on during the Joseon Dynasty. Buddhist designs such as lotus flowers and willow trees prevailed in celadon wares. The form most often seen was that of pear-shaped bottles; also notable were thinner glazes and colorless glazes for buncheong or stoneware.

2.1.3 – Middle Period

Joseon white porcelain vase: White porcelains were preferred and praised more than any other porcelains during the Joseon period.

The middle period was marked by the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, during which entire villages of Korean potters were forcibly relocated to Japan. This had a permanent effect on the pottery industry in Korea, as craftsmen had to relearn techniques after the masters were gone. This era also saw the prolonged fall of the Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1644, after which immigration of some Chinese master potters occurred in southern coastal Korea. Qing coloring, brighter and almost Scythian in enamel imitation, was rejected by Korean potters in favor of simpler, less decorated wares in keeping with a new dynasty that built itself on military tradition.

2.1.4 – Late Period

White porcelain jar, 18th century, Korea: The rise of white porcelain occurred as a result of Confucian influence and ideals, resulting in purer, less pretentious forms lacking artifice and complexity.

The late period was characterized by the establishment of government-subsidized kilns at Bunwon-ri, Gwangju near Seoul in 1751, as well as the privatization of Bunwon in 1884. Joseon white porcelains became especially popular during this time and are characterized by unpretentious forms, understated decoration, and subtle use of color, reflecting the ideals of the Korean Confucian state. Over time, the wares began to assume more traditional Korean glazes and more specific designs to meet regional needs. The rise of white porcelain occurred as a result of Confucian influence and ideals, resulting in purer, less pretentious forms lacking artifice and complexity.

2.2 – Joseon Painting

The art of the Joseon period was influenced by both Confucianism and Buddhism and has left a substantial legacy on Korean art.

2.2.1 – Introduction

The Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) has left a substantial legacy on modern Korea. Much of modern Korean artwork—as well as etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and the modern Korean language and its dialects—are derived from the culture and traditions of the Joseon era. During this period, the influence of Confucianism superseded that of Buddhism. Buddhist elements remained, however, and Buddhist art itself continued. Buddhist art was encouraged not by the imperial centers of art or the accepted taste of the Joseon Dynasty publicly, but in private homes and in the summer palaces of the Joseon Dynasty kings. The simplicity of Buddhist art was given great appreciation but was not seen as citified art.

2.2.2 – Early Period

Early Joseon landscape painting by Seo Munbo in the late 15th century: Early Joseon paintings often followed the Chinese style of idealized general landscapes.

While the Joseon Dynasty began under military auspices, styles from the earlier Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392) were left to evolve, and Buddhist iconography (such as images of bamboo, orchids, plums, chrysanthemums, and the familiar knotted good luck symbols) continued to play a large role in genre paintings. Neither colors nor forms underwent real change, and Joseon rulers stood aside from making any edicts on art. Chinese Ming ideals and imported techniques continued to influence early Joseon Dynasty works.

2.2.3 – Middle Period

Arahat, Joseon Buddhist painting in 16th century Korea: Although the influence of Confucianism superseded that of Buddhism during the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhist art itself continued.

Beginning in the mid-Joseon era, painting styles moved toward increased realism. A national painting style of landscapes called “true view” began, moving from the traditional Chinese style of idealized general landscapes to exactly rendered particular locations. While not photographic, the style was academic enough to become established and supported as a standardized style in Korean painting.

2.2.4 – Late Period

  

[LEFT]: Joseon Dynasty painting by Owon: Owon was the pen name for Jang Seung-eop (1843–1897), a painter of the late Joseon Dynasty in Korea. He was one of the few painters to hold a position of rank in the Joseon court.
[RIGHT]: A late Joseon painting: This painting from the late Joseon period—considered the golden age of Korean painting—shows some influences of the Western painting techniques introduced to Joseon.

The mid-to-late Joseon Dynasty is considered the golden age of Korean painting. It coincides with the shock from the collapse of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1644), the accession of the Manchu emperors in China, and Korean artists being forced to build new artistic models based on an inner search for particular Korean subjects. At this time, China ceased to have a preeminent influence in Korean art, and painting in Korea took its own course , becoming increasingly distinctive from traditional Chinese painting. Paintings from this era also showed increasing influence from the West.

3 – Modern Korean Art

3.1 – Introduction

Modern Korean art is influenced by its historical roots (including early Korean shamanist art, Korean Buddhist art, and Korean Confucian art) and its recent tumultuous history, as well as various forms of Western art in the 20th century. From the 1880s onward, the Japanese invasion of Korea had a significant impact on Korean art. Works of art were looted and destroyed, schools of art were closed, and Korean styles were replaced with paintings of Japanese subjects in Japanese styles. In 1945, Korea was freed from Japan, and new and contemporary styles of art have emerged since then.

3.2 – South Korea

In modern Korea, works in metal, jade, bamboo, and textiles have had a limited resurgence. The South Korean government has tried to encourage the maintenance of cultural continuity through awards and scholarships for younger students in rarer Korean art forms.

3.3 – Fabric and Paper Arts

Korean paper arts: This image shows colorful hanji strings next to a box of Korean fans.

Korean fabric arts have a long history and include many art forms such as embroidery (used in costumes and screenwork), knots (best represented in the work of Choe Eun-sun and used in costumes and as wall-decorations), and lesser-known weaving skills as indicated in rarer arts.

Korean paper art includes all manner of handmade paper (hanji), which is used for architectural purposes (such as window screens and floor covering), printing, artwork, the Korean folded arts (such as paper fans and figures), and Korean paper clothing. Contemporary paper artists are very active, and the art of Korean paper clothing has an annual fashion show in the city of Jeonju, attracting world attention.

3.4 – Painting and Calligraphy

Pre-Bell-Man, statue in front of the Museum für Kommunikation, Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Nam June Paik (July 20, 1932–January 29, 2006) was a Korean American artist who worked with a variety of media. He is considered to be the first video artist.

Contemporary Korean painting demands an understanding of Korean ceramics and pottery. The glazes and textures of Korean paintings make them more similar to the tradition of ceramic art than of western painterly traditions, even if many of the subjects appear to be of Western origin. Brushstrokes are also far more important than they are to the Western artist; paintings are judged on brushstrokes more often than pure technique. Korean calligraphy is seen as an art where brushstrokes reveal the artist’s personality, enhancing the subject matter that is painted.

Major 20th century Korean artists include Park Su-geun, Nam June Paik , Chang Ucchin, and Seund Ja Rhee. A new wave of Korean art includes the work of Lee Dong Youb and Suh Yongsun , while 21st century Korean artists include Amy Sol, David Choe, Seonna Hong, Tschoon Su Kim, and Junggeun Oh. Suh Yongsun was elected “Korea’s artist of the year 2009” and makes paintings with heavy brushstrokes of subjects from both Korean history and urban scenes of Western cities, such as New York and Berlin. His artwork is a good example of the combination of Korean and Western subjects and painting styles.

3.5 – Manhwa

The first woodcut manhwa by an unidentified painter, printed in Gamgak Nodong Yahak Dokbon in 1908: Manhwa, or Korean comics, were inspired by classic Asian arts and have been influenced by the dramatic modern history of Korea. In this cartoon, an Adviser of Workers’ Evening School Council says “Hello, we have to work for our country and people have to learn.” The worker then replies, “Yes, thanks. I will do that. “

Manhwa is the general Korean term for comics and print cartoons . Outside of Korea, the term usually refers specifically to South Korean comics. The term, along with manga, is a cognate of the Chinese manhua. Manhwa were inspired by classic Asian arts, especially Chinese, and have been influenced by the dramatic modern history of Korea, resulting in a diversity of forms and genres. Distinctive manhwa can be found in editorial comic strips, artistically-oriented works, and webcomic serials.

3.6 – North Korean Art

An artist of the Mansudae Art Studio paints a tiger. : The particularities of North Korean communism have reinvigorated old subjects and techniques with a nationalist dimension.

During Kim Il-sung’s rule in the north, painting was allowed only in the socialist realist genre, and propaganda posters were the stock of North Korean visual arts. Changing political systems from Communism merging with the old yangban class of Korean nationalistic leaders brought about a different kind of visual arts that is quite distinctive from the socialist realism common to other Communist art. This is particularly seen in the patriotic films that dominated the culture from 1949 to 1994, as well as the reawakened architecture, calligraphy, fabric work, and neo-traditional painting from 1994 to today. The impact of this influence can be seen on revolutionary posters, lithography and multiples, dramatic and documentary films, realistic paintings, and grand architecture; it can also been seen to a lesser extent in areas of domestic pottery, ceramics, exportable needlework, and the visual crafts. Sports art and politically-charged revolutionary posters have been the most sophisticated and are internationally collected by auction houses and specialty collectors.

After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, directives on painting were relaxed and sometimes completely abolished under Kim Jong-il. New art forms, including a kind of impressionism specific to North Korea, rose to complement posters. The particularities of North Korean communism have reinvigorated old subjects and techniques with a nationalist dimension.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Art History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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