The split between realism and abstraction took on different contextual meanings in South Korea’s art history in Korea — the divide was closely tied to the response to authoritarian governments as in the case of Monochrome Painting versus Public Art. The irony is that dictatorship incited economic growth which subsequently created a new class of art consumers gathering around art galleries, the result of which was the growing demand for new species of artworks and younger artists of promise. The question remains: what’s the place of art as a form of social participation? 韓國南北割裂之後,獨裁政府的持續在藝壇導致兩種不同的反應。抽象藝術的出現以反傳統、反具象、反日本影響為目標;而民眾藝術則伴隨民主運動,把創作帶到街頭,強調藝術的社會參與的面向。同時,獨裁統治催生經濟,新的財富階級打開了藝廊的潮流,藝術商品投資化令藝術品種類擴大,發現新進藝術家的需要亦由此而起。

/…3rd of a 4-part essay / continued from part 2


  1. Monochrome Artists and Public Artists: Two extremes as a reaction to Dictatorship

Two main columns representing Korean art in the 1970s and 1980s are “Monochrome Painting” and “Public Art,” which we can easily see in the recent international art fairs. I consider these two extreme genres of art as responses to the contradictory environment of the time, in which Korean economy flourished while politics was oppressive. From the 5.16 military coup d’etat in 1961 to the implementation of the direct presidential election system in 1988, South Korea was governed by authoritarian governments for over 27 years. During this time, Korean economy was rapidly developed, but political development and democracy floundered due to the repressive policies of military government in all sectors of society.

Korean monochrome painting, which is also called Dansaekhwa, to distinguish from the Western minimalist painting, originated from an attempt to oppose to the conventional and non-experimental style of figurative paintings, the latter favored by the National Art Exhibition (大韓民國美術展覽會, 1949~1981) and reflecting the taste of the authoritarian government. In contrast with mainstream art influenced by Japanese realism, monochrome artists produced monotone paintings and took the initiative in the “Koreanization of abstract painting” by gathering a substantial group of artists, including Ha Jong-hyun, Lee Ufan, and Kim Hwan-ki. [Figure 5] Most monochrome painters were members of Informel movement in the late 1950s, which expressed the zeitgeist of young artists who had experienced the Korean war, and was often regarded the starting point of Korean contemporary art history by critics. Even though they sought to pursue experimental forms of art, their contemporaries criticized them as indifferent to the political situation of the time. Some opponent even called them “wallpaper factory” jeering at their monotonous practice and cloistered attitude. Despite the emergence of commercial galleries and the activation of the art market, young artists’ experimental art activities were relatively restricted because mainstream art was mostly based on the taste of the national art exhibition sanctioned by the government. The north-south partition of country saw resistant and radical art forms a taboo in South Korea. Consequently, the chance of making social and political statements through art was limited, and even the avant-garde art movements, such as AG group and Ecole de Seoul, remained politically neutral. [10]

Figure 5. Lee Ufan, From Line, 1974, Oil paint and glue on canvas, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art,


Since the 1970s, within the Korean art world, the Korean monochrome painting was considered “the most Korean” painting in Korean art history, the result of an effort to establish a new kind of “Koreanness.” However, such an attempt soon became controversial as what came out of it was not much different from the old emphasis of “national culture” of the Park Jung-hee regime, nor from the orientalistic perspective of the theory of the “beauty of sadness” promoted by Yanagi Muneyoshi. In the 1960s, a national cultural policy first appeared, by which the Park Jung-Hee government exploited as a representation of their political ideology for the sake of maintaining his authoritarian regime. From the 1970s on, in particular, he started to develop his policy of art and culture in relation to “nationalism” and discourses on “national culture,” utilizing concepts such as “ethnicity,” “nation,” and “history.” [11]

Another column of artists in the era of dictatorship is called “Public artists.” It was the 1980s when the democratization movements of students and among the general public were most actively aroused. Public art, which is also called Minjung Art as a proper noun, began to appear with hanging pictures and wall paintings used in the movement. In the exhibition “Reality and Utterance” held in 1979, a group of young public artists began to stress the social participation of art rather than alienation from reality, which later became an explicit art movement in the mid and late 1980s. Most subject matters of their paintings were laborers and farmers who were politically disengaged and frustrated in the capitalist society. They also sought to find genres that appealed to the public in an effort to better communicate with them. Their expressive style was figurative, popular, and realistic so normal people could easily appreciate it. They extended the role of art to the realm of the social and restored figurative realism within the Korean art scene that was at that time dominated by monochrome abstract paintings. Public Art was therefore often compared to the revitalization of “Social Realism” in the United Stated in the 1930s. Some of the artists were imprisoned for the violation of the National Security Act and their works confiscated by the government. As democratization was finally achieved in 1988, and with the collapse of the Cold War in the mid 1990s, the Public Art movement began to decline and the public artists started to move inside exhibition spaces from the streets.

Figure 6. Oh Yoon, Father, 1981, woodcut, Gwangju Museum of Art,


  1. Unfortunate Geniuses: the Emergence of Commercial Galleries and Art Authentication

Through October in 2013, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) held an exhibition titled “100 Masterpieces of Modern Korean Painting,” which featured 100 color ink and oil paintings produced by 57 Korean painters from 1920s-1970s. [Figure 7] The museum announced the list of the “20 most favorite paintings of Koreans” as a result of a survey of visitors’ choice. What is remarkable is that most of the artists ranked on the list have gained their popularity since the 1970s when commercial galleries first prospered in Korea. In other words, the public understanding of Korean modern artists is deeply rooted in the advent of commercial galleries resulting from Korea’s economic revival in the 1960s and 1970s.

Figure 7. Lee Joong-seop (李仲燮), Bull, 1953, oil on paper, Wikipedia, accessed 24 June 2020, (*This painting is selected as the most popular modern painting among Koreans in a questionnaire conducted by MMCA in 2013.)


The 4.19 revolution in 1960 and 5.16 military Coup d’etat in1961 the two epitomes, the 1960s in general was marked by political chaos and conflicts, while the newly launched military government sought to build the framework for high economic growth. Due to the success of the “the Five-year Economic Development Plans” and the “New Community Movement,” Korea sprang from being an underdeveloped agricultural economy to being a heavy chemical industrial nation. Unprecedented rapid growth gave rise to the nationwide emergence of commercial galleries. One of the first known commercial galleries, “Seo-hwa po”(書畵鋪), opened in 1900 in Seoul, sold works of calligraphy and paintings. Under the Japanese colonial rule, there was an exhibition space presenting old works of calligraphy and paintings, which was called “Joseon Museum.” [12] In the 1950s, “Bando Gallery,” the only commercial gallery of the time in Korea, opened on the first floor of Bando hotel and sold Korean paintings to American military officers. [Figure 8] However, it was not until the 1970s that the spread of modern commercial galleries sped up, with the launch of “Hyun-dai Gallery” and “Myung-dong Gallery” in Seoul. [13]

Figure 8. Bando Hotel, 1938, Monthly Joseon, accessed 24 June 2020,


The development of modern commercial galleries led to the formation of the art market in Korea, whereby people started to consider art as an object of investment. In general, the value of artwork in the art market is considerably affected by the biography of an artist and level of public awareness. The personal tragedy of artists, such as tragic family history, accidental death, or struggle against illness, ironically, has a critical impact on their popularity and pricing of their works in the art market. The most popular and expensive groups of works by Picasso, for example, are paintings produced when he suffered from poverty and hunger, often referred to as “the Blue Period.” This formula was directly applied to the Korean art market in the early years of commercial galleries. The most beloved and high-priced pieces were the paintings by Lee Joong-seop (李仲燮, 1916-1956) and Park Soo-keun (朴壽根, 1914-1965). [Figure 6] Both of them were often regarded an “unfortunate genius” by the majority of Koreans since they were born under the colonial rule, experienced the Korean War, and died with hunger and illness. Their tragic drama, arousing sympathy from Korean people, created the myth of the “unfortunate genius” which has enhanced their market values. [14]

As Korean art market advanced, it became an urgent issue for galleries to find unknown artists due to the limited number and diversity of established artists. The works of newly found artists, including Koo Bon-woong and Na Hye-seok, were expected to rise in price in the future. Meanwhile, the souring price of popular artworks and their shortage in number increased forgery of the famous paintings. It was just then when the phrase “art authentication” emerged in the Korean art scene. The Galleries Association of Korea established the “Art Authentication Committee of Korea” in 1982.

 /… end of part 3 of a 4-part essay… to be continued



[10] Yoon, J.Y. (2010). “A Critical Study on Identity Discourse of Korean Monochrome Painting from the Postcolonial Perspective”. Journal of Humanities vol. 63. pp. 115-147. Seoul National University.

[11] Park, C. H. (2013). “A Study of the 20th-century Korean Art History: Focusing on the 1960s-70s Art”. Journal of Art Theory and Practice. vol.16. pp. 7-40. The Korean Society of Art Theories.

[12] Lee, K.Y. (2004). “The advent of Commercial Galleries”. Monthly Art Magazine: Misulsegae. (2004.10) pp. 114-117.

[13] Lee, S.H. (2014). The Production and Distribution of Modern Korean Painting and Calligraphy. Happy Book Media.

[14] Kim, Y.S., Shin, O. J., Kim B.G., Lee, J. (2012). “History of Korean Art Practices in the Field of Art Galleries”. Art Magazines and Museums. Korean Modern & Contemporary Art History vol. 24. pp. 313-343. Association of Korean Modern & Contemporary Art History


Related Reading: Shin Gyung-jin’s “Art & Power” series