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Korean Painting

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The earliest know Korean paintings were murals painted on walls of tombs of the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. - A.D. 668).  The paintings of Koguryo were generally dynamic and rhythmic, those of Paekche, elegant and refined, while the paintings of Shilla were somewhat speculative and meticulous.  Little is known of the painting o the Unified Shilla period (668-935) as only one example survives, but it is believed that painting flourished during this culturally rich and harmonious period. 

 In the Koryo period (918-1392), painting flourished in great variety, with the heavy Buddhist influence reflected in temple murals and Buddhist scroll paintings.  Many master painters produced works of the so-call Four Gentlemen Plants (the plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo).  Early Chosun painters were unable to free themselves from conservative styles, but later painters showed increasing creativity and originality, and began painting genre paintings depicting scenes from everyday life.  Understandably, during the Japanese annexation period, traditional painting suffered although Western painting was introduced and became prevalent.  After liberation, interest in both traditional and Western painting grew rapidly, and today, both styles flourish in Korea.

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Koguryo: Korean painting has developed steadily throughout its long history from the Three Kindgoms period (57 B.C. -A.D. 668) to modern times.  The earliest examples of the Three Kingdoms' paintings are found on the walls of Koguryo tombs in southern Manchuria and near P'yongyang (third-fourth century); and in Tomb 155 in Kyongju, capital of Shilla (sixth century).  It is said that while paintings of Koguryo are dynamic and rhythmic, the paintings of Shills are somewhat speculative and meticulous.

Koryo:  In the Koryo period (918-1392), painting flourished in great variety, inheriting the artistic tradition of Unified Shilla which marked the golden age of painting.  Artist of the era created temple murals and Buddhist scroll paintings, marking a flourishing Korean Buddhism.  many master painters produced works of the so-called Four Gentlemen Plants (the plum blossoms, orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo) portraits and Buddhist painting.


Choson: During the early Choson Dynasty, distinguished painters were still unable to free themselves from conservatism, remaining engrossed in the official style of the Chinese Northern and Southern Schools.  A significant departure took place during the 18th century Choson.  Chong Son (1676-1759) was awakened to the national identity of Korean painting and subsequently poured his passion into painting the real landscape of Korea.  Among his works, Mt. Inwangsan after Rainfall, The Diamond Mountain (Mt. Kumgangsan( and  Fresh Breeze Valley show his characteristic uniqueness.

In the latter half of the 18th century, European science and technology were introduced to Korea by Catholic missionaries, and the Sirhak movement led artists to seek the truth in reality.  They began to paint secular paintings on the themes of daily life of the common people called genre paintings.  This trend can be said to reflect Choson Dynasty's changing attitude toward modern society. 

 As the pioneering artists in genre paintings, Kim Hong-do (1745-1806) and Shin Yuk-bok (1758-?) left several notable works which give us a taste of what life was like in Choson society.  Paintings by anonymous artists, though less sophisticated in style than those by the Confucian artist-scholars, dealt more with the daily life of average Korean and their aspirations and dreams.  Colorful and vivid, these paintings were free of conventional restraints.  They attract remarkable interest today both in and outside of Korea.

Modern: Following the political disorder and Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, the traditional styles of painting tended to deteriorate under Japanese colonial policies.  Western oil painting was introduced at this time and grew to be very prevalent.  After liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, the tradition of Korean painting was revived by a number of outstanding artists.  A great number of Korean artists educated in Europe or the United States have played a major role in introducing to Korea up-to-date trends and styles in contemporary art.  Both tradition Oriental painting and Western-style oil painting flourish in present-day Korea with several prominent artists displaying creative genius and originality.  

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