Korean Art
History, Characteristics of Arts and Crafts in Korea.

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Buddha Sculpture at Seokguram Cave
World Heritage site, South Korea.
8th century, Silla Dynasty. See also:
Chinese Buddhist Sculpture.

Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards)
Characteristics, History, Development


History and Development
Prehistoric Culture
Three Kingdoms Period (c.57 BCE – 668 CE)
Silla Period (668-935)
Goryeo Dynasty Period (918-1392)
Joseon Dynasty Period (1392-1910)
Modern Period
Further Resources

Painting of Avalokiteshvara
(Bodhisattva who embodies the
compassion of all Buddhas)
Hanging Silk Scroll
c.1310 Goryeo Dynasty
Kagami Jinjya Temple, Japan.

For dates of other early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For movements and periods,
see: History of Art.


Traditionally, Korean art has borrowed heavily from the aesthetics of both Chinese art and Japanese art, using similar concepts, motifs, techniques, and forms. But despite this close association with the characteristics of traditional Chinese art, Korean artists have over the centuries developed a distinctive style of their own. The unique character of Korean art lies in its understated simplicity and spontaneity, together with a feeling of harmony with nature.

One of the main characteristics of Korean art is its close association with naturalism, a characteristic already noticable by the time of the Three Kingdoms period (c.57 BCE - 668 CE) but fully established by the Silla period (668–935). The practice of accepting nature as it is, led to a highly developed appreciation for the simple and the unadorned. In wood carving, for instance, Korean sculptors favoured the unaltered beauty of the natural wood grain. In ceramic art, the Korean potter was not interested in achieving technical perfection (in his surfaces, curves, or shapes), but in bringing out the natural characteristics of his materials and medium.

Simplicity also applied to the use of decorative devices and motifs and the intervention of the human hand is kept to a minimum. In addition, avoidance of extremes has been a regular characteristic of most types of art in Korea. For example, lines with extreme-straightness or extreme-curves are rarely seen. Thus the bold straight line of a Chinese bowl made in the era of Song Dynasty art (960-1279) becomes a modest curve in a Korean vessel of the same period. In fact, Korean artists tend to shun all bold lines, sharp angles, and steeply angled planes, as well as extreme colours. Not surprisingly therefore, in Korean architecture, the steeply curved Chinese roof becomes a gently sloping variant. In terms of overall impact, the effect of a piece of Korean art is typically gentle and mellow: lines are fluent and the impression is one of subtle inner harmony. For important dates in the evolution of Asian art and culture, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Blue and White Porcelain Jar
with plum and bamboo design
15th century Joseon Dynasty.
Hoam Art Museum, Yongin,
Gyeonggi-do, South Korea.
For East Asia's oldest ceramics,
see: Xianrendong Cave Pottery,
dating to 18,000 BCE, and
Yuchanyan Cave Pottery dating
to 16,300 BCE.

History and Development

Prehistoric Culture

Archeological evidence indicates that people came to Korea from Siberia, via Manchuria during the late Stone Age. The Korean peninsula contains numerous traces of prehistoric art and artifacts dating back to Paleolithic culture (before 10,000 BCE). Siberian X-ray style rock art, for instance, has been found near the southeastern coast of Korea, along with a range of primitive clay pots and utensils. Korean ancient pottery improved during the era of Neolithic art (c.10,000-3,000 BCE) with the creation of flat-bottomed vessels decorated with zigzag patterns, followed by comb-pattern pottery (c.3,000 BCE). These styles may have borrowed elements from Neolithic Art in China (c.7,500-2,000 BCE), but are more likely to have been influenced by Siberian traditions. For more chronological details, see: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE-1900).

See also: Oldest Stone Age Art: Earliest 100 Works.

Clearer signs of China's impact on ancient art in the Korean peninsula emerged during the Bronze Age, as Korean painted wares began to come under the influence of Xia culture (c.2100-1600), Shang Dynasty art (c.1600-1050) and Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE). Siberian influence remained, however, notably in the form of bronze daggers and mirrors very similar to those used by the Scythian peoples of the Eurasian steppe. Korean Bronze Age metalwork also shared certain characteristics with Hallstatt Celtic culture which blossomed in central Europe during this time (c.1000 BCE). The practice of early jade carving also began during the Bronze Age. The crafting of small comma-shaped and tubular "jades" using stones like jade, microcline, jasper, and the like, in southern Korea, began much earlier - in the Middle Mumun Pottery Period (c.850–550 BCE) - and was later continued during the Three Kingdoms. Note: Mumun ceramics had an important influence on Japanese Jomon pottery of the period.

The influence of Chinese Han Dynasty art (206 BCE - 220 CE) became unmistakable during the Early Iron Age (c.300 BCE onwards), when China began creating colonies in northwestern Korea, around 108 BCE. One such colony, Nangnang - close to present day Pyongyang - became a centre of Chinese pottery, as well as bronze sculpture and metalwork, leading to the spread of Chinese culture across the peninsula.

Three Kingdoms Period (c.57 BCE – 668 CE)

Korean art during recorded history dates from 57 BCE, the start of the Three Kingdoms Period (c.57 BCE – 668 CE), during which the country was ruled by three monarchies: the Goguryeo (Koguryo) kingdom (c.37 BCE–668 CE) an austere culture with links to northern China, that flourished in the north of the country (capital Pyongyang); the Baekje (Paekche) kingdom (c.18 BCE–660 CE), based in the Kongju-Puyo region of southwestern Korea, whose court was more friendly with southern China; and the more remote kingdom of Silla (57 BCE–668 CE) which was based in southeastern Korea (capital Gongju [Kyongju]), east of the Naktong River. The Baekje and Silla courts also developed strong ties with Japan. Baekje rulers, for example, were the first to introduce Chinese writing to Japan, while Silla grey stoneware was replicated in Japan as Sue pottery of the Tumulus, or Kofun, period.

An important catalyst for the development of visual art during Three Kingdoms Period, was the introduction of Buddhism into Goguryeo from China, around 372 CE. Architectural design, in the form of Buddhist temples and pagodas; plastic art, in both statue-form and reliefs, including teracotta sculpture, bronzes, as well as jades and ivory carving; all benefited from the new patronage of religious art. By the 6th century, Buddhism had become the national faith, and from then until the 15th century, it provided nearly all of the most important themes in Korean art.

In Korean sculpture, the Buddha's face tends to be rounder and more expressive than the usual Asian idiom, and wears the distinctive "Baekje smile." The style is reminiscent of the sculptural modelling practised in southern China, particularly in the Nan (Southern) Liang dynasty (502–557), a time when many Chinese sculptors and other craftsmen are believed to have gone to Baekje.

Calligraphy was first introduced to Korea during the Three Kingdoms Period, around 300-400 CE - possibly along with Buddhism - and grew stronger during the Silla Period, when Kim Saeng became recognized as the first Korean calligraphic master.

Tomb art was another important branch of Korean art of the time, although little has survived. A notable exception is the 6th century tomb of King Munyong in Kongju (now a World Heritage site), excavated in 1971, which contained a huge hoard of precious items including beautiful examples of goldsmithing, as well as a mass of decorative works, such as paintings and examples of lacquerware in the Chinese style. Korean tombs were in fact frequently decorated with mural painting - now mostly destroyed - typically executed in rich yellow, brownish red, green, purple and black colours.

From about the sixth century onwards, this fresco painting showed signs of considerable improvement as it fell under the influence of the Chinese arts of the Six Dynasties (220-618 CE), and Sui Dynasty art (589-618). Colour is intensified, Daoist themes are introduced to replace the outdated style of genre painting, and portrait art is also seen in tombs for the first time.

During the final decades of the Three Kingdoms Period, stone sculpture became popular in the Silla kingdom, with Gongju as the centre of production. The impulse for this derived from Tang Dynasty art (618-906) with its distinctive interest in body mass.

In decorative art, precious metalwork was especially highly developed during the Three Kingdoms, producing a wide range of jewellery art, in gold, gilt-bronze, silver, jade and glass. Typical items included crowns and diadems, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and finger rings.

The most representative type of Korean pottery produced during the Three Kingdoms is the hard, grey, unglazed stoneware made in Silla. Predominant vessel forms include mounted jars and cups. The shoulders of these grayware jars are typically adorned with a variety of human and animal figures. In Baekje, a number of clay tiles marked with reliefs of landscapes appeared during the 7th century, heralding the arrival of landscape painting on the Korean peninsula.

Silla Period (668-935)

In 668, the Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms were conquered by the Silla ruler, in alliance with the Chinese Tangs. This ushered in almost three centuries of Silla culture - the golden age of ancient Korean art. Scholars and Buddhist Monks travelled to China to sample its heady cosmopolitan culture, while at home the city of Gongju was modelled on the Tang capital of Changan. Henceforth, southeast Korea became the cultural centre of the country, while northern territories declined.

Under Silla rule, Buddhism enjoyed a renaissance, with a number of fine temples being built in Kyongsang province. Other architectural developments included the widespread use of granite. Korean granite pagodas, for instance, stand in sharp contrast to the wooden pagodas of Japan and the brick pagodas of China. Bronzesmiths were responsible for a large number of temple bells, as well as special receptacles for the sacred ashes of the Shakyamuni Buddha (sharira boxes), and Buddhist statues. During the late ninth century, supplies of bronze almost ran out, causing many statues to be made of iron.

The Silla period was the apogee of Korean naturalism in sculpture. To begin with it was heavily influenced by the heavy Tang style, but by the eighth century it began to take on a softened naturalistic appearance, as exemplified by the standing Amitabha and Maitreya (c.721) from the site of Kamsan Temple, and by the massive but graceful body and a round tranquil face of the main monumental Buddha in the Seokguram cave temple. Korean bodhisattvas were also inspired by Tang figures, such as those sculpted for the Baojing Temple in Xian, China (c.703). By the 770s, however, Silla sculpture had already started to degenerate, a process accelerated during the early ninth century by the overall decline of the Silla kingdom itself.

In the area of decorative arts and crafts, Silla pottery is noted for its ceramic urns, marked by a yellowish green lead glaze and decorated with stamped floral patterns. In addition, earthenware roof and floor tiles decorated with lotus flowers and other floral patterns were commissioned for Buddhist temples and palaces. Bronze bells were another Silla speciality, as shown by the huge bronze bell of King Songdok (771, Gongju National Museum) cast for the Pongdok Temple. Miniature bronze shrines were also produced for Buddhist temples.

Goryeo Dynasty Period (918-1392)

It was during the Goryeo Dynasty period that Korea first became known to the Western world; the name 'Goryeo' is the origin of the country's modern name. The founder of Goryeo, Wang Geon (ruled 918-43), established a new capital at Gaeseong, located in present-day North Korea. His policy of expansion northwards led to conflict on the northern border. Despite successive attacks by northern tribespeople from Manchuria, cultural exchanges with the Song Dynasty in China flourished during the early Goryeo period, leaving deep imprints on Goryeo arts and crafts.

The twelfth century was a time of peace and prosperity for Korea. It was during this period that some of the finest celadon pottery was produced. Classic style, jade-coloured, glazed Goryeo celadons were particularly favoured in China, during the era of Song Dynasty art, where they were known as 'first under the heaven'. Korean celadons were uniquely characterized by their sanggam inlaid decoration. The Goryeo celadon hard pillow (c.1150), now in the British Museum, London, is typical of those made for the aristocracy and for Buddhist monks. Used for sleeping at night, this sort of pillow was often buried with its owner when he/she died. Decorated with fine sanggam inlay, the British Museum example features an openwork pattern based on connecting chains. Inlay in various types of material was widely used in the Goryeo period, not only on celadon ware but also on lacquer and metal. Inlay appears in some of the most exquisite Goryeo works of art.

While there are lots of surviving examples of Goryeo decorative arts, little remains of the dynasty's secular painting. Yi Nyeong (active during the reign of Injong, 1122-46) was a famous painter and his works were praised by Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty. A fashionable scholarly activity of the Goryeo period was to create ink and wash paintings of the so-called 'Four Gentlemen'- namely bamboo, plum blossom, orchid, and chrysanthemum.

A coup d'etat occurred in 1170, after which the military held power for almost a century, until Mongol invasions (1231-59) led to a restoration of the court's political authority. In 1259 the Goryeo ruler signed a peace treaty with the Mongols, soon to be officially commanded by the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan (1215-94). For the first time, the Korean peninsula (as well as China itself) was controlled by a foreign people. An extensive Mongolization of the Goryeo court was instigated: Goryeo crown princes were compelled to live in the Yuan capital until they became king, and to marry Mongol princesses; people were obliged to take Mongol names, speak the Mongol language and adopt Mongol dress and hairstyles. As in China, Yuan Dynasty art was not renowned for its interest in, or encouragement of, native Korean culture.

It was under the Mongols that Neo-Confucianism was introduced to Korea from China. Chinese painters were invited to Korea and many exquisite examples of Buddhist art were produced during this period. At the request of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty court, Goryeo scholar-scribes and painters went to China, bringing illuminated sutras such as the illuminated manuscript from the Avatamsaka Sutra (Hwaomgyong) (14th century, Cleveland Museum of Art). The frontispiece of this multi-volume sacred text, with its golden brushwork, depicts a temple courtyard in front of which stands a group of figures. The tallest figure, Buddha of the Future (Maitreya), addresses a kneeling pilgrim who asks him about the path to spiritual awakening. All the text of the sutra is painted in silver. Goryeo illuminated manuscripts were included alongside Buddhist paintings as items of tribute and were treasured in China for their aesthetic and religious qualities. The illuminated manuscripts were also highly praised in Muromachi Japan, where a great number of Goryeo works survive in Buddhist temples.

During the Goryeo period, Buddhism was adopted as the state religion; Buddhist temples increased in number and all aspects of Buddhist art flourished. The desire to promote Buddhism actually led to the development of printing in Korea. In the early 13th century, for instance, movable metal type was invented to facilitate the distribution of texts; the oldest surviving metal-printed book in the world, Jikji ("Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests Zen Teachings"), contains the essentials of Zen Buddhism. Meanwhile, the entire Buddhist code was carved onto more than 80,000 woodblocks, known as the "Tripitaka Koreana". Towards the end of the Goryeo Dynasty, however, Buddhism began to fail as the official state doctrine. Indeed, the corruption and the decline of Buddhism in the final period of Goryeo rule contributed to the downfall of the Goryeo Dynasty itself.

Joseon Dynasty Period (1392-1910)

Joseon rulers abandoned Goryeo Buddhism and adopted Neo-Confucianism as the official Korean ideology. To expedite the decline of Buddhist thought and to transform the country into a Neo-Confucian society, the founding king of Joseon, Yi Seonggye (1335-1408), and his Neo-Confucian advisers, announced a series of anti-Buddhist measures to reduce the wealth and influence of Buddhist monasteries as well as the aristocratic family clans that had hitherto controlled governmental affairs. All this led to a new elite class, the Neo-Confucian literati, taking over the governing bureaucracy.

The Joseon Dynasty revitalized Korea's native cultural traditions while supporting Ming China and its place at the centre of Confucian civilization. Joseon Korea harked back to classical Chinese sources for inspiration, and in painting, landscape emerged as the primary genre. An Gyeon (active 1440-70), an official painter of the Joseon court, was Korea's most prominent painter in the 15th century. He adopted classical Chinese models from the Song era but expressed distinctly Joseon styles and aesthetic visions. His approach to landscape painting influenced many other Korean artists during his lifetime. In his ink-and-colour silk scroll painting Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land (1447, Tenri University Library, Nara, Japan), An Gyeon employed strongly contrasted areas of light and dark and vigorous brushwork to depict a dream related to him by his patron, Prince Anpyeong. The beautiful Peach Blossom Land itself is seen in the right of the painting, enclosed by a ring of jagged peaks. An Gyeon not only understood and practised the traditions of Chinese painting, but also interpreted them with a fresh eye.

In addition to creating imaginary works of this kind, court painters were expected to paint portraits of royals and officials, as well as pictorial records of courtly ceremonies. A large number of Korean scholars and officials were themselves artists, specializing in calligraphy and its sister art of ink and wash painting - the two most prestigious types of fine art and thus most appropriate for the literati class.

The suppression of Buddhism meant that religious art declined both in volume and quality, even though Buddhist ideas remained a potent cultural force, particularly among the lower classes. Buddhist iconography also found its way into Korean folk art, or minhwa, a naive style of painting which depicts mythical figures and lucky symbols, such as deer, tigers, and cranes. Minhwa works were produced in huge numbers from the seventeenth century onwards to satisfy the public's appetite for such images. Typically, Minhwa painters were common people who travelled around the country painting pictures to celebrate a life event.

In the field of ceramics, the most highly valued genre of the Joseon period - a period that coincided with Ming Dynasty art - was white porcelain, which was seen to embody the Neo-Confucian ideals of purity and frugality. However, early in the Joseon Dynasty period there was a parallel development in buncheong stoneware. Buncheong - originally bunjang hoecheong sagi (grey-green ceramics decorated with powder) - is recognizable by the colour of its glaze, which varies from grey and green, to blue. Ceramicists using the sgraffito (scratched away) technique first applied a white slip to the surface of the clay body, after which they engraved a design into it. The remaining traces of the slip were then removed to reveal the body; the item was coated with a glaze and then fired. The buncheong style disappeared after the 16th century as Joseon potters were drawn towards Chinese porcelain, notably Ming ware.

Note: for details of arts and crafts produced in India during the period of the Joseon Dynasty, see: Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century), Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century) and Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century).

By the late seventeenth century, Korea's emerging identity as an independent nation began to be reflected in its art. In the eighteenth-century, the most remarkable achievement of Korean painting was the development of jingyeong sansu (true-view landscape). Instead of painting idealized Chinese-style landscapes, Korean painters like Jeong Seon (1676-1759) depicted Korean scenery, as exemplified by his masterpiece entitled Complete View of the Diamond Mountains (1734, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, South Korea). [Note: Joseon Koreans perceived Ming China (1368-1644) to be the rightful centre of Confucian civilization; the Joseon elite were well-versed in Chinese classics and artists painted idealized landscapes derived from Chinese models. However, all this changed when China fell to the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1644. From that point onwards, Joseon Korea regarded itself the keeper of Confucian civilization, and the Korean land and people became the preoccupation of many scholars. It is in this context that Jeong created this work.]

Another important trend was the production of genre paintings with humorous portrayals of life, such as Threshing Rice (1780), in which Gim Hongdo (1745-1806) depicts a lazing, pipe-smoking farmer overseeing hard-working peasants. Such works appealed to Korea's growing middle class. Gim's Seodang (Village School) (late 18th century, National Museum of Korea, Seoul) depicts a Confucian teacher and his pupils. The painting is typical of its genre in that the artist focuses on the individuals and their expressions while leaving the background blank.

During its late phase, Joseon society adhered less rigidly to the austere Confucian virtues of the early period, and enjoyed greater prosperity. The lavish use of cobalt blue colour pigment became all the rage and the production of blue and white Korean porcelain flourished. The growing affluence of the middle class led to a taste for luxury in the applied arts, and lacquerwork inlaid with mother-of-pearl in elaborate designs became popular. Unfortunately, although Korean cultural life flourished throughout the 19th century, the country faced internal rebellion and foreign aggression. In 1910, the Joseon Dynasty finally collapsed after Korea was overrun by the Japanese Empire as part of its expansionist policy.

Modern Period

When the Japanese first invaded, traditional Korean painting was led by Cho Sok-Chin (1853-1920) and An Chung-sik (1861-1919). Cho was the last of the Joseon court painters, and An the last scholar-painter. But both practised the enervated Southern style of Qing Dynasty art, with its stress on fingertip technique.

It is important to realize that the Japanese occupiers of Korea made a concentrated attempt to suppress indigenous art in Korea, by destroying paintings of Korean subjects, closing schools of Korean art, and compelling the few remaining artists to paint Japanese subjects in Japanese styles. The intention was to transform Korean art into Japanese art.

Traditional Korean Art

In 1911, the former Korean imperial family founded an academy of painting to promote the traditional style, which - despite closing in 1919 - trained a number of important painters. By the 1930s, the style of Korean painting was beginning to change under the impact of both Japanese and European influences. In 1922, for instance, the Japanese had instituted an annual painting exhibition for Korean artists, designed to foster a new 'Japanese-style type of academic painting'. At this time, the only up-to-date facilities for studying painting were controlled by the Japanese. Thus, despite the resistance of Korean traditionalists, the Japanese tradition dominated. Important painters from this period included Kim Eun-ho (1892-1979), Yi Sang-beom (1897-1972), Ko Hui-dong (1886-1965), Pyon Kwan-shik (1899-1976), and No Su-hyon (1899-1978). After World War II, traditional painting assumed a much more modern form of expression, as may be seen in the works of radical artists like Kim Ki-chang, his wife Pak Nae-hyon, and Pak No-su. All of these painters were expertly trained in traditional media, such as pen and ink drawing, ink and wash painting and watercolour painting. Their pictures exhibit a confident sense of composition and colour, and also have the quality of genuine abstract art.

Western-Style Korean Art

As far as western-style art was concerned, the main tradition of Korean oil painting throughout the Japanese occupation was the representational school that had its roots in Impressionism. Among the top painters in this category were Yi Chong-u, To Sang-bong (1902-77), Kim In-sung (1911-2001), and Pak Tuk-sun. As well as the new medium of oil, Western art introduced the Renaissance concept of realistic depiction with three-dimensional illusion and linear perspective, along with the notion of art as a career to be pursued as a full-time profession rather than simply a gentlemen's hobby. However, as we have seen, nearly all these changes were introduced during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, all Korean modern art of this period was refracted through Japan.

This duality of traditional-versus-western painting was maintained after the war: Western-style painting was practiced by Japanese-trained artists, such as Ko Hui-dong, Lee In-sung (1912-1950), and Kim Hwan-ki (1913-74); and traditional Eastern-style painting was practiced by artists such as Lee Sang-bom and Kim Eun-ho (1892-1979), who used either traditional ink or coloured ink.

During the mid-1950s a group of young progressive artists formed a movement called Informel (after the European style of Art Informel), which promoted the western style of abstract art, as initiated by Abstract Expressionism in America. By contrast, the Monochrome art of the 1970s was an attempt to create an authentic Korean art, using the flat surface of the canvas as the fundamental ground for expressing passive, calm, and meditative harmony. In the 1980s, artists belonging to the Minjung Misul (People's Art) movement began to explore social themes and were linked to the political protests of that decade. Another important contemporary contributor to Korean art is the video artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006). After leaving Korea during the civil war, he began in performance art before switching to video and installation.

Further Resources

For more about East Asian arts and crafts, see the following:

- Chinese Terracotta Army (c.208 BCE)
- India: Painting & Sculpture
- Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints (c.1670-1900)

• For more about arts and crafts in Korea, see: Homepage.

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