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Traditional Painting: Window on the Korean Mind

Traditional Painting: Window on the Korean Mind

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Traditional Painting: Window on the Korean Mind

174 pages
1 heure
May 15, 2015


Korean painting reveals a connectivity with nature that parallels the Korean traditional world view. Living in a dramatic landscape of rugged peaks, deep valleys and broad rivers, Koreans have long held nature in deep reverence. This respect, this yearning for nature is immediately apparent in Korean paintings, whose aesthetic is likened to an "artless art" of gently lines, generous shapes and naturalistic colors. Beauty is found in the big picture rather than the details; paintings exhibit a naturalness that moves the viewer with its humility.

Many Korean paintings were painted not by artists, but by ordinary nobles and even commoners. For the people of old Korea, painting was often a part of life, a way to express their inner spirit. Perhaps it is this that makes Korean painting so approachable, so human.
May 15, 2015

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Traditional Painting - Robert Koehler et al.


Korean traditional painting falls within the scope of Eastern painting; accordingly, it makes use of India ink and rice paper, like the paintings of neighboring China and Japan. The most distinctive characteristic of Korean painting, however, is that it aesthetically values lines and blank space, while images are expressed using the light and shade of the ink. Moreover, Korean painting depicts objects as metaphorical ink runs rather than realistic and revealing shapes. Accordingly, what you see in a Korean painting can depend on your viewpoint. Korean paintings are psychological and symbolic compared to the paintings of other East Asian nations. Of course, materials, tools, and subjects are important factors in Korean painting, but more important than anything else is the spirit contained in each painting. Additionally, it has been said by scholars that Korea’s aesthetic sense is one that strives for an artless art, one that looks for beauty in the big picture rather than the details. It values freedom and generosity. Others have noted that Korean art is predicated on naturalism—depicting things as they are without artifice. Korean art expresses humanity within an ordinariness that allows anybody to appreciate the work.


Gentle Lines and Diverse Shapes

The Korean aesthetic can be found in lines and shapes that are as close to nature as possible. Korea has an older topography, characterized by gentle lines and diverse shapes. However, as we can also find grand peaks like those of Mt. Jirisan and powerful lines like those of Mt. Seoraksan, the general gentleness of the natural landscape harmonizes with explosions of power. Within this natural environment, the Korean people developed a gentle and warm disposition; accordingly, in the Korean arts scenes are expressed in gentle lines and generous shapes, even when done with a certain power.

Pine and Cypresses in Winter (Kim Jeong-hui, 1844, private collection)

Korean color, meanwhile, sublimates the basic colors of blue, red, white, black, and yellow to the natural environment, making use of bright and clear mid-tones. Moreover, in Korean traditional painting you cannot fail to mention the five basic colors (see more) and the color of the India ink. India ink is a unique material used only in Eastern painting; in fact, there are many Korean paintings that prioritize the ink rather than color. India ink is a natural material of which artificial processing has been kept to a minimum; hence, the color is not a pure black, but rather a shade closer to what you would find in nature.

Painting and Calligraphy Are One

Any overview of Korean traditional painting must begin with a very important distinction between East (including Korea) and West. In the West, a clear distinction is made between painting and calligraphy, the art of fancy lettering. In the East, no such distinction is made—the same tools are used in both: brush, ink, and paper/silk. Indeed, for most of the Joseon era the term seohwa—a contraction that literally means calligraphy and painting—was used to refer to the art.

Ink orchids (Min Yeong-ik, 19-20th C, Gyeonggi Provincial Museum)

As was the case throughout the Confucian world, the art/discipline of seohwa was held in extremely high regard. It was, in fact, considered the highest of the arts; no Confucian gentleman, from the king down, was considered complete without some training in the art. Painting was not something to be merely viewed and enjoyed—it was a participatory exercise. Professional painters—often from Korea’s middle class and held in some contempt by their aristocratic superiors (as opposed to their art, which was held in very high esteem)—usually painted the best work, but aristocrats left behind a large collection of fine work, which, while often inferior to that of the professionals, was nonetheless unrestricted in terms of tastes and artistic conventions in a way the work of professionals could not be.

Chinese Influence

Discussions of Korean painting must inevitably address the influence Chinese forms and styles had on Korean ones. In particular, Joseon-era paintings borrow heavily from Chinese forms and styles, especially in the genre of landscape painting. Paintings often feature the fantastic (if exaggerated) landscapes of ancient China, using tried and true artistic conventions imported from China. In particular, the so-called Southern School of the Ming Dynasty would have a profound influence on Korean painting.

The deeper you look, however, the more you see what is uniquely Korean. While adopting these fantastic Chinese landscapes, Korean artists reinterpreted the scenes to make them their own. Beginning in the 18th century, Korean landscape painters would increasingly use the bare granite peaks of Korea in their work, forsaking the Chinese landscapes of old in favor of Korea’s own beautiful scenery. In genre paintings, meanwhile, artists focused their attention on daily scenes of Korean life, painting a detailed and colorful picture of Joseon culture and society.


Since ancient times, the Korean traditional color scheme was inspired by the concept of eumyang-ohaeng (yin and yang, and the five elements). This color scheme presents a belief that the world originated from two forces, yin and yang, and that these forces created the five elements, or ohaeng: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Based on ohaeng, the basic, traditional Korean colors are the obang colors, literally meaning the five directions of color. The five directions are center, north, south, east, and west, and five colors are assigned to these directions, namely yellow (center), blue (east), white (west), red (south), and black (north).

Obang colors are closely related to Koreans’ daily lives. The color red is believed to drive away bad luck and harm. A bride on her wedding day wears rouge on her cheeks. The idea of ohaeng in wishing good health and long life can also be seen in the rainbow-colored hanbok that children wear on their first birthdays and during holidays. The bright and colorful obang colors were often used in the daily traditional necessities. Obang colors are seen not simply as colors, but as tokens to wish good fortune and to drive out evil spirits.

A Korean traditional wedding scene. Koreans traditionally wear clothes in the five obang colors at weddings in order to bring the bride and groom good fortune.

The eumyang-ohhaeng theory assigns the following meanings to the obang colors:

YELLOW symbolizes the earth, which corresponds to the center of the universe. Yellow was mostly used on kings’ clothes because it was considered one of the noblest colors.

BLUE, which means both wood and east, symbolizes the spring, when everything comes alive. It signifies creation and life and is used when wishing for good luck.

WHITE is the symbol of metal, fall, and the west.

RED stands for fervor, affection, fire, and blood. It is the color that exorcises evil spirits.

BLACK, which represents water and the north, controls human wisdom.


Broadly speaking, Korean traditional paintings can be divided into four genres.

Landscapes (see chapter 5)

Called sansuhwa (paintings of mountains and water) in Korean, landscapes were an important part of the Korean painter’s repertoire. In the Confucian tradition, Korean artists initially took their cues from China, painting the beautiful—if not terribly realistic—scenes of mountains and rivers favored by the Chinese masters. Later in the Joseon era, painters would switch to painting Korean scenes, with some artists even venturing out to find particularly beautiful locations to paint.

Genre Paintings (see chapter 6)

These are possibly the most uniquely Korean paintings, depicting the

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