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Book review: Modern, contemporary Korean art for foreign readers

First English book offering comprehensive understanding of Korea’s modern and contemporary art published globally

May 4, 2020 - 10:23 By Park Yuna
Works by Korean painters O Yoon and Kim Jeong-heon, in “Korean Art From 1953” (Courtesy of Chung Yeon-shim and Kim San)

For those who thirst for in-depth knowledge of Korea’s modern and contemporary fine art but did not know where to begin, “Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation and Interaction,” published by Phaidon, a global art book publisher, may be a good point of entry.

Published in English, “Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation and interaction,” covers the development of the country’s modern and contemporary art history from 1953 -- the year when the Korea War ended in a truce -- to now.

In the process, the avant-garde movement in the 1950s, Dansaekhwa (monochrome painting) movement of the 1970s and Minjung art (sociopolitical art) movement that emerged against the authoritarian regimes in the 1980s are introduced.

The book features images of 410 artworks in color and consists of 13 chapters.

The lead author Chung Yeon-shim, an art studies department professor at Hongik University, thought of writing a book on Korean modern and contemporary art when she realized the dearth of books on the topic while working as an assistant professor at Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York. 

Chung Yeon-shim (Courtesy of Chung Yeon-shim and Kim San)

“There are many research papers on Korean art, but it was really hard to find an English book that broadly covers Korea’s modern and contemporary art for those who are beginning to learn about art,” Chung told The Korea Herald.

The book is co-authored by Kim Sun-jung, President of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation; Kimberly Chung, professor of East Asian Studies at McGill University; and Keith Wagner, professor of Global Media and Culture at University College London.

Getting an English book on the topic published, however, was not easy. Several publishers turned down Chung’s proposal, citing the lack of demand from the market.

Although frustrated, Chung persevered. She organized a symposium, titled “From Postwar to Contemporary Korean Art” in Los Angeles in 2017, hoping to stir up global attention about Korean modern and contemporary art. The symposium was a success and multiple book publishers offered to publish a book on Korea’s modern and contemporary art. 

Cover of “Korean Art From 1953: Collision, Innovation and Interaction,” published by Phaidon (Courtesy of Chung Yeon-shim and Kim San)

“Some modern and contemporary Korean artists such as Paik Nam-june, Lee Ufan, Lee Bul and Park Seo-bo are well known globally,” Chung said. “But little is known about the dynamic history of Korean modern and contemporary art.”

Although the book mainly covers South Korean art history, it also gives a glimpse of the modern and contemporary art in North Korea, little known to the art world. “We wanted to show a wide spectrum of North Korean art from Joseon paintings (North Korea’s oriental paintings) to how photography was introduced in North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s,” Chung said.

Talk sessions with the co-authors were scheduled to be held in London and Seoul in May, but have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Park Yuna (