When seen from a broad perspective, modern Korean art has been a pendulum swinging back and forth between two divergent approaches. On one hand, there has been an effort to transcend traditional forms. On the other hand, many artists have been attempting to rediscover the spirit of traditional art.

The former trend is based on the premise that Korean art must break free from the inertia of the past. In other words, a dramatic leap in development is required to make the nation's art meaningful to the current generation. The abstractionist movement that dominated the international art scene after the World War II has encouraged this trend.

The latter trend is partially a reaction to the former movement. Some artists have been concerned that the attempt to transcend traditional forms would result in the creation of generic art that had no connection with Korean history and culture. There is also concern that the modern Korean art movement might result in second rate Western style works. Thus, many artists have advocated the development of traditional black ink and color paintings along with the traditional perspectives on man, nature, objects and the universe. These artists, who are mostly young, are pushing for a restructuring of traditional forms from a modern perspective.

Others claim that the abstractionism now seen in modern art actually formed the basis of Korea's traditional art and calligraphy. Moreover, they claimed that this abstractionist trend could be found in many facets of the Korean character, such as the love of nature, preference for natural media and minimization of artificiality. Furthermore, they claim these attitudes were expressed not only in paintings, but in traditional Korean sculpture and handicrafts as well.

Thus, the movement to transcend tradition and the counter-movement to rediscover it, have been the two key ideological currents of Korea's modern painting. Below, we will look at how these two approaches have appeared within each era.

 
Born at the beginning of the twentieth century, Korea's modern art initial development occurred during chaotic times marked by Japanese colonial rule (1910-45), the transition to self-rule and the Korean War (1950-1953). The era was characterized by ideological conflict and the irrational cold war struggle between the South and the North. Young artists were thus engulfed within an intense existential struggle.

During this time, the traditional value system collapsed, leading to a quest for new values. Likewise, artists searched for new meaning in their art as they attempted to change artistic attitudes and goals. Many of these artists turned to the international art world and the non-traditional, abstract forms of expression currently popular in European and American art after World War II.

Most artists of the period strongly felt that traditional art forms were unable to meet the demands of the new age. This general sense that a change was needed presaged a new phase in modern Korean painting. At this time, Korean painting was composed of two general trends: the so-called Oriental and Western styles of painting (By the 1990s, these two trends have become less distinct due to synthesis). The fifty-year history of modern Korean painting is actually the history of the inter-relationship between these two trends as artists have attempted to assimilate them into a modern Korean style.

The first movement towards assimilation of these two trends occurred during the Korean War. As artists fled to the countryside, their works began to show an introspective attitude. The movement began with so-called Oriental style painters, such as Kim Ki-ch'ang. Using traditional materials such as paper, brushes and ink, Kim painted in a unique, semi-abstract style. In his paintings, Kim employed strong outlines to draw human figures with divided planes as well as scenes from everyday life. Kim's unique style and innovation is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that he was a tradition painter of Oriental colored paintings.

Kim also experimented with abstract representations of Chinese characters and the use of crumpled paper, which was then died and painted with dots. In this respect, he clearly wanted to transcend traditional Korean art forms and create a new painting style using Western painting techniques. His wife and fellow artist, Pak Nae-hyon, also went beyond traditional painting styles to create her own artistic form. Later in America, she created an entirely new painting style using fabrics and woodblock etchings.

Another artist by the name of Kwon Yong-u investigated the use of Korean paper, which had served as a medium for traditional paintings. Going beyond the use of paper as a mere painting medium, Kwon experimented with blotting, tearing and folding as ways to accent the paper's color. Kwon recently held an exhibit at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul

Yun Hyong-gun, on the other hand, used Western-style oil painting, but imitated traditional Korean styles. His paintings utilize the traditional sense of space and through the use dark brown on a light-colored canvas, he is able to create the blotting effect of black ink paintings. The above painters sought to break free from the strict adherence to tradition so as to create a new artistic form. It is interesting to note that attempts to reach a new interpretation of traditional art were put forward by artists schooled in both Western and Eastern painting styles.

 
As a government-run institution, the National Exhibition played a leading role in the advancement of Korean art. Although this important center remained active for thirty years after its 1949 inauguration, it had a productive and significant influence for only a few years after it was founded. The institution's collection primarily consisted of black ink landscape paintings and traditional color paintings of human figures. Its influence can be attributed to its willingness to accept a certain amount of innovation and experimentation. Western painting was particular problematic for this exhibition center.

The National Exhibition had a rather formal, academic atmosphere and therefore tended to chose works that were realistic. In spite of its hidebound sensibilities, the exhibition wielded tremendous authority. Young artists saw this institution as an unbearable obstacle. Looking at people and objects from a new perspective, these young upstarts sought to create an art in tune with the new age.

By about 1957, these artists were actively setting a new course. As enthusiasm for a new generation of art grew, opposition to the institutionalized art establishments also increased. Meanwhile, young Korean artists collectively embraced the abstract expressionism movement that arose in Europe and America around World War II. Abstract expressionism arose from the experience of the war, and Koreans, having first hand experience of the war's great tragedy, confidently took up this new movement. For one decade beginning with the late 1950s, young painters such as Pak So-bo and Ha Chong-hyong zealously devoted themselves to this new style, known as the Informal' movement. The daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo also contributed to the modern Korean art movement by holding several exhibitions of free form art.

 
From the late 1960s and 1968 in particular, modern Korean painting began to change directions. The Informal' movement, with its spirit of free expression, gradually became less influential. Artists, looking for a new direction, became interested in geometrical abstraction and optical trends. In particular, the Origin Group of artists sought to re-establish the original value of form.

Other artist groups took a deep interest in subject-matters that conveyed the innate unity between man and nature. The Avante Garde' Group and space and Time' Group were also formed during this time. Ironically, these young artists, in their attempts to push Korean art beyond the limits of tradition, had actually arrived at the traditional conceptualization of man and nature as an indivisible unity.

In the late 1970s, this trend expanded into the new direction of monochromatic paintings. This movement, which could perhaps be called Korean minimalism, was essentially a method of reducing modern art to Korean traditional forms. This minimalist, monochromatic movement also corresponded well with the sculptural trends of the time. With broad appeal, it became the representative form of Korean art, both in Korea and abroad.

 
Korean painting of the 1980s was largely a reaction to the modernism of the 1970s. During this period, many artists strongly felt that art should convey a message about current social issues. Perceiving their art as a form of social criticism, these artists sought to distinguish their works from other modern art genres. Young artists from the period sought a pertinent social role for their art. In artistic terms, they seem to have generally followed the Western return to representational art.

From the mid-1980s to the present, and particularly as a result of the 1998 Seoul Olympics, there has been a strong international trend in Korean art. On one hand, there has been an interest in the issues of modernism and post-modernism. At the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign exhibitions shown in Korea and Korean exhibitions shows abroad. Korean artists are now confident that the foreign artistic community can appreciate their treatment of artistic themes. Put simply, modern Korean art can survive on the world stage. The mid-1970s enthusiasm for traditional art reappeared during the mid-1980s. By the 1990s, Koreans became interested in the uniqueness of Korean traditional culture. Korean artists began to realized that their unique traditions had certain features that gave it worldwide appeal. Korean painters are now using refined techniques and forms of expression to create modern paintings based on traditional Korean culture. In this sense, Korean painting and Korean art in general, is developing at an unprecedented pace.

A good example of these modern trends can be found in Yook Keun Byung's painting Saengjonun Yoksada (Life is History). Commonly known as 'the tomb with eyes,' this painting was featured in the ninth (1992) Cassel Documentary. According to Yook, human beings contain the universe within themselves, and the essence of human beings is reflected in their eyes. In his videos on the history of man, he also emphasizes the importance of man's eyes. During the Venice Biannual in 1995, the Korean State Pavilion was constructed. In another work called Hoksongui Panghwang, Yook mixes ancient Shilla clay figures with modern garbage of which art work has been widely acclaimed.

In 1995, the International Kwangju Biannual was held in Kwangju. The event provided an opportunity for modern Korean artists to get together in one place with leading figures of the international art world. Paik Nam-jun's Info Art' show was one of the more prominent exhibitions. Kang Ik-chung, a Korean representative at the Venice Biannual, provided a glimpse into one aspect of modern Korean art with his collection of small, three-inch-long paintings.

In addition to these external developments, there have been a number of significant internal changes within the Korean art world. In particular, Korean artists have succeeded in capturing the spirit of traditional art while presenting it in modern terms so that it appeals to modern sensibilities. In the 1990s, numerous paintings are appearing that employ controlled expression and ample use of space. The spirit of such paintings is readily found in Korea's traditional art.

Sanjong is a representative Korean artist. He employs black ink, fast and slow brush strokes, light and heavy strokes and control over brush pressure. At the same time, his paintings demonstrate an exhilarating sense of freedom. Kurin, Kuriji Annun Hoehwa is another important modern work painted by the young artist Kim Yong-gil who is also working in the United States.

Wall murals and mosaics have also become a popular art medium. Artists are experimenting with new possibilities in modern art by producing paintings on key public buildings, subway stations, schools, hospitals and galleries.