The Body in Korean Modern Art

A review of Reconsidering the Body in Korean Modern Art:  Ku Ponung’s Body, World, and Art, by Jungsil Lee.

Focusing upon the body in both its literal and metaphorical senses, Reconsidering the Body in Korean Modern Art investigates the Korean colonial period (1910-1945) through the lens of one of its more prominent public figures, the artist/author/critic Ku Ponung (1906-1953). Previous scholarship has focused on Ku’s career as one in which an avant-garde painter, once openly critical of the Japanese- and Western-centric art world that held sway in Korea, inexplicably turned into a collaborator and ostensible supporter of the Japanese colonial government during the 1930s and early 1940s.  Ku’s later career in this trajectory is understood as a withdrawal from public life and a retrograde turn towards Korean literati painting.  Jungsil Lee successfully challenges this narrative, creating a nuanced portrayal of this complex period and artist.  Drawing upon Ku’s biographical background, his writings for newspapers and journals, his personal papers, and the paintings themselves, Jungsil Lee argues that Ku’s later works are not a break with his past, but rather must be understood as an extension and expansion of earlier experimentations in form.  Throughout, Lee unearths a significant amount of new archival material to support her assertions, establishing a new understanding of this fascinating figure.

The dissertation eschews a strictly chronological or monographic approach, and thus is arranged thematically, moving between individual consideration of the artist and his oeuvre with equal attention paid to the complex socio-historical factors surrounding the creation of Ku’s oeuvre and its subsequent interpretation.  Chapter 1, “The Body in Modern Korea,” begins with an acknowledgement of the difficulties inherent in researching the colonial period and gives an overview of the various debates surrounding its study.  Oftentimes mired in black and white characterizations, artists from colonial-era Korea have been labeled as resistors or collaborators, not allowing for the “gray zone” that circumscribed the daily, lived reality of a Korean citizen under the Japanese colonial regime.  Lee begins with an overview of various theories of modernism, both from Western and East Asian perspectives.  As she rightly notes, modernism in East Asia is necessarily tangled up in its relationship to the West, and Korea’s relationship to Western modernism in art was through its translation vis-à-vis Japan.  This act of filtering has led to various perspectives on when “modernism” actually occurred within Korean art, with some scholars arguing it happened as early as the end of the Joseon Dynasty while others situate it as late as the 1960s.

Chapter 2, “The Deformed Body:  Self-Image in the Modern World,” investigates Ku’s self-portraits and portraits of women in particular through the lens of his biographical experiences, including his family, his education, his physical disability, and his relationship with important female figures in his life such as his grandmother, his concubine, and his wife.  Lee discusses Ku’s challenge to strict Confucian social norms through his depiction of the nude form, both male and female; erotic imagery; and the blurring of gender binaries.  Lee argues through close formal analysis that Ku’s paintings of the body, with their fragmentation and abbreviated forms were a reflection of Ku’s positioning as an urban artist dealing with the portrayal of outsider figures such as kisaeng women (trained female entertainers for male social elites) and fellow avant-garde authors and painters that challenged the mainstream literary and artistic circles of Seoul.

In Chapter 3, “The Resisting Body:  An Outsider Against the Mainstream,” Lee combines aspects of Ku’s biography from previous chapters with a study of his position as an avant-garde artist in colonial Korea.  Here, we begin to see how Ku transforms his work through exposure to French Impressionism and German Expressionism, utilizing the visual language of these Western art movements to convey a sense of anguish and unease in his painting.  And yet, his paintings, when taken in consideration with his writings as an art critic, give rise to an artist who refused to adopt Western art currents wholesale, criticizing those artists whose works were “a second importation of Tokyo’s importation of Western-style painting” (p. 143).

Chapter 4, “The Fused Body:  Breaking the Boundaries of a Constructed World,” draws upon significant new material from Ku Ponung’s family archives to reconsider and reframe the trajectory of Ku’s career.  As Lee discusses, most studies of Ku Ponung focus on his Western-style oil paintings from earlier in his career, dismissing his ink-on-paper works as a neglected later phase that is perceived as nostalgic or retrograde, a turning away from the strides Ku made early on to depart from tradition.  In this chapter, Lee links together for the first time Ku’s later “traditional” works with his oil paintings, arguing that certain formal elements evidence not a break with the past, but rather, a reconsideration of the role of tradition within modernity.  Lee links together Ku’s fascination with the interplay of text and image through a consideration of Ku’s illustrations for serial novels reprinted in daily newspapers such as Tonga Ilbo and Seoul sinmun.  The relationship of text and image was one that served multiple purposes:  breaking down barriers between high and low art; paying homage to Korean literati traditions in painting; and referencing contemporaneous trends in Western painting.  As such, drawing and illustration become an act of fusion, manifesting Ku’s desire, according to Lee, to create a “Korean version of modern art” (p. 198).

The final chapter of Lee’s dissertation, “The Colonial Body: Dreaming the Perfect Body in an Imperfect World,” tackles in detail the difficult issue of Ku’s mysterious turn from an artist outside the mainstream to one who publicly advocated for an acceptance of the Japanese colonial government.  Lee reproduces significant portions of Ku’s writings to argue that Ku’s inclusion on the list of artists who collaborated with the Japanese colonial government is one that needs to be read with a more nuanced eye.  Situating Ku as a pragmatist, Lee recreates a 1930s climate in which the majority of intellectuals seemed to transform from “nationalist and anti-colonial leaders” to pro-Japanese collaborators (p. 205).  Making links between both biographical elements as well as larger cultural shifts, Lee examines Ku’s writings during this period, concluding that Ku’s position during the tail-end of the Japanese colonial period was one that negotiated “between subliminal resistance and outward acceptance” (p. 239).  In a poignant essay that Ku pens in 1945 following the end of the Japanese colonial period, Ku acknowledges the multivalency of the colonial body, writing, “It is certain that I am a person of Korean origin and so are my bones, flesh, and mind.  Nevertheless, I could not deny the organic Japanese elements that sustained me…” (p. 245).

Reconsidering the Body in Korean Modern Art is a well-conceived, thorough, and original contribution to an understudied period in modern Korean painting, with interest for scholars of modern Korea, Korean art history, and more broadly, for scholars interested in disability studies, theories of modernity, manifestations of postcolonialisms, and gender and performance theory.

Christine Y. Hahn
Department of Art and Art History
Kalamazoo College
chahn@kzoo.edu

Primary Sources

Ku Family Collection
National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea
National Museum of Korea
Korean Modern Art Research Institute
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 363 pp. Primary Advisor: Burglind Jungmann.

Image: Ku Ponung’s Picnic in the Mountain (c.1951, ink and light color on silk, 45x33cm).

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