I first saw Kim Ho-suk’s work at a gallery in Daehangno in the summer of 1993. Mr. Kim was greeting visitors and I went over and introduced myself. After moving to Japan in 1995, I contacted him to arrange an interview and he kindly accepted, and the article appeared in ART AsiaPacific in 1997. The article remains the only one on Mr. Kim in English. In 1999, I was honored when Mr. Kim asked me if the article could be translated into Korean for the catalog to the “Artist of the Year” exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in 1999.
"Gathering Greens" by Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836) I'm gathering greens, gathering greens. They're not lush, but meager. All the good herbs and greens have withered away. The sprouts and shoots have all dried up. The grass and trees have been scorched by the sun. The wells have dried up. The water bugs have disappeared from the rice paddies. Even the clams have vanished from the sea. Those in power know nothing of this. "Famine," that's all they can say. From The State of the Fields (Jeongan Gisa) by Jeong Yak-yong, 1809 (translated by Robert J. Fouser).
Kim Ho-suk is the one of the most important Korean yet most misunderstood Korean artists today. He is often mistaken for a political artist who decries corrupt dictatorships and imperialistic foreign powers. For Kim, however, politics and history are the problem because they have hindered the construction of an affirmative Korean culture. Kim has, somewhat self-righteously, taken it on himself to fill this void by confronting politics and history head on.
To understand Kim’s achievement, we need to consider the political and cultural environment of the 1970s and 1980s that Kim grew up in. Born in rural southwestern Korea in 1957, Kim came of age in a period of great social change and political instability. President Park Chung-hee’s rapid push toward industrialization in the 1960s had, by the late 1970s, created a large working class alienated by the materialism of burgeoning cities.
As the 1970s came to a close, calls for democracy led to large scale protests in 1979. The assassination of the dictatorial Park Chung-hee in 1979 raised hopes for democracy. These hopes were dashed, however, as Chun Doo-hwan, an army general, seized power. Pro-democracy demonstrations flared again in 1980. To keep his hold on power, Chun crushed demonstrations in the city of Gwangju with military force, leaving at least 600 dead and thousands injured.
Economic growth was strong throughout the 1980s, but pent-up resentment against Chun’s authoritarian rule led to massive street demonstrations again in 1987. Under great pressure, Chun agreed to an open presidential election and other measures for democratization. The transition to democracy under Chun’s successor, Roh Tae-woo, continued amid considerable political turmoil. The transition to democracy and the growth of a large and prosperous middle class in the 1990s shifted the center of political debate from democracy versus dictatorship to a range of economic, political, and social issues.
The idea of minjung came into common currency in the 1980s as the opposition came out from shock of the Gwangju massacre. Minjung is a social, political, and cultural movement that seeks to unite students, workers, and small farmers, the alienated classes, in an alliance against those privileged classes in society. Culturally, the minjung movement is nativist and nationalistic in its search for a pure Korean culture and celebration of alienated classes.1 In the visual arts, minjung led to minjung art, a distinct style of art that was prevalent from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Minjung art uses a dense iconography of contemporary and historical references. Much minjung art is akin to socialist realism in its visual call to arms.
Wearing simple clothes and gomusin, rubber slippers, Kim Ho-suk looks like a typical minjung artist. Kim’s frequent references to “our culture” and “Korean tradition” reinforce this impression. A closer look at Kim’s art, however, shows that he is inspired by traditional Korean genre painting rather than socialist realism. As Kim says, “Kim Hong-do (1745-1816) and Sin Yun-bok (ca. late eighteenth century) are my teachers. Their work is human; it shows real life with warmth and clarity.” Kim’s sympathy for the common people also has deep roots in the writings of eighteenth century Confucian scholars, such as Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836), who gave an egalitarian reading to the Confucian classics.
In keeping with his respect for tradition, Kim uses authentic traditional materials in his work. He uses hand-made Korean paper and various colors of ink made from natural dyes. A description of the materials in his work would read “ink on traditional Korean paper” for every work. To overcome technical restrictions imposed by the consistency of these materials, Kim uses a wide variety of brushes, colors, and painting techniques. In many of his works, he uses the traditional technique of baechae, or painting from the other side of the paper to let the color soak through to the front. This gives the painting surface a rich background tone.
Kim owes his interest in painting and in Korean tradition to his grandfather, Kim Gyun. Kim’s grandfather ran a Confucian school in the village and edited a version of the Thousand Character Classic (Daedong Cheonjamun), the first reader in classical Chinese for children. Kim’s grandfather was raised by his grandfather, who was a local leader of the resistance to Japanese imperialism in the nineteenth century. Kim remembers that his grandfather told him to “study the essence of Korea.” Along with teaching Confucian classics, Kim’s grandfather taught him traditional painting and calligraphy. As Kim grew up, he found creative expression in traditional Korean painting.
In high school, Kim decided to become a professional artist. He successfully entered the Eastern [East Asian] Painting Department of Hongik University, one of Korea’s two leading art colleges, in 1977.2 As in Japan, art education and the art community in Korea are divided strictly into “Eastern” and “Western” art, with little communication between the two groups.
As Kim neared the end of his professional education, he became interested in painting scenes from urban life Seoul instead of attractive rural scenes, typical of Eastern painting. Apartment Building (1979), Kim’s debut work, shows an apartment building lit up at night in the nouveau riche Apgujong-dong area of Seoul. By painting scenes from urban life in traditional style, Kim challenged established ideas of appropriate subject matter in Eastern painting. Kim says, “People criticized the content of these paintings. I wanted to update Eastern painting to make it relevant to the real world of everyday life.” For most of the 1980s, Kim wandered around Seoul, painting scenes of the city at night. Ahyeon-dong (1986) is typical of these paintings. The painting shows a hillside slum near the center of Seoul. The densely packed houses are shown as small squares clinging to the hill. The round area of light in the background is most likely the moon, but it could also be the sun shining through smog.
In the mid-1980s, Kim turned to the Korean tradition in art and literature of using animal characters to criticize contemporary conditions. Folk paintings from the Joseon period (1392-1910), for example, show a magpie teasing a tiger to symbolize peasant anger at the aristocracy. In Shriek (1988) Kim used dried fish bound together with mouths gaping open as an allegory for people gasping for air under the weight of dictatorship in the 1980s.
Kim has continued to use animals as a motif in a variety of ways since this time. In A Bird that Can’t Fly (1992), Kim placed a shot bird in front of a scene of the Imjin River that divides North and South Korea. “When I saw this dead bird near the Imjin River, it reminded me of the tragedy of the division of Korea.” The contrast between the grey-brown monochrome colors and the red bullet wound on the birds heightens the sense of tension.
The demonstrations of 1987 marked a major turning point in Kim’s career. Like many Koreans, Kim was surprised by the breadth of resistance to Chun’s rule. This made him optimistic about the future of democracy in Korea. Opposition leader Kim Dae-jung has taken the idea one step further by arguing that democracy has deep roots in Korean culture.3 “With the demonstrations in 1987, I wondered where dictatorship came from in the first place. This made me take another look at Korean history from the late nineteenth century onward.” To answer this question, Kim to turned to portraits of historical figures. Kim also wanted to return to Korean themes after painting urban street scenes for most of the 1980s. To explore history, he drew on traditional Korean portraiture of the Joseon period, which emphasizes iconographic references to the character’s life and scholarly accomplishments, rather than an accurate physical portrayal. Kim was particularly interested in exploring the idea of jeonsinsajo, or “showing the inner being,” that was used in many traditional portraits. Kim says, “By looking the ‘inner being’ of great Koreans, we can find the essence of Korea.”
One of his early historical portraits, The Spirit of Resistance Against Japanese Colonialism—Descendants of Patriots (1990) shows the portrait of a late-nineteenth century Confucian scholar floating above a group of children in the center of the painting and a group of anti-Japanese militia at the bottom of the painting. Japanese imperialism came to dominate Korea in the late nineteenth century, and it led to harsh colonial rule that lasted from 1910 to 1945. The painting was a departure from traditional portraiture, however, because the character was placed in the center of the painting with no background images. Kim’s use of detail and rich color in the face of the Confucian scholar reveal the scholar’s “inner being,” which fortifies the children and militia members below to continue the resistance to Japanese imperialism. Kim continued to use background images in many of his subsequent portraits. This change and his introduction of contemporary subject matter into traditional Korean painting were Kim’s two most daring departures from tradition.
In the early 1990s, the issue of the comfort women came to the fore. The comfort women were Asian and a few Western women that were forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese army during World War II. This and other unresolved issues in Korean-Japanese relations stimulated Kim to paint a series of group portraits based on photographs from the early twentieth century. The History of Resistance against Japanese Colonialism—The Comfort Women (1990) and The History of Resistance against Japanese Colonialism—Armed Uprising (1991) are two examples of this type of work. These paintings show murky ghost-like figures partially obscured by dark patches of ink in the center. The brown and beige monochrome in these paintings is broken by dark brown patches and, as in the case of Resistance—the Coal Miners of Hokkaido (1989), occasional splashes of red suggestive of blood.
While Kim explored these important historical issues, he also branched out into portraits of the common people in the cities and countryside. In these portraits, he used more color and clear lines to create stronger, more realistic images than in the much of his earlier work. The Face of the Last Farmer (1991), for example, is a portrait of an old farmer who can no longer work the fields. By the early 1990s, Korea had become overwhelmingly urban as young people flocked to the cities, leaving their aging parents behind. The contrast between the sharp brush strokes of the grey stubble on the man’s beard and the thick brush strokes of his hair gives the work more visual intensity. The man’s eyes are closed, which makes us wonder whether he is about to cry or is simply shutting out the real world for a while.
Along with portraits of historical figures and common people, Kim became interested in documenting the lives of famous Koreans who embody traditional Korean values. His Portrait of Im Jang-Sun (1991) shows the bust of Korea’s most respected living Confucian scholar in the foreground and his Confucian school in the background. The details and thin clear lines on the face give it character that suggests the wisdom of age.
In a recent series of portraits in memory of one of Korea’s most famous Buddhist monks, Seongcheol, Kim alternates between color and monochrome, clarity and spontaneity. Kim says, “I wanted to paint Seongcheol as a normal human being.” His Mountains are Mountains, Water is Water (1995) shows a rough outline of Seongcheol looking at a void that could be mountains, water, or whatever else we imagine it to be. Kim says, “Clear spaces are not ’empty’; they give us a chance to stop and think.”
Kim’s interest in portraits of common people caused Kim to take another look at scenery painting in the early 1990s. He wanted to document the times through detailed and realistic scenes from Korean life. Again, Kim turned to traditional Korean painting for inspiration. In works, such as Harvesting Barley (1993), Kim used detail, a variety of color, and realistic proportions to depict a typical autumn scene in the contemporary Korean countryside. Unlike The Face of the Last Farmer (1991), this work contains no references to the problems of rural Korea.
Kim returned to the city for the setting to his documentary March of History I (1993) and March of History II (1993). The works show the funeral of Kang Gyeong-dae, a student demonstrator who was beaten to death by riot police in 1991. The funeral ended in violent demonstration as riot police tried to block the procession. In these paintings, Kim drew on the tradition of Korean scroll paintings of processions in honor of visiting dignitaries in which the scale was distorted to show detail in the foreground and the entire range of the procession. Kim presents the people in the funeral processions as participants in a historical event, not as glorious fighters for democracy. His sympathetic distance from the subject distinguishes him from minjung artists who call for the artist’s involvement in the subject. In the close up view of March of History II, for example, we see participants in the demonstration intermingled with reporters and curious bystanders. Kim says, “These paintings are not a call to arms, but visual histories of the struggle for democracy in Korea.”
The images in Kim’s work—farmers, patriots, workers—are similar to those in much minjung art. His use of traditional materials and sharp lines has much in common with the Joseon painting of North Korea.4 Kim’s work, however, is not didactic nor is it ideologically motivated. Kim wants viewers to think about contemporary problems and Korean history, but he leaves the conclusion open-ended. As Kim puts it, “Artists should be involved in society by showing real people and their problems for what they are.” Minjung artists want viewers to go out and throw rocks; North Korean artists want viewers to be loyal subjects of the Great Leader. Free of the ideological baggage of minjung or Joseon painting, Kim’s detailed documentation of these people has become a diary of Korean life in the twentieth century.
Kim’s accomplishment, however, goes beyond merely documenting modern Korean history. He has created a style of painting that supersedes the divisions between Eastern and Western, between North and South that divide Korean culture against itself today. Modern Korean history teaches us that, as long as Korean tradition is weak, foreign culture will bread insecurity. It also teaches us that, as long as Korea is divided, ideology will distort Korean culture. Some artists may be able to bridge the East-West divide, others the North-South divide, but Kim is the only artist who can do both.
“I feel a deep sense of responsibility to preserve traditional Korean painting in its purist form, but I also have a responsibility to make it relevant to people’s lives,” Kim says. In making Korean tradition relevant, Kim Ho-suk has shown us the “inner being” of the democratic potential in Korean culture buried under politics and history.
- For a detailed discussion of the background behind the minjung movement, see Hagen Koo, “The State, Minjung, and the Working Class in South Korea,” in State and Society in Contemporary Korea, ed. Hagen Koo (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 131-162.
- I have chosen to use the terms “Eastern” and “Western” to show how these terms are used in Korea.
- Kim Dae-jung, “Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia’s Anti-Democratic Values,” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 6 (November/December, 1994): 189-94. For a discussion of Kim’s ideas in the context of other theories of Korean and Asian democracy, see William H. Thornton, “Korea and East Asian Exceptionalism,” in 100 Years of Modernization in Korea: Toward the 21st Century (Seoul: The Academy of Korean studies and the Samsung Foundation of Culture, 1996), pp. 163-204.
- For a discussion of the Joseon painting, see Suh Sung-rok, “The Battlefield Is Just in Front of Us: The Little Known World of North Korean Art,” ART AsiaPacific 3, no. 3 (1996): 74-76.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Kim Ho-Suk for being generous with his time in interviews on April 27 and 28, 1996.
Original Article: Fouser, Robert J., “Looking for the ‘Inner Being’ of Korea: Kim Ho-Suk,” ART AsiaPacific, No. 14, 1997.
© 2015 Robert J. Fouser