The first half of the twentieth century in Korean history is marked by two grave and painful experiences: the Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945 and the Korean War of 1950–53. These events dominate the collective national psyche for generations. The legacy of the colonial period is complex and fraught with emotion. The Japanese colonialists’ push toward modernization brings tremendous technological, and consequently social, advances, such as the building of infrastructure and the development of modern school systems. The Japanese also carry out the first modern archaeological excavations of ancient Korean sites (royal tombs, temples, ceramic kilns) and preservation of their artifacts. On the flip side is the question of the colonialists’ intentions and their methods in these cultural endeavors, and more seriously, war crimes of torture, rape, and killing. In the postcolonial period, Korea struggles with the issue of how to reconcile the positive developments of the colonial era and the unforgettable brutality, humiliation, and loss.
The second half of the twentieth century witnesses rapid changes and developments in all aspects of (South) Korean society: economic, political, social, and cultural. Astonishing economic progress—even through periods of political turbulence—enables a self-conscious and appreciative exploration of traditional Korean arts and active participation in international exchanges of culture. In the 1980s and the ’90s, especially, South Korea expands its cultural presence around the world through the establishment of Korean galleries at museums and academic posts in Korean studies at universities.
(N.B. Because so little factual information is available on North Korea, a communist state still closed to the outside world, the post-1945 list of events in the Key Events section below concentrates on South Korea.)
The Treaty of Annexation is signed on August 29, marking Korea’s formal annexation to Japan and the beginning of thirty-five years of colonial rule. The Government-General of Korea (Japanese: chôsen shôtokufu; Korean: chosôn ch’ongdokpu), the chief colonial administrative unit in Seoul with direct ties to Japan, controls all aspects of governance–political, social, economic, and cultural.
The Yi Royal Family Museum opens within the Ch’anggyông Palace compound. Later, in 1933, the museum relocates to the Tôksu Palace.
The Museum of the Government-General of Korea opens within the Kyôngbok Palace compound. The museum displays traditional arts of Korea, including archaeological finds from tombs and ancient sites (from excavations conducted and supervised by the Government-General).
More than a million Koreans take to the streets in the March First Movement, demanding independence. The demonstrations force the Japanese colonial administrators in Seoul to rethink their colonial policy, from one of brutal coercion to a more conciliatory stance known as the Cultural Policy.
The Chosôn Art Exposition (chosôn misul chôllamhoe), sponsored by the Government-General of Korea, is inaugurated. It consists of three parts: Eastern-style (i.e., East Asian) art; Western-style art; and calligraphy. This is the first “modern” exposition, in the style of a salon, to be held in Korea. Its primary purpose is to show the works of Japanese artists residing in Korea, although Korean artists are also permitted to participate. As part of the Cultural Policy of the Japanese colonialists, the exposition is a move toward “modernization” of Korea. The annual event continues until 1944.
The Kaesông Museum and P’yôngyang Museum open.
Korea is liberated from thirty-five years of Japanese colonial rule. Following independence, the Korean peninsula is divided in two, with the north under Soviet and the south under American occupation. Two separate states—the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north—are formally proclaimed in 1948.
The Museum of the Government-General of Korea (established under Japanese colonial rule) is renamed and opens as the National Museum of Korea.
Several leading universities in Korea, including Ewha Womans University, Seoul National University, and Hongik University, establish fine arts departments.
The civil war, known as the “Korean War,” begins. A truce is signed at P’anmunjôm at the 38th Parallel in 1953.
An exhibition of modern Korean art opens at the World House Galleries in New York. The show includes works by prominent artists such as Ko Hûi-dong (1886–1965), Yi Sang-bôm (1899–1978), Kim Ki-ch’ang (1913–2001), andPak Su-gûn (1914–1965).
Various art movements from Europe, the U.S., and Japan—including Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism—are imported into Korea and enthusiastically adopted by artists. These foreign movements, in turn, help Korean artists reconceptualize traditional Korean styles of art.
The Korean Avant Garde Association (A.G.) is formed and publishes its own journal, A.G.
5,000 Years of Korean Art, a traveling exhibition organized by the National Museum of Korea and featuring numerous “national treasure” pieces, successfully tours seven museums in the U.S., including the Metropolitan Museum. A similar exhibition, Treasures from Korea, travels to the British Museum, London, in 1984.
The expansion of postmodern art is typified by artists such as Nam June Paik (1932–2006), whose video installations become world famous.
The minjung misul (“populist art”) movement reaches a peak. Inherently political and politicizing in nature, the movement’s development in the visual arts goes hand in hand with that in literature and literary criticism.
The National Museum of Korea moves back to its original location, the Government-General Headquarters Building at Kyôngbok Palace, after relocating several times since 1945.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art relocates to Kwach’ôn, just outside of Seoul. It now consists of a four-story building and an outdoor sculpture garden. First established in 1969 within the compound of the Kyôngbok Palace, the museum moved to the Tôksu Palace in 1973 before settling into its current location.
Seoul hosts the 24th Summer Olympic Games.
The demolition of the old Government-General Headquarters Building at Kyôngbok Palace is completed. The National Museum is temporarily moved to an adjacent building. A new, larger compound for the museum opened in 2005.
“Korea, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=eak (October 2004)