Korean art is art originating or practiced in Korea or by Korean artists, from ancient times to today. Korea is noted for its artistic traditions in pottery, music, calligraphy, and other genres, often marked by the use of bold color, natural forms, and surface decoration.
This early period was followed by the art styles of various Korean kingdoms and dynasties. Korean artists sometimes modified Chinese traditions with a native preference for simple elegance, purity of nature and spontaneity. This filtering of Chinese styles also influenced Japanese artistic traditions, due to cultural and geographical circumstances.
The Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) was one of the most prolific periods for artists in many disciplines, especially in pottery.
The Korean art market is concentrated in the Insadong district of Seoul where over 50 small galleries exhibit and there are occasional fine arts auctions. Galleries are co-operatively run, small and often with curated and finely designed exhibits. In every town there are smaller regional galleries, with local artists showing in traditional and contemporary media. Art galleries usually have a mix of media. Attempts at bringing Western conceptual art into the foreground have usually had their best success outside of Korea in New York, San Francisco, London and Paris.
Partly as a result of Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, many of the oldest and most significant Korean art pieces are held in private and public collections in Japan. The Tokyo National Museum displays or stores more than 1,000 gold, bronze, and celadon pieces donated by the late businessman Takenosuke Ogura. In total, about 4,800 Korean art items, of which more than 2,000 are considered antiquities, are held at the museum. Eighty percent of all Korean Buddhist paintings are believed to be in Japan. According to Seoul art historian Kwon Cheeyu, as many as 35,000 Korean art objects and 30,000 rare books have been confirmed to be there, too. These figures do not include private collections which are believed to hold significant quantities of Korean art.
Jeulmun-type pottery, is typically cone-bottomed and incised with a comb-pattern appearing circa 6,000 BCE in the archaeological record. This type of pottery is similar to Siberian styles.
Mumun-type pottery emerged approximately 2000 BCE and is characterized as large, undecorated pottery, mostly used for cooking and storage.
Buddhism was introduced to Goguryeo first in 372 CE because of its location spanning much of Manchuria and the northern half of Korea, closest to the northern Chinese states like the Northern Wei. Buddhism inspired the Goguryeo kings to begin commission art and architecture dedicated to the Buddha. A notable aspect of Goguryeo art are tomb murals that vividly depict everyday aspects of life in the ancient kingdom as well as its culture. UNESCO designated the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs and as a World Heritage Site because Goguryeo painting was influential in East Asia, including Japan, an example being the wall murals of Horyu-ji which was influenced by Goguryeo. Mural painting also spread to the other two kingdoms. The murals portrayed Buddhist and Taoist themes and provide valuable clues about kingdom such as architecture and clothing. These murals were also the very beginnings of Korean landscape paintings and portraiture. However, the treasures of the tombs were easily accessible and looted leaving very little physical artifacts of the kingdom.
Baekje is generally considered the kingdom with the finest artistic tradition among the three states. Baekje was a kingdom in southwest Korea and was influenced by southern Chinese dynasties, such as the Liang. Baekje was also one of the kingdoms to introduce a significant Korean influence into the art of Japan during this time period. Baekje Buddhist sculpture is characterized by its naturalness, warmness, and harmonious proportions exhibits a unique Korean style. Another example of Korean influence is the use of the distinctive “Baekje smile”, a mysterious and archaic smile that is characteristic of many Baekje statutes. While there are no surviving examples of wooden architecture, the Mireuksa site holds the foundation stones of a destroyed temple and two surviving granite pagodas that show what Baekje architecture may have looked. An example of Baekje architecture may be gleaned from Horyu-ji temple because Baekje architects and craftsmen helped design and construct the original temple. The tomb of King Muryeong held a treasure trove of artifacts not looted by grave robbers. Among the items were flame-like gold pins, gilt-bronze shoes, gold girdles (a symbol of royalty), and swords with gold hilts with dragons and phoenixes.
The Goryeo Dynasty lasted from 935 CE to 1392. The most famous art produced by Goryeo artisans was Korean celadon pottery which was produced from circa 1050 CE to 1250 CE. While celadon originated in China, Korean potters created their own unique style of pottery that was so valued that the Chinese considered it “first under heaven” and one of the “twelve best things in the world.”
The Korean celadon had a unique glaze known as “king-fisher” color, an iron based blue-green glaze created by reducing oxygen in the kiln. Korean celadon displayed organic shapes and free-flowing style, such as pieces that were made to look like fish, melons, and other animals. Koreans invented an inlaid technique known as sanggam, where potters would engrave semi-dried pottery with designs and place materials within the decorations with black or white clay.
The influence of Confucianism superseded that of Buddhism in this period, however Buddhist elements remained and it is not true that Buddhist art declined, it continued, and was encouraged but not by the imperial centres of art, or the accepted taste of the Joseon Dynasty publicly; however in private homes, and indeed in the summer palaces of the Joseon Dynasty kings, the simplicity of Buddhist art was given great appreciation - but it was not seen as citified art.
While the Joseon Dynasty began under military auspices, Goreyo styles were let to evolve, and Buddhist iconography (bamboo, orchid, plum and chrysanthemum; and the familiar knotted goodluck symbols) were still a part of genre paintings. Neither colours nor forms had any real change, and rulers stood aside from edicts on art. Ming ideals and imported techniques continued in early dynasty idealized works.
Mid-dynasty painting styles moved towards increased realism. A national painting style of landscapes called "true view" began - moving from the traditional Chinese style of idealized general landscapes to particular locations exactly rendered. While not photographic, the style was academic enough to become established and supported as a standardized style in Korean painting.
The mid to late Joseon dynasty is considered the golden age of Korean painting. It coincides with the shock of the collapse of Ming dynasty links with the Manchu emperors accession in China, and the forcing of Korean artists to build new artistic models based on nationalism and an inner search for particular Korean subjects. At this time China ceased to have pre-eminent influence, Korean art took its own course, and became increasingly distinctive.
Art works in metal, jade, bamboo and textiles have had a limited resurgence. The South Korean government has tried to encourage the maintenance of cultural continuity by awards, and by scholarships for younger students in rarer Korean art forms.
Korean calligraphy is seen as an art where brush-strokes reveal the artist's personality enhancing the subject matter that is painted. This art form represents the apogee of Korean Confucian art. Korean fabric arts have a long history, and include Korean embroidery used in costumes and screenwork; Korean knots as best represented in the work of Choe Eun-sun, used in costumes and as wall-decorations; and lesser known weaving skills as indicated below in rarer arts. There is no real tradition of Korean carpets or rugs, although saddle blankets and saddle covers were made from naturally dyed wool, and are extremely rare. Imperial dragon carpets, tiger rugs for judges or magistrates or generals, and smaller chair-covers were imported from China and are traditionally in either yellow or red. Few if any imperial carpets remain. Village rug weavers do not exist.
Korean paper art includes all manner of hand-made paper (hanji), used for architectural purposes (window screens, floor covering), for printing, artwork, and the Korean folded arts (paper fans, paper figures), and as well Korean paper clothing which has an annual fashion show in Jeonju city attracting world attention.
In the 1960s Korean paper made from mulberry roots was discovered when the Pulguksa (temple) complex in Gyeongju was remodelled. The date on the Buddhist documents converts to a western calendar date of 751, and indicated that indeed the oft quoted claim that Korean paper can last a thousand years was proved irrevocably. However after repeated invasions, very little early Korean paper art exists. Contemporary paper artists are very active.
North Korean artists have gone through two periods of influence in the middle 20th century, from Russian art, and then Chinese art. The impact was greatest on revolutionary posters, lithography and multiples, dramatic and documentary film, realistic painting, grand architecture, and least in areas of domestic pottery, ceramics, exportable needlework, and the visual crafts. Sports art and politically charged revolutionary posters have been the most sophisticated and internationally collectible by auction houses and specialty collectors. North Korean painters who escaped to the United States in the late 1950s include the Fwhang sisters. Duk Soon Fwhang and Chung Soon Fwhang O'Dwyer avoid overtly political statements in favor of tempestous landscapes, bridging Western and Far Eastern painting techniques.
There is a long tradition of Korean gardens, often linked with palaces.
Patterns often have their origins in early ideographs. Geometric patterns and patterns of plant, animal and nature motifs are the four most basic patterns. Geometric patterns include triangles, squares, diamonds, zigzags, latticework, frets, spirals sawteeth, circles, ovals and concentric circles. Stone Age rock carvings feature animal designs in order to relate to food-gathering activities. Dualist patterns have become very popular, especially Yin and Yang. These patterns are found doors of temples and shrines, clothes, furniture and daily objects such as fans and spoons.
Depicted on petroglyphs and in pottery shards, as well as wall-paintings in tombs, the various performing arts nearly always incorporated Korean masks, costumes with Korean knots, Korean embroidery, and a dense overlay of art in combination with other arts.
Some specific dances are considered important cultural heritage pieces of art. The performing arts have always been linked to the fabric arts: not just in costumery, but in woven screens behind the plays, ornaments woven or embroidered or knotted to indicate rank, position, or as shamanistic charms; and in other forms to be indicated.
Historically the division of the performing arts is between arts done almost exclusively by women in costume, danceworks; and those done exclusively by men in costume, storytelling. And those done as a group by both sexes with women's numbers in performances reduced as time goes on as it became reputable for men to function as public entertainers.
Korean music in contemporary times is generally divided into the same audiences as the west: with the same kind of audiences for music based on age, and city (classical, pop, techno, house, hip-hop, jazz; traditional) and provincial divisions (folk, country, traditional, classical, rock). World music influences are very strong provincially, with traditional musical instruments once more gaining ground. Competition with China for tourists has forced a much larger attention to traditional Korean musical forms in order to differentiate itself from the west, and east.
The new Seoul Opera house, which will be the anchor for Korean opera has just been given the go-ahead, is set for a $300 million dollar home on an island on the Han river. Korean opera and an entirely redeveloped western opera season, and opera school, to compete with the Beijing opera house, and Japan's historical centre for western operas in the far east is the present focus.
Korean court music has a history going back to the Silla where Tang court music was played; later Song dynasty inspired "A-ak" a Korean version played on Chinese instruments within the Joseon era. Recreations of this music are done in Seoul primarily under the auspices of the Korea Foundation and The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts (NCKTPA).
Court musicians appear in traditional costume, maintain a rigid proper formal posture, and play stringed five-stringed instruments. Teaching by this the "yeak sasang" principles of Confucianism, perfection of tone and acoustic space is put ahead of coarse emotionality. Famous works of court music include: jongmyo jeryeak, designated a UNESCO world cultural heritage, Cheoyongmu, Taepyeongmu, and Sujecheon.
Korean musicals are a recent innovation, encouraged by the success of Broadway revivals, like Showboat, recent productions such as the musical based on Queen Min have toured globally. There are precedents for popular musical dance-dramas in gamuguk popular in Goryeo times, with some 21st century concert revivals.
Korean stage set design again has a long history and has always drawn inspiration from landscapes, beginning with outdoor theatre, and replicating this by the use of screens within court and temple stagings of rituals and plays. There are few if any books on this potentially interesting area. A rule of thumb has been that the designs have much open space, more two-dimensional space, and subdued tone and colour, and been done by artists to evoke traditional brush painting subjects. Modern plays have tended towards western scenic flats, or minimalist atonality to force a greater attention on the actors. Stage lighting still has to catch up to western standards, and does not reflect a photographer's approach to painting in colour and light, quite surprisingly.
Korean masks are generally used in shamanistic performances that have increasingly been secularized as folkart dramas. At the same time the masks themselves have become tourist artefacts post 1945, and reproduced in large numbers as souvenirs.
Korean oral history includes narrative myths, legends, folk tales; songs, folksongs, shaman songs and p'ansori; proverbs that expand into short historical tales, riddles, and suspicious words which have their own stories. They have been studied by Cho Dong-Il; Choi In-hak, and Zong In-sop, and published often in editions in English for foreigners, or for primary school teachers.
Notable examples of historical records are very well documented from early times, and as well Korean books with moveable type, often imperial encyclopaedias or historical records, were circulated as early as the 7th century during the Three Kingdoms era from printing wood-blocks; and in the Goryeo era the world's first metal type, and books printed by metal type were produced.
Genres include epics, poetry, religious texts and exigetical commentaries on Buddhist and Confucianist learning; translations of foreign works; plays and court rituals; comedies, tragedies, mixed genres; and various kinds of novels.