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Art History

Dansaekhwa as a Reconstruction Movement of Abstraction in Korean Western Painting

A rise of an abstract art was not a sole phenomenon in the western hemisphere. The Dansaekhwa movement, which emerged after the seize-fire agreement was set for the Korean War in 1953, stemmed from a wish to reconstruct an artistic pride that artists had lost during the war.


Whanki Kim, Rondo, 1938. Courtesy of Whanki Museum (The Whanki Foundation), Seoul

A rise of an abstract art was not a sole phenomenon in the western hemisphere. The world was already tightly connected with new communication and transportation systems that facilitated the world to be merged into one global society. Abstraction in art initially emerged in the West, but adopting it as a popular artistic expression only took a couple of years to gain a global popularity among artists from different regions. Kim Whanki was already experimenting abstraction in 1938 with his first abstract artwork, Rondo, in Japan, and his artistic experiment and its resulting style quickly spread abstraction among young Korean painters as the avant-garde movement.

Even though they lost their country to Japan, they always had a pride in their artistic and cultural progressiveness. The Dansaekhwa movement, which emerged after a seize-fire agreement was set for the Korean War in 1953, stemmed from a wish to reconstruct this artistic pride that they had lost during the war. Through re-developing abstraction with endless experiments with new mediums, Dansaekhwa movement aimed at reviving progressive and experimental spirits of Korean modern art.

People in Seoul hailed with acclamations for regaining independence from the Japanese imperialism in 1945.

The emergence of abstract art in Korea was not a big surprise, for numerous Korean artists moved to Japan in an attempt to learn a progressive and most up-to-date western painting style during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945). They were the first generation of artists who practiced the Western art in Korea before the Dansaekhwa artists such as Park Seo-Bo, Lee Ufan, Ha Chonghyun, Yun Hyongkeun, Kim Whanki, and Kwon Young-Woo. While abstract art had started gaining much attention in Korean art scene by Kim Whanki, Korea became independent from thirty years of Japanese colonization, and went into a devastating civil war after a short period of recursive territorial disputes between Northern and Southern regime.

This tragic war had lasted more than four years and eventually ended with a cease-fire agreement in 1953. During this tumultuous and tragic period, many artists were killed, and North Korean soldiers burned countless artworks since their communist doctrine defined western art as products of bourgeoisie. Each of the Northern and Southern regime conscripted artists for making propaganda art; as a consequence, some artists from the same atelier or university had to face each other as confronting propaganda artists for two different regimes. The art had become politics and a deadly weapon for more than five years. Dansaekhwa artists started their career right after this tragic war was put on hold.

The influence of Kim Whanki and Yoo Young Kuk’s pursuit in abstract painting to young generation of Korean artists was magnificent. It reinvigorated a national and cultural interest in western art, and those abstract artists’ active practice in western art aroused hope to disheartened Korean artists. In the mean time, Korea became independent from Japan in 1945, and the ensuing Korean War completely destroyed this hope among young Korean artists once again. Their chance to get access to new trends in art and information about new artworks in Europe and the United States via Japanese media were completely vanished. Korean artists were once again disconnected from the global art scene. After the war, the government push for reconstruction of the Korean art scene as a part of the national effort in restoration of culture.

Seobo Park, No.1-57, 1957. Courtesy of Seobo Foundation, Seoul

University art departments such as Seoul National University and Hongik University were reestablished and most of young painters who became Dansaekhwa artists started their active debate on the future of Korean art in the post-Korean War period. Due to the lack of resource from a civilian side, the Korean government engaged in reinstating the juried annual art salon (Taehan min’guk misul chollamhoe or Kukchon) that had been originally instituted by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. After years of heavy debate upon the future of Korean art, young artists agreed that abstraction is a language in which they should learn to gain fluency for the communication with their overseas counterparts. While their information about foreign art scenes was strictly limited, they found two new ways to gain restricted information about western art scene via art and culture magazines in the U.S army base in South Korea and smuggled art magazines from Japan. With these limited resources, artists like Park Seo-Bo and Lee Ungno learned a language of abstract art through Jackson Pollock and other popular western artists’ new works. They could not understand English but they grabbed a sense of the most up-to-date western art trend in a limited environment. Park Seo-Bo’s No.1, painted in 1957 and Lee Ungno’s Exultation, painted in 1958 apparently show that these later called Dansaekhwa artists were practicing and learning abstract art based on Jackson Pollock’s action painting technique.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950. Courtesy of The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/ARS, New York

Dansaekhwa artists started to establish their own identities with their unique philosophical backgrounds through 1970s. Beyond a simple learning and practicing techniques of abstract painting, each individual Dansaekhwa artists founded respective philosophical subjects of their interest. For them, unlike a period from 1950s through 1960s when artists focused on practicing abstract art by imitating or copying styles of artists in the Western hemisphere, Dansaekhwa artists began to employ their own narratives in their artwork series. A multiple oil shock during 1970s also added diversity to the techniques of abstract artists. Lack of oil and canvas supply did not undermine artists’ passion in abstraction, and the limited circumstance compelled artists to use more readily available materials, from barbwires to old tires, which brought about the production of a highly distinctive idiosyncratic body of abstract artwork. Despite the economic crisis of 1970s that had a huge impact on artists in developing countries, artists like Kim Kulim and Ha Chonghyun utilized everyday materials such as roofing tiles, newspaper, and cigarette butts as alternative materials to expensive canvas and oil painting. By using such objects as if they were substitutes for canvas or oil painting, Dansaekhwa artists could experiment diverse artistic methods and test the limit of the movement itself.

Chonghyun Ha, Work 73-15A, 1973. Courtesy of the artist.

For example, Ha Chonghyun’s 1973 work, work 73-15A, is a light brown monochrome painting, which is divided into sub-squares by the lines of barbwires, intersecting the painting horizontally and vertically. In making a grid on the painting from barbwires without relying on a set of hand or a machine, the artist tried to subvert what to him would have read as minimalism’s will to nonrepresentation. In addition, an important material in Ha’s work 73-15A, barbwires, plays a critical role to represent an unique situation of Korea as a divided country so that by using everyday material, some Dansaekhwa artists successfully conducted an experiment on possibilities of monochrome reflecting social and political context. This progressive stance and experiment of Dansaekhwa artists became a cornerstone for later contemporary Korean artists to actively engage in experiments with diverse media.

In 1974, Park Seo-Bo and Lee Ufan, who already gained their fame in Tokyo, organized an important meeting at Myongdong Gallery in regards with defining overarching academic interpretation of the Korean Monochrome. In a roundtable debate, many artists later become Dansaekhwa artists debated how to approach the international world where contemporary Korean art now circulated, a prime task being how to differentiate their monochrome art from those of western Minimalism and Monochrome art, represented by artists like Carl Andre and Donald Judd. As a leading artist of Japanese Monoha movement, Lee Ufan argued that Korean Monochrome should have a firm philosophical ground in order to receive recognition from the global art historians. The conclusion of the heavy discussion was that their recent practices were based on labor-intensive works, and their focuses in artworks were in a spiritual aspect rather than in a visual aspect, which was the case of Western Monochrome. This was apparently opposite to the idea of Western Monochrome, which stemmed from its resistance against multi-colors so that it has flat and visual aspects. For example, Ha Chonghyun’s Conjunction series in 1970s was a spiritual practice of emptying one’s mind by randomly pushing oil painting repeatedly from the backside of a canvas to the front until he could achieve a satisfying abstraction in front of the canvas. Park Seo-Bo’s Ecriture series was also based on endless line drawing on canvas while leaving his mind completely empty. In order to complete one of his Ecriture series, he had to draw tens of thousands of lines on canvas. This unique philosophical background of Dansaekhwa art, oriented in Eastern philosophy of Budhism and Daoism differs itself from their other monochrome counterparts in the world.

After 1990s, the new generation of contemporary Korean artists emerged in the Korean art scene while Dansaekhwa artists had still received much attention. Do-ho Suh, an installation artist received much attention from the United States with his unique subjects on a personal identity and home. Even though his artworks look contemporary, subject matters of his artworks and his philosophical background are greatly influenced by his father and one of Dansaekhwa artist, Se-ok Suh. Small human figures repeatedly found in Do-ho Suh’s artworks were the abstract figures frequently appeared on some ink-based Dansaekhwa artists’ artworks. Do-ho’s limited color use has been known to be influenced by Dansaekhwa as well. Not only Do-ho Suh but also emerging Korean artists such as Seokyung Kang has received heavy influence from Dansaekwha artists who were her college professors. Her recent work, Poking Square #02, shows a limited color use and an emphasis on instable memory and spirit of human being, which was an extension to many Dansaekhwa artists’ interests. Her study and borrowing of Eastern philosophy for her artworks also looks after what her teachers did during 1970s through 1980s. As shown, Dansaekhwa also actively plays a role of bridging a gap between modern and contemporary Korean Art.

As such, Dansaekhwa has been bridging a gap between Modern and Contemporary Korean Art for many periods. There is still a huge debate whether Dansaekhwa should be categorized as Modern or Contemporary art, but it is an inevitable fact that Korean Monochrome is an independent monochrome movement with its unique philosophical background from that of Western counterpart. From reconstructing abstraction in Korean art to influencing emerging Korean artists, Dansaekhwa movement’s enormous contribution to Korean art has been significantly important.

(Ref.) Main image: Installation view of Yun Hyong-Keun solo exhibition, PKM Gallery, Seoul. Photo by Kyungsub Shin.