[KS] Pre-1945 independence activist art?

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at koreanstudies.com
Fri Sep 6 03:08:45 EDT 2019

Dear Andrew, dear All:

Let me reply to your question ... but rather brief (super interesting 
topic though, but just don't have the time now to dip in deeper).
As for Korean artists in China, your art history student may want to look 
at Han Ryak-yŏn 韓樂然 (1898-1947), possibly also at Chŏng Ch’ang-p’a 
and Chang Chin-gwang. Han Ryak-yŏn is an absolute super hero in exactly 
that role you refer to. But he is -- you won't be surprised -- also 
nicely used and abused by the various regimes and political groups in 
China, North, and South Korea for whatever their own agendas are: 
communism, romanticized heroism, and on and on.
Looking at these entries on Baidu and AKS you already get an idea of 
how much or little weight Han Ryak-yŏn is being given in China and 
South Korea. 
Anyway, your student will find lots of literature and exhibition 
catalogues about Han. Yet, that does not mean that he has been well 
researched, I fear (would be a beautiful topic for a dissertation). Han 
comes from a poor family, was already born in Yŏnbyon (Yanbian ... in
용정촌, now 용정시), very early on joined the Chinese Communist Party 
just one or two years after it was inaugurated. He then became one of 
the very first (ethnically) Korean students to study art in Europe, 
went to France, studied and worked in Lyon, Nice, and Paris from 1929. 
He also continued his political, anti-fascist engagement in France and 
Italy. Coming back to China in, I believe 1937 (or early 1938?), he 
continued his artistic and political work there. And yes, he is also 
heavily engaged in anti-Japanese propaganda work, given Japan's war 
with China. All of that, it seems (at least according to Chinese 
secondary works) was embedded in the world of communist party 
activities. He even gets close to Edgar Snow and especially Agnes 
Smedley -- of course, not knowing that Smedley was Berlin's spy in New 
York, Karl Haushofer's protege at Berlin U, and later Stalin's spy in 
China. Anyway, his work is quite fascinating, and his political 
engagement and his depictions of Chinese minorities fit perfectly into 
official cultural state propaganda. After 1945 he became active into 
the Silk Road Art & Archaeology Project and made himself known 
internationally this way. He died in a plane crash in the summer
of 1947.

Other than Han Ryak-yŏn, though, there is very little. And whatever 
there is are mostly rough wood prints and mass-reproduced drawings (see 
attached scan as an example). Please consider that "modern" 
Western-style art was introduced very late to Korea, in the mid-1910s, 
and that it was a very exclusive business, mostly for sons and a few 
daughters of wealthy families (with just a few exceptions). Modernism 
in itself was already revolutionary, but not in a socialist sense, of 
course. Modern art as a means of direct, leftist political engagement 
can mostly be confined to Käthe Kollwitz' influence in both China and 
Japan. And that was again done in the media of drawing and print. The 
1980s Minjung art critics and activist-historians then _constructed_ a 
direct line from the colonial period to the 1980s (we discussed this 
several times before on this list, years ago). But there are just 
really extremely few examples for that. Han Ryak-yŏn WOULD have been 
good as such an example, just that South Korean Minjung artists did not 
even knew his name in the 1980s. 

All the other Chinese Korean artist (of modern, Western-style art) are 
of a younger generation. The oldest one following Han Ryak-yŏn was Sŏk 
Hŭi-man 石熙滿 (born 1914). Others are born in the early 1920s ... so 
they just came of age in 1945. There simply are no others. And Sŏk 
Hŭi-man, as far as I recall, didn't produce any political works (only 
later, in the PRC, the usual folkloristic "one country, many peoples" 

In the mid-1990s I did intense interviews with 16 or 17 Korean artists 
in Yŏnbyŏn. I had met some in 1985 and 1986 already, but the interviews 
were done ten years later. Some of these were from that 2nd 
generation, born in the 1920s. One thing that became completely clear 
to me was how heavily obscured Chinese (and South Korean) publications 
were in the depiction of such artists. With one painter, I read about 
his anti-Japanese, communist engagement in some magazine article, and 
then that same guy sits right in front of me, my father's age, tells me 
for two three hours what I already read; then he shows me his family 
album, where he happily waves under Japanese and Manchukuo flags, or in 
some photomontage with kamikaze airplanes circling over his head. Well! 
Where have I seen that before? -- too close to home. The same painter 
had learned painting from a Japanese war propaganda painter, one of 
those who stayed on in Manchuria after Manchukuo had become history, 
one who had been converted from a Tenno soldier to a devoted communist. 
The mentioned painter then used his craft as a People's Army propaganda 
painter during the Korean war ... and afterwards also, of course. A few 
years ago Koen De Ceuster was so very kind to buy me the autobiography 
of that painter, which has in the meantime been published in Jilin. Not 
a single word in there about his Japanese teacher.
Okay -- this just as a side story.

As for Korean artists in Russia: I am not aware that there was anyone 
of the first generation of Western-style painters. I'd think that the 
South Korean press would have picked up on that, in case there was 
anyone. You mention Pyŏn Wŏn-nyŏng 변월룡 (Пен Варлен, 
1916-1990), who spent a few years in North Korea. You may have read the 
2004 book edited by Mun Yŏng-dae and Kim Kyŏng-hŭi that has excerpts of 
his communications with North Korean artists after he then returned to 
the USSR -- very interesting! That book, and other publications -- e.g. 
_Korean Diaspora Artists in Asia_ (2009), and other publications that 
usually focus on Pyŏn, have passages that _indicate_ that there was 
some anti-Japanese political art done by Koreans in the USSR. But I 
have never seen even a single example of that! And the language bringing 
that up as a subject, e.g. in the last mentioned publication, is 
usually very bloomy and never concrete: who, where, when, what? ... 
Soviet art was from the 1930s highly regulated and streamlined. I can 
hardly imagine that this was done, in spite of the rivalry over 
Manchuria. Just would not be what Soviet art produced in these years. 
Maybe someone else has some input here and correct me there?

1938 example by Han Ryak-yŏn (see attachment).
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On Thu, 5 Sep 2019 16:18:40 +0300, Andrew Logie wrote:
> Dear art historians,
> I had a question from an art-historian student asking about art 
> produced in the context of the anti-Japanese resistance and 
> Manchuria-based guerilla movements. Off the top of my head, I couldn’
> t think of very much. What comes most immediately to mind is 
> retrospectively produced minjung-type art of the 1980s. Presumably 
> there must have been a few early painters, perhaps trained in Tokyo, 
> or Germany, who alligned themselves with the resistance and perhaps 
> ended up in Manchuria or beyond. And I’m guessing there would have 
> been some Soviet trained Korean artists, too.
> The only Soviet-Korean artist I know of is Pen Varlen 변월룡 
> (1916-1990), who moved to DPRK after the Korean War, however, the 
> couple of examples I’ve seen of his work - “Girl in Red chŏgori” 
> (1954), and etching “송정리” (1958) exhibited last year at 
> Deoksugung Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art - are already from 
> the 1950s and are not directly referencing the anti-Japanese 
> resistance movement (though they’re very nice pictures).
> Any thoughts or leads would be of interest.
> sincerely
> Andrew Logie 

Frank Hoffmann

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