Youngna Kim


National Museum of Korea

Modernity in Urban Visual Art and Culture

The first half of the twentieth century in Korea was a period of transition to modern society. Along with the changes and the development of the cities, the concept of the individual in the cities also changed. No longer a member of a traditional community, the individual had to rediscover him/herself as one of the urban masses. Urban life was perceived as both a source of limitless possibilities as well as the cause of social anxieties and cultural conflicts.

The visual culture of the city is to be situated within this historical and social context. The Most significant change was the advent of Western architecture. This is especially true during the period of Japanese colonization. Japan redirected the spatial organization and built Western-style government and public offices in the center of Seoul. Its authoritative physical presences seized the spatial hegemony, thus stood out in great contrast with the traditional living quarters of Korean-style houses. Gradually the civilian houses were also built in Western style with brick and concrete, bringing a new concept of home and house. The new medium of photography, which became abundant in everyday life, soon became an indispensable part of the newspaper and magazines.

The experience of modern life and modern values is well revealed in the works of early modern artists. One shift from the past is the use of oil techniques of Western art as well as the introduction of new subjects such as self-portraits and depictions of personal life. "New Woman" and "Modern Girl," who became the primary protagonists of the dynamism of urban life, also became fascinating subjects for artists. From 1940, however, with the advent of the war, cultural activity started to be severely restrained with many newspapers and magazines censored and/or canceled. Images of the politicized body dominated the posters, magazines, newspapers, and this situation persisted until 1945.