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Joseon Art Nouveau

By 15 November 2020April 21st, 2021No Comments

What is Joseon Art Nouveau ?

Article by Kyung-Won CHOI, Professor of Design and founder of Haut Collection, translated from Korean.

Art Nouveau refers to the first design style that had a great influence on Western society, mainly in France at the end of the 19th century. It featured a botanical pattern decorated with colorful curves.

At that time, Art Nouveau style was consistently applied to various designs, including buildings, subway stations, hotel lobbies, house gates, furniture and posters. Therefore, it was not treated as a local style confined to one artistic field, but as a common style of that time and appeared in all everyday formatives. That is why, like Baroque and Rococo, it has a unique name, “Art Nouveau,” or new art.

Motifs Joseon Art Nouveau | Haut Collection marque sud-coréenne | Atelier Insadong

Joseon Art Nouveau

However, at about the same time, the same phenomenon of Art Nouveau appeared in Joseon. There were many similarities, including the painting of the folding screen that decorated the houses, the patterns of clothes, illustrations of ceramics, the complex and colorful decorations of the mother-of-pearl, and the beautiful decorations on various metal crafts.

In the late Joseon period and beginning of the Japanese colonial period, it is known that the culture of Joseon was shattered and evolved towards mannerism but this stylistic trend appeared only during the cultural apogee of this period. In addition, circumstances that cannot be viewed as a period of mannerism continue to emerge. Therefore, the culture of the late Joseon Dynasty faces a situation that must be completely reinterpreted from a new perspective.


The big stumbling block here is the word ‘Minhwa’ designating Korean folk painting. In two respects, this term conceals two big issues.

First of all, the word ‘Minhwa’ is used only for paintings. Even during the Art Nouveau period in France, painters such as Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha made numerous image posters. However, people are not talking about these paintings separately from Art Nouveau. Individual works are dealt with separately when they are analyzed, but it is common to think about the value and meaning of these paintings in the contemporary stylistic flow of Art Nouveau. The same goes for ‘Minhwa’.

During Joseon various artistic fields were closely related in a formative way, and the paintings could not be seen separately. In this case, it is normal to presuppose the overall style first and then examine the individual works. So why, during late Joseon, wasn’t considered the overall stylistic flow and why were the paintings dealt with separately?

Looking at the cultural phenomena of Japan before and after the Meiji Restoration, the artworks’ details are interesting, but metal crafts, ceramics, wood crafts, folding screens, and woodblock prints did not show common stylistic trends. So, in the Japan of the time, it was common to look at cultural aspects separately for each artistic field instead of viewing them as a stylistic trend. The famous Japanese woodblock print ‘Ukiyo-e’ is representative in this sense. When Japanese speak about Ukiyo-e, they do not take into account the formative features of other artistic fields or the trends of that same period.

Joseon’s ‘Minhwa’ followed this trend too. Instead of looking at the various styles of the late Joseon Dynasty as a whole, the painted screens were separated and named Minhwa. There are many records that show it was urgent to prove that Koreans also had a popular art that is symmetrical to Japanese Ukiyo-e.

By doing this an important value went missing. Style is a valuable feature in mature ideological cultures. By being seen only as a response to Japan’s Ukiyo-e, and because ‘Mihwa’ alone was separated from the wonderful cultural movement of the late Joseon Dynasty, a great stylistic movement that appeared at that time went missing. The cultural status of the late Joseon Dynasty had been lowered.

Another aspect is even more serious ; the fact that the word ‘Minhwa’ was not invented by Koreans, but by the Japanese. The word “Minhwa” is said to have been created in 30 minutes during a train trip by Japanese conscientious intellectuals, who thought positively about the beauty of Korea. No matter how conscientious and positive about Korean culture they were, could someone who was already accustomed to the divisive view of two cultures could understand the tone of Korean culture as a whole?

Language is sometimes scary because it defines the way we see things through. The word ‘Minhwa’ created by his divisive perspective, strangely enough, has been common throughout the colonial era without any friction until now. The problem is that words set from the wrong perspective distort our view of our culture without even knowing. The moment Koreans used the word ‘Minhwa’, the stylistic trend of the Joseon Dynasty became completely obscured, and even today, into the 21st century, Koreans have lost the focus of their culture and see it as fragmented. It is easy to see now  the lack of a general perspective and how fragmented are the perspectives on ceramics, wooden furniture, architecture, paintings in the Joseon Dynasty.

Minhwa and Joseon’s social classes

In addition, the word ‘Minhwa’ or ‘folk painting’ holds a very malicious view. When we use the word folk painting, we have the very negative view that our culture has been marked by social classes differences until the end of the Joseon Dynasty. It distorts the facts that, at that time, classes disappeared and the phenomenon of popularization of high-end culture appeared at the beginning of the late Joseon Dynasty. Even before the Meiji Restoration, the idea that Japan should conquer Joseon was emerging. Japan did not invade Joseon with only troops. As a strategy for colonizing Joseon, many Japanese imperialists came in with a history view that characterized the culture of Joseon through classes, and that the ruling class thoroughly exploited the governed classes.  Japan’s imperialism took the justification of liberating the masses from the governing class. The term “Minhwa” was a concept created as an extension of the colonial historical strategy of imperialism.

It is necessary to consider the cultural trends of the late Joseon Dynasty as being on the same level as the French Art Nouveau.

Kyung-Won CHOIHaut Collection

If the logic that the ruling class enjoyed the graceful and intelligent ‘literature’ and the foolish people enjoyed the simple “Mihwa” folk painting was created, then the Japanese imperialist culture could penetrate this gap with the advanced and enlightening imperialist culture. “Mihwa” were paintings of amateurs and  the explanations that they are simple and contain people’s sorrow or freedom wish were created from such a colonial perspective. In fact, various formative trends of the late Joseon dynasty, including folding screen paintings, were evenly adopted by the entire Joseon society. One of the paintings that Muneyoshi Yanagi designated as ‘Minhwa’ was the “Ilwol Oak Disease,” which was used only in the royal household in Joseon Dynasty, therefore showing how wrong the Japanese view was regarding Korean social classes.

Also, when we look at paintings that were call “Mihwa”, there are many details that show they cannot be seen as amateur paintings. Similarly, when referring to the history of art or music, we use a well-made work as a standard. Among the paintings classified as “Mihwa”, there are countless artworks made using exceptional skills. And even looking at the paintings that are said to have been drawn by an amateur, they are many cases in which they express modern abstraction rather than amateurishness.

These questions are aspects that need to be studied in the future, but there is no doubt that the trend of abstraction was burgeoning in Korean culture at the same time when modern abstract art occurred in the Western countries. No one says that Picasso’s paintings are simple or freely expressed.

In particular, paintings which are not appreciated on their own and sold to the public for money cannot be separated from the aesthetic public trends. The ‘simple and innocent’ paintings that appear at the end of the Joseon Dynasty have a high degree of abstraction. Treating these paintings only as the free expression of the simple people can only be seen as a serious disrespect for the spiritual worth of Korean ancestors.

All of this has come from the word “Minhwa”. Now is the time to look strictly critically at these narrow, imperialistic tactics. If we only had a normal view of our [Korean] culture, like we usually see Italian or French culture, this view could be easily corrected.

I think it not a historical coincidence that the French Art Nouveau and Korean decorative style were created at about the same time. Now, it is necessary to consider the cultural trends of the late Joseon Dynasty as being on the same level as the French Art Nouveau. In terms of ‘style’, our tradition reveals its true nature. The sooner the word ‘Minhwa’ is disposed of, the better it will be.

Other books of the same author :

끌리는 디자인의 비밀 (The secret of attractive design)

His latest book, where he traces the origins of Made in Korea : 한류 미학. 1: 선사 시대부터 통일신라 시대까지 (Hallyu aesthetics. 1: From prehistoric times to the Unified Silla period)

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