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Hye-sok Na: a Pioneering Korean Female Artist

최종 수정일: 2023년 5월 26일

Hye-sok Na is a female Korean artist who opened the career path of art to women during the darkest period of Korean history when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule from the 1910s to 1940s. Hye-sok Na fiercely fought several forms of discrimination and prejudices. With courage and persistence, she attempted to overcome social obstacles prevalent during the early twentieth century: discrimination against women and colonialism.

Hye-sok Na was a printer, poet, novelist, essayist, and one of the pioneers of Korean feminism, who stood up for changes in society far ahead of her time. Born in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, Na was raised in a wealthy family headed by a father who served as an official in the Korean government and in the following colonial government. Na went to Japan to study art at a young age. It is believed that Na chose to study in Japan as she wanted to be exposed to western painting, and the only opportunity to experience western art at the time was to study in Japan. In the 1910s and 1920s, Japan was considered the hub of western civilizations in Asia through the import of western goods and culture before other Asian countries were able to do so. Na demonstrated her creativity in painting, writing, and publishing while majoring in western oil painting at Tokyo Arts College. In Tokyo, she formed close relationships with other Korean students, who were also spending their formative years in the land of Korea’s colonial overlord. She returned to Korea at the end of the 1910s and worked as a teacher while continuing to hone her craft as a western oil painter. Pursuing her belief in freedom and human rights, she participated in the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919 and was subsequently imprisoned.

After her release from prison for her radical involvement, she was able to connect with other Korean women to start a magazine by and for women called Sinyoja, which had the goal of interrogating women’s traditional roles in Korea's patriarchal society. The creators were five women from elite, wealthy families who had been afforded the rare opportunity to go to college, where they were exposed to radical politics. They believed liberating the Korean nation was inextricably linked with liberating women from the Confucian gender role, best encapsulated by the aphorism hyeonmoyangcheo, or “wise mother, good wife.”[1] This Confucian idea revolved around the belief that girls and women should aspire to keep society and their families functioning. During this time, Na married Woo Young Kim, a lawyer who encouraged Na to pursue her professional career as an artist. Na held her own exhibition, becoming the first modern female artist in Korean history. In the exhibition, she displayed her paintings with not only western elements but also Korean traditional elements, successfully blending her western artistic skills with the local cultural landscape.

In the middle of her successful artistic career, however, she became pregnant, which prompted her to write one of the most provocative essays in Korea during the early twentieth century. In her essay titled Thoughts on Becoming a Mother, Na criticized Korean society for imposing child care as only a woman’s role and demanding women’s endless sacrifices in raising children.[2] As a result of publishing the article in a major newspaper, she became the target of severe criticism and opposition to her bold outspokenness in championing women’s freedom and rights in a conservative Korean society where Confucianism ideals had been deeply embedded for over several hundred years. Some even criticized her artistic creativity, falsely claiming that her ideas were unoriginal and she was just copying Western practices. However, in reality, she was looking for the validation of female independence and individuality within the realm of the existing Korean culture. Her artworks show how she succeeded in creating her own art world based on her identity as a Korean female.

Her two self-portraits from two different time periods (1933) and (1928) vividly show her diverse artistic approaches. She sometimes used techniques that seemed to resemble that of western artists, but Na always made her own style, breathing her ideas and identity into the works. It was her activity as an essayist and journalist that brought her both fame and criticism[3]. Still, Na always identified herself as an artist, wanting to freely explore various artistic inspirations and formats. However, her personal life drew great attention and criticism in Korean society; thus, she frequently became the topic of gossip during this time period.

In the face of criticism and prejudice, Na did her best to pursue her artistic endeavors. She founded the first professional art school for females in Korea, within a patriarchal Korean society. In spite of her efforts, the school failed due to the social stigma for her and female artists, leaving her in debt.

Hye-sok Na died in Seoul on December 10th, 1948, ending her struggles in a mental hospital. It was only decades after her death that the Korean public began to recognize her talents, commemorating her as the first female modern artist in Korean history as well as a pioneer in Korean feminism. As a critic of Hye-sok Na notes, Na “lived a pioneering life as an individual woman, artist, and writer” during the most turbulent period in Korean history

[1] Osook Kwon and others, The Women Who Loved Their Own Free Souls: Twelve Female Writers (Hangil Press 2011) [2] Kim, Miyoung. “How did Hye-sok Na Brea the Social Stigma?” 10 Oct. 2008. The Hankyoreh Daily

[3] Bonjun Gu, “Legacy of the Pioneering Female Artist Ahead of the Time.” 17 Jan. 2000. The Hankyoreh Daily

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