Korean Künstlerroman: Artist Novels_First Wave Authors (1920s - 1960s)

Discovering the Autonomy of Inner Consciousness


A variety of depictions of artists can regularly be found in modern Korean novels whose themes and subjects show a distinct concern for aesthetic matters. This indicates a strong sense of what art and artists mean to such writers. The ways in which this sense is manifested, however, differs from generation to generation. The first generation to ride the wave of artist novels include Kim Dong-in, Hyun Jin-geon, Pak Taewon, Choi In-hun, Joo In-seok (Joo is actually a third wave author but is discussed with first wave authors here because of his association with Pak Taewon and Choi In-hun), Chung Han-Sook, and Yi Chong-jun.

     Kim Dong-in, one of the first modern Korean writers to focus on artistry and aestheticism in literature is a firm believer in art for art’s sake. For him, art is a life formed by the artist that the artist must then be able to subjugate through an intense struggle. “Tale of a Mad Painter” (1935) and “Sonata Appassionato” (1930) are two excellent examples of Kim's sensibilities. “Tale of a Mad Painter” is the story of Solgeo, an artist living in the early Joseon period, who pursues a vision of absolute beauty that eventually causes him to descend into madness. The artist dreams of painting the portrait of the most beautiful woman in the world, but when he begins to realize that his ideal does not exist, he loses his mind and wanders the world aimlessly until he dies. The fanatical pursuit of beauty and consequent tragedy depicted in Kim’s story fall short of literary sophistication in some ways, but Kim does succeed somewhat in stating his literary position as a staunch aestheticist.

     The same aesthetic applies to Kim’s other artist novel, “Sonata Appassionato.” The protagonist Baek Seong-su is a genius composer following in the footsteps of his equally brilliant father. Deranged by trauma, Baek commits arson, necrophilia, and murder in his ruthless quest for artistic inspiration. Eventually he is inspired by the hypnotic flames of a fire he set, and composes his masterpiece, “Sonata Appassionato.” This is an even more intense statement of Kim’s aestheticist belief that beauty comes before all concerns of morality or conventional ethics.

     Hyun Jin-geon, a contemporary of Kim Dong-in credited with establishing the short story aesthetic in Korean literature, presents his artistic views in the artist novel The Shadowless Pagoda (1938). This novel portrays Asadal, a sculptor from the Baekje kingdom. Asadal is charged with creating a stone pagoda in what is to be a monumental new temple. He gives himself completely to the task, and his wife Asanyeo, knowing her husband better than anyone, waits patiently for the pagoda to be finished. Her husband has told her to look for the shadow the finished pagoda will cast on a pond, and so she waits. When the shadow never appears, she throws herself into the pond and drowns. Ironically, it is her death that finally leads to the completion of the pagoda. This is why the pagoda, officially named Seokgatap, is colloquially known as Muyeongtap (the shadowless pagoda). Through this fictionalization of how Seokgatap gained its other name and the artistry of the man who built it, Hyun ponders the meaning of art and what an artist’s life should be.

     Pak Taewon’s “A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist” (1934) is a unique example of the genre, not because the author’s chosen writer-as-protagonist is so unusual, but because the process of writing is connected with the inner consciousness of the...