Korean Künstlerroman: Artist Novels_Overview

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byLee Kwang-ho

Editor's Note

In this section, we examine the lives of Korean writers and the nature of their works by sorting them into three generations: the first wave from the 1920s to the 1960s, the second wave from the 1970s to the 1980s, and the third wave from the 1990s to the present.


The Aesthetics and Modernity of Korean Künstlerroman: Artist Novels

Artist novels refer to fiction in which the artist’s journey forms the main part of the narrative. They may be considered a subgenre of the Bildungsroman or “intellectual” novel in their treatment of the artist’s inner conflict and growth as a character. Novels about writers, in particular, have always formed a core part of the artist novel genre in their autobiographical depiction of the artist’s world. The archetype of the genre in Western literature concerns the artist’s struggle between reality and the artistic ideal, depicting the growth of the artist thereof. Since modern times, artists have had to contend with feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and exclusion in the struggle between their artistic desires and the demands of everyday life. In the process of overcoming these obstacles, the protagonist comes to terms with how an artist may exist as a member of society, and thereby comes closer to the question of what art is in itself.

The Korean prototype of the artist novel can be traced back to a handful of short stories published in the early 1920s in literary magazines such as CreationWhite Tide, and Wasteland. Stories about artists or aspiring artists revealed a budding tendency to favor aestheticism and escapism, while stories questioning the meaning of art itself also began to appear. As the 1920s were lean times for most Korean artists and writers, the humdrum reality and struggle of the intelligentsia was an oft-depicted subject. Most importantly, these early artist novels show writers questioning the role of art and the artist in the modern world, or pondering the terms and conditions of modernity in art.

Kim Dong-in’s “Sonata Appassionato” (1930) is a typical example of the early modern artist novel in Korea. The story revolves around genius composer Baek Seong-su, who resorts to arson, necrophilia, and murder to boost his creative inspiration, and the music critic who seeks to have him committed to a mental hospital so he may avoid being tried and executed as a criminal. The music critic’s reasoning that it would be a sin to execute an artistic genius according to laws written for mere mortals is a gross exaggeration of the Romantic ideal of “genius.” For Kim Dong-in, the concept of artist-as-genius elevates the artist to an absolute being. Depicting lunacy as the spring of creativity only adds to the mystique of this type of artist. A key distinction in modern art is the recognition that art and artists are autonomous from the values of mainstream society. In Kim’s case, however, the autonomy of art becomes an end in itself, an example of enlightenment that exists in a rarified, privileged sphere of its own.

Pak Taewon’s “A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist” (1934) is a classic example of an autobiographical artist novel. A day in the life of the eponymous Kubo forms the basis of this novella. Told through the eyes of Kubo as he meanders about Gyeongseong (colonial Seoul), the reader takes in such modern spaces as the bustling streets, the tram, coffeehouses, and Gyeongseong Station. The narrative camera pans over all the spaces where Kubo tries and fails to find happiness, eventually dragging himself back home to his mother’s domain. Kubo the writer is faced with the choice of continuing his lonely perambulations of the city or giving in to the demands of everyday life. Stuck in between the modernity of giving in to worldly, everyday concerns, and the aesthetic, avant-garde modernity of refusing to do so, he struggles to find himself. Experimental as this piece is, Kubo’s adventures never lead him in the direction of confronting the contradictions inherent to a colonial society. Unlike the traditional Korean literati, the modern writer confronts the dual task of rejecting the tyrannical capitalist order while still finding ways to integrate within its sphere. Moving from the spectacle of modern urbanity and anonymous masses back to his physical and inner self, the roaming eye of Kubo heralds a new kind of sensibility.

Yi Chong-jun’s “The Wounded” (1966) poses psychopathological questions on trauma and deviance. The protagonists are two brothers, the elder a doctor who writes, and the younger an artist. The doctor chooses to face his psychological trauma through writing, while the artist vicariously experiences pain by stealing looks at his older brother’s work. The guilt of one aware of the source of his trauma, and the weakness of one professing to not have any trauma at all, are both referenced as “wounds,” hence the title.

Featuring a story within the story, this device is significant in two ways: it shows the younger brother’s vicarious experience of his older brother’s wounds while questioning the nature of fiction writing itself. As an artist novel, "The Wounded" stands out in that rather than following the self-consciousness of the writer protagonist, it studies him from an objective point of view. The dilemma here is twofold: exploring the collective consciousness of the young, post-April 1960 student movement generation of writers, and the issue of how to verbalize this sort of introspection. Yi Chong-jun’s questioning of the literary form itself elevates this story from simply being another artistic response to the oppression of society to being the modern culmination of the artist novel.

The artist novel continued to diversify in the 1960s. Choi In-hun’s “A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist” (1969) is a parody of Pak Taewon’s identically titled story. Choi In-hun emphasizes the meta-level of this work by inserting musings on writing and incorporating dreamlike, fantastical elements as well as the writer-protagonist’s observations of the corporeal world. The writer’s ideas on life and literature and the inner life of the intellectual are on constant display. Choi expands upon Pak's original thesis by questioning what role artists and literature must play in a divided Korea.

Yi Mun-yol’s “The Golden Phoenix” (1981) is an exploration of the meaning of art as seen through the clash of a master and his disciple over artistic differences. The protagonist, born with a natural gift for calligraphy, rebels at his teacher’s idea that mastery of the art form is only possible through mastery of the self. The two reconcile when the master finally acknowledges the talent and skill of his pupil. The golden phoenix that appears in the bonfire the protagonist has made of his life’s work before dying may be interpreted in various ways. It could be seen as a final acceptance of his master’s view of art as a mastery of the self, or also as the ultimate act of aestheticism. Whichever the case, this is a classically written treatise on the Asian aesthetic of art.

Han Kang’s “Mongolian Mark” (2005) is a contemporary update in keeping with Kim Dong-in’s brand of aestheticist artist novel. A video artist is equal parts inspired and aroused by the “Mongolian” birthmark on his sister-in-law’s buttocks, which he cannot stop fantasizing about. This story falls within Kim Dong-in’s view of art in that the artistic impulse is presented as being above conventional morality. The Mongolian mark symbolizes the primeval beauty of the body—the vessel of life and death—as well as shows how the desire towards pure art can collide with sexual desire. The protagonist of this story, however, is not a genius, and fails to find anyone to condone his actions. Unlike the early modern artist, this video artist’s aestheticism is not celebrated as enlightenment. Failure to distinguish between lust for his sister-in-law and artistic desire marks him as a failed artist rather than as a genius.

The artist novel in Korea combines questions about life in the modern era and questions about art itself. It is a reflective, introspective form that showcases the aesthetics and modernity of Korean literature. As seen in the history of this genre in Korea, the question of what the artist or art means in the modern world directly informs its form and aesthetics. In the strongly realist tradition of Korean literature, the artist novel’s exploration of aesthetics stands out as an outlet of introspective expression. 


by Lee Kwang-ho
Literary Critic and Professor of Creative Writing
Seoul Institute of the Arts