Korean Künstlerroman: Artist Novels_Second Wave Authors (1970s - 1980s)

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byBaek Jiyeon

The Significance of Artistic Salvation

Artist novels share characteristics with Bildungsroman or coming-of-age stories in their treatment of an artist’s growth to maturity. According to scholar Cho Nam-hyun, the artist novel refers to “any work of fiction whose main plot concerns events related to artistic acts.” Artist novels in Korean literature date back to the 1920s. Works penned by authors such as Kim Dong-in, Hyun Jin-geon, Pak Taewon, and Yi Sang depict the mental struggle of artists coping with the dark reality of colonial-era Korea.

Independence and division of the country followed, with writers such as Jung Hansuk, Yi Chong-jun, and Choi In-hun picking up the baton of artist novelists, followed by such writers as Kim Seungok, Han Sung-won, Lee Ze-ha, Yu Ik-seo, Yi Mun-yol, Lee Oisoo, So Young-en, Kang Sok-kyong, and Kim Seung-hee. Artist novels in the 1970s and 80s were greatly influenced by Korea’s contemporaneous industrialization and urbanization. Out of these, works by Han Sung-won, Lee Ze-ha, Yu Ik-seo, Yi Mun-yol, and Kang Sok-kyong stand out in their direct treatment of the artist’s craft.

Han Sung-won’s Love, Sing Your Heart Out (2014) is a powerful example of the genre. Set against the seaside of Jeolla Province region, it draws freely upon local mannerisms and lore, featuring a cast of hard-bitten survivors. Inspired by the life of pansori singer Im Bang-ul, the novel focuses on the healing power of song in times of hardship and weariness. Han describes Im Bang-ul’s artistic journey in minute detail, from his first love to his encounters with the greatest singers of the time. The author’s characteristic focus on the aesthetics of han (unresolved sadness and resentment) recalls one of his earlier works, “Arirang Ballad” (1977), which connected the doleful strains of the Korean folk song Arirang with Korean history.

Lee Ze-ha’s artist novels feature offbeat, grotesque characters not often seen in Korean literature. His characters are at war with reality, showing their self-consciousness and transcendental romanticism. Thanks to the antics of these characters and his frequent use of fantastic symbolism, Lee’s work has been dubbed by some as “fantastic realism.” An oft-cited example of an artist novel is his “A Short Biography of Yuja” (1969) which depicts the artist’s anger and resistance against a corrupt world. The story looks back upon the turbulent life of artist Nam Yu-ja up to her premature death at the age of 28. The world of art is represented as everything pure and good standing up against the corruption and injustice of reality. The same author’s “A Wanderer Never Stops on the Road” (1985)—an artist novel in a broader sense— deals with the dormant bohemian, artistic yearnings of the everyman. The protagonist who drifts off after his wife’s death represents the desire of modern man to transcend reality.

Yu Ik-seo’s Minkkot Sori (1989) also focuses on a pansori artist. It belongs to the author’s pansori trilogy, beginning with Saenam Sori (1981), followed by Minkkot Sori and finally Sori Kkot (2009). Out of these, Minkkot Sori follows the life of daegeum (Korean flute) player Jeong Myeong-jae and his quest for artistic freedom. The protagonist, born with one eye and disfigured by polio, battles his handicaps in pursuit of playing the daegeumSori Kkot, the last of the trilogy, is an ambitious study of the entire history of traditional Korean music. It traces the birth of pansori back to its origins, a mixture of influences ranging from oral literature to Namsadang nori (a traditional Korean circus) to muga (shamanistic singing).

One of the most influential writers credited with popularizing the genre is Yi Mun-yol. Art is a form of transcending reality in Yi’s work, with its emphasis on aestheticism and the romantic outsider. Resignation is his response to the pressure of Korea’s ideologically divided society. His artists are deviant individuals trying to break away from the mores or customs of society. Artistic motifs in his work manifest themselves in the form of coming-of-age stories such as The Son of ManA Portrait of Youthful Days (1981), “The Golden Phoenix” (1981), and The Poet (1991). Out of these, “The Golden Phoenix” is a particularly intense work that pits the artistic approaches of its two main characters Sokdam and Kojuk against each other. The golden phoenix, a mythical bird visible only to those who have reached true enlightenment, symbolizes the highest echelons of art. At the end of a long and lonely quest in search of a pure beauty that eluded even his teacher Sokdam, Kojuk sees the golden phoenix. Sokdam stands for the traditional, sublimated aesthetic, while Kojuk stands for a sensual aesthetic firmly rooted in the real world. Combining his own aesthetic with his teacher’s, Kojuk finally succeeds in attaining the highest level of art.

Kang Sok-kyong’s interest in artistic salvation is well worth comparing with the works of Choi In-hun, Kim Seungok, Yi Chong-jun, and Yi Mun-yol. Kang's work is also distinctive for her strong female protagonists, often intellectuals. In her work, female intellectuals turn to spiritualism in response to life’s absurdities and alienation. The images of darkness and closed rooms in Kang’s early work, symbolizing closed spaces, are expanded into the literally limitless spaces of open skies and outer space in her later works. The Valley Nearby (1989), All Stars in the World Rise on Lhasa (1996), and The Staircase Inside Me (1999) all feature artist characters who dream of transcendence. The Valley Nearby focuses on the life of a sculptor in a quiet homage to those who choose to walk the difficult path of not compromising their art in the face of worldly temptation. As can be seen in this novel, Kang’s characters do not give in to social mores or taboos easily. Self-styled outsiders, their voices perfectly reflect that of the author’s.

As we’ve seen, artist novels revel in the basic desire to break away from the conditions of life that threaten a free existence. The artist protagonist of these works freely traverse reality and fantasy in their quest for self-discovery. Reading these works provides us with the opportunity to reflect upon the role of art as a mental weapon to cope with the absurdities of life. 


by Baek Jiyeon
Literary Critic