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

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byYi Jae-bok

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 protagonist. The ebb and flow of the writer’s self-consciousness as he goes about his day sets the narrative direction, neatly blending with the author’s experimentation. The author’s use of internalization and stream-of-consciousness to depict the artist state of mind gives this story its novelty and modern feel. The story’s interest also draws from the apparently timeless attraction of its protagonist, Kubo.

The character of Kubo has been revived by two authors, Choi In-hun and Joo In-seok. Choi In-hun’s “A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist” follows Pak’s original closely in that it too features an intellectual protagonist, where the character’s everyday reflections determine the narrative, and because of its stylistic departure from conventional narrative techniques. Choi In-hun’s original, however, is a critical appropriation that goes beyond stream-of-consciousness to emphasize the protagonist’s negative view of society and the will to change it. Joo In-seok’s “A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist” continues the introspective tradition of Pak Taewon and Choi In-hun while earnestly questioning the meaning of the novel and the novelist. In asking what the role of the writer is in an age of corruption and absurdity, the work also explores the possibilities of metafiction.

Chung Han-Sook’s “The Golden Hall Murals” (1955) and “Seal Impressions of the House of Tianhuang” (1955) are artist novels that bring a fresh point of view to the traditional arts. “The Golden Hall Murals” follows the life of Damjing, a Buddhist monk and artist who lived in the ancient Goguryeo kingdom. The author depicts him as a character torn between patriotism and artistic vision, the secular world and his Buddhist faith, before sublimating it all through the force of his will. In “Seal Impressions of the House of Tianhuang,” featuring a master seal carver, Chung questions the meaning of art and traditional values in a hopelessly materialistic world. The author’s appreciation of classical beauty is evident in both choice of subject and style, a perfect marriage highlighting yet another facet of the artist novel.

Yi Chong-jun is one of the last true craftsmen of this age. Among his contemporaries, few have pursued the subject of art and the artist with such consistency and candor. Traditional artisans and modern artists, Yi’s characters are all locked in a battle for artistic perfection. He has explored the lives of acrobats, falconers, pansori singers, potters, archers, photographers, and painters, pondering the existence of humanity and what writing means to him along the way. Seopyeonje: The Southerners’ Songs (1976) is a profound study of the emotional qualities of pansori— particularly the interplay of sorrow and joy. The sensibility and artistic style depicted in this work hails from a distinctly Korean world. “The Doors of Time” (1982), as the title suggests, uses the medium of time to explore art and the human condition. Photography is the medium of choice here, so the camera takes the place of gesture or speech, dominating and defining the author’s aesthetic. In the end, however, the author returns to the corporeal world. This shows that his view of man, history, and art is phenomenal rather than empirical or material. Phenomena being based on the autonomy of human consciousness, the author’s view of man, history, and art function on the basis of this liberated space. 


by Yi Jae-bok
Professor of Korean Literature
Head of the Institute of Future Culture Studies
Hanyang University