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How a Photograph in LACMA’s New Exhibit Captures a Pivotal Moment in Korean History


The young woman in the sepia-toned photograph bows gracefully, tilts her head, and smiles sweetly at the camera. She wears a light colored dress with puff sleeves and a flared skirt that falls above the knee. To a contemporary viewer, this image may suggest the innocence of a young girl. But when this photograph was taken in Korea in 1930, local viewers would have likely found it disturbing.

The photographer is one of more than 130 artworks currently on display in “The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art” at LACMA. Running through February 19, the exhibition documents the development of modern art in Korea between 1897 and 1965. It was a tumultuous period that included Japan’s colonization of the country, the resulting influx of Western culture and technology, and the War of Korea, which tore the nation in two.

Amidst these dramatic transitions, photography represented a discordant modernity entering traditional Korean society. Here was a young woman with short hair, dressed in revealing Western clothing and posing coquettishly in a medium that had only been introduced to Korea in the late 19th century. Like her flapper counterparts in the West, she embodied a short-lived cultural moment known as Sinyeoseong, or “New Woman.” The photograph hangs in a small room dedicated to this moment; like many of the works in the exhibition, it is being shown in the United States for the first time.

According to the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Virginia Moon, Sinyeoseong represented a “small flutter” of feminist sentiment that emerged in the 1910s. Unlike American movements advocating women’s empowerment, Sinyeoseong was created and promoted largely by men. “It was the men who thought, ‘How can we use women to help modernize the country?’” says Moon. The movement had its limitations: in the early 20th century, Korean women were encouraged to pursue an education, but only so that they could better raise and instruct their children. “It wasn’t this big move that rocked everyone’s world,” says Moon. But it did create an opportunity for individual women who wanted to do something beyond being wives and mothers.

One of these women is the subject of the photo, Choi Seunghui. An artist who studied both modern Japanese and Korean Buddhist dance, she played an important role in the development of modern dance in Korea and was among the most famous and photographed women of her time. This image, taken by influential photographer Shin Nakkyun, may be one of Choi’s earliest depictions of her, capturing her on the brink of stardom.

Moon admits that not much is known about the photograph, why it was taken or where it may have been displayed. The print was found by its current owner in a box in Shin’s apartment and probably did not circulate widely. She knows that it was taken at a photo shoot where seven other photographers were present, and she suspects that the meeting may have been an experiential learning session. Shin was the first photographer to establish photography schools in Korea and was known for his technical skills.

As for Choi Seunghui, he became an international star, living in various parts of Korea, Japan, and China. She founded her own dance institutes and revived forgotten Korean folk dances. At the height of her career, she toured internationally in Europe and America. After World War II, she moved to what is now North Korea, where she influenced the development of Chinese and Korean Chinese dance. In the 1950s, she continued to perform in Eastern Bloc countries, but was eventually expelled from the North Korean Communist Party sometime in the late 1960s, after which little is known of her life. she.

However, for the Choi in the photo, none of this has happened yet. Moving cautiously, she is both daring and demure, a “New Woman” captured in the slightest flutter of the camera’s mechanical eye.

‘The space in between: the modern in Korean art’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 11 am-6 pm; Friday 11am-8pm; Saturdays and Sundays 10 am to 7 pm Wednesdays closed. Until February 19
Information: (323) 857-6000, lacma.org



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