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The First Generation of Modern Korean Calligraphers

by AcklinEHuey

There’s a great exhibition on at the MMCA in Seoul highlighting noteworthy Korean calligraphers and artists. But if you can’t make it to Seoul that’s not a problem, because you can see it all on youtube!

And in some ways it’s better than actually going there in person, since the curator gives a guided tour of the exhibition highlights. (English subtitles available)

I was particularly interested in learning more about the pioneers in hangul calligraphy. And so in this post I’ll look at four of the First Generation of Korean calligraphers from the 20th century from the show who also worked with hangul. 

Related posts: 

Book Review: Beyond Line The Art of Korean Writing 

The First Generation of Korean Modern and Contemporary Calligraphers

SON JAE HYUNG (1903-1981) Pen name: SOJEON 

Up to this point, calligraphers had been influenced by Kim Jeonghui (1786-1856) (pen name Chusa), the most renowned calligrapher from the Joseon period. And they often copied him.

(There’s a chapter about Chusa in Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing)

But the calligraphers known as the ‘first generation of modern and contemporary calligraphers‘ started to step away from traditional calligraphy to find their own aesthetic.

The first calligrapher to be introduced is Sojeon. He developed his own hangul script by taking elements of seal script (Jeonseo) and clerical script (Yeseo) originally used for Chinese characters. It’s a distinctive style and the letters are often written at quirky angles. And it’s called sojeon script after his pen name.

His other claim to fame is that during the colonial period, calligraphy in Korea was called Seodo, (the same as the Japanese word meaning ‘the way of writing’) or just Seo. Son Jae Hyung changed the name to Seo-ye (‘writing art’) which it’s still called today. 

But his style was criticised for being too artistic and too removed from the established masters of calligraphy. 

I think this conservative approach to calligraphy appreciation is one of the reasons why calligraphy has lost its popularity – along with a huge change in lifestyle and faster pace of life of course! 

KIM CHOONG HYEON (1921-2006)  (pen name: ILJOONG)
Korean calligraphers Iljoong at MCMA

I was already familiar with some of the work of Kim Choong Hyeon, (pen name: Iljoong). (I wrote about him before in this post on the styles of Hangul.)

But I hadn’t seen this noteworthy work piece which the curator talks about in the video. It’s called Jeongeupsa  (Song of Jeongeup).

Iljoong is famous for hangul and Chinese characters (hanmun). But this work is unique as it’s made up of 6 different styles of calligraphy in Chinese characters and hangul! And somehow they all work harmoniously together!

His signature hangul old script (goche) characters are the largest and the main focus point of the work. I like this style where the brush mimics wood block printing. Then to the left in smaller letters are two rows of the more delicate hangul palace script (gongche) originally used by court ladies.

see more from dramasrok about life in Korea on Facebook Pinterest and Instagram 

LEE CHUL GYEONG (1914-1989) (pen name GALMUL)
Korean calligraphers hangul by Galmul

Out of the 12 names there is only one female calligrapher’s work on display: Lee Cheol Gyeong, pen name Galmul.  

She is famous for developing her own style of hangul palace script (gungche) called Galmul after her pen name. 

Her style is very elegant and precise – to the point where it looks more like a printed book than handwriting. The rows are so straight. How did she ever manage to do that?

Since only the elite could indulge in calligraphy in the early 20th century, it’s no surprise to hear that Galmul was also born into a yangban aristocratic family.

She studied music (piano) at Ewha College (founded in 1925) which was the first institute of higher education for women in Korea. So she must have been one of the first women to get a higher education in the country.

(Ewha Womans University is still the most prestigious university for women in the country). And after she graduated she became a school teacher. 

According to the curator, she was so prominent that all later hangul calligraphers must have been influenced by her. And yet, I hadn’t seen any hangul textbooks by her…


But her name did sound familiar. When I was studying palace script, my teacher recommended the textbook by calligrapher Lee Mi Gyeong. 

Lee Cheol Gyeong and  Lee Mi Gyeong both have the surname Lee and part of their names are the same – Gyeong… Sure enough they are sisters. Lee Mi Gyeong is the younger sister. (and is over 100 years old now) Actually, it turns out that Lee Cheol Gyeong was a twin and all three sisters became well-known hangul calligraphers!

Galmul founded the Galmul Hangul Calligraphy Association – an organization of women calligraphers which continues to practise and promote the Galmul palace script. 

see more from dramasrok about life in Korea on Facebook Pinterest and Instagram 

SEO HEE HWAN (1934-1995) (Pen name PYEONGBO) 
Korean calligraphers hangul by Pyeongpo

My final choice in this introduction to modern Korean calligraphers is Seo Hee Hwan (pen name Pyeongbo). He decided to create his own style after being criticised for ‘copying’ another established calligrapher. 

Actually, this was one of my favourite pieces at the exhibition. It’s a screen with two parts titled Eulogy of Ten Longevity Symbols (1989). And it’s written in his characteristic style which seems to breaks all the strict rules of hangul…

The characters are different sizes, the rows aren’t straight, and the strokes are irregular and vary in thickness. Also, there’s no gap between each row, so it’s hard to see that this should be read vertically from right to left. And yet it works so well. I love the colour too.

See the whole screen on instagram

According to the explanation next to the work in the museum, the artless strokes recall a ‘dense pine forest humming with freshness and vitality’. 

According to the curator, Pyeongbo was so popular in the 80s and 90s that his work was said to bee on the office wall of every CEO during that time!

The exhibition has lots of memorable works on display including painting and abstract calligraphy. If you’re into art or calligraphy, it’s certainly worth a look. 🤓

see more from dramasrok about life in Korea on Facebook Pinterest and Instagram 

Related posts:

Book Review: Beyond Lines The Art of Korean Writing

The Calligraphy of Buddhist Monk Great Master Samyeong

What are the different styles of hangul scripts?

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