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Exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art features the new women in Korea
New Women, September 1933, Kwon Jinkyu Museum.

SEOUL.- The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea is staging the exhibition The Arrival of New Women from December 21 through April 1, 2018, throughout its Deoksugung branch.

The Arrival of New Women is a three-dimensional exhibition featuring over 500 works in various visual and auditory media representing images of the new woman in Korea within the broader context of modern visual culture from Enlightenment to the Japanese occupation, including works of painting, sculpture, embroidery, photography, printed art (cover paintings, illustrations, and posters), film, popular songs, documents, magazines, and ttakjibon novels. It offers a diverse range of perspectives with its varied approach to and interpretation of the new woman as a new agent or phenomenon seeking to practice modern values. In addition to artworks and archival materials from the time, the exhibition also shares a diachronic experience by including new reinterpretations of the new woman by contemporary artists.

The term “new woman” originated in Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, it was in use in Japan and other countries. Although definitions of the concept varied from one country to the next, they could be said to share a new, transformed image of the woman for the modern era as someone resisting the constraints of the social, political, and institutional inequalities imposed on women and pursuing freedom and liberation as an autonomous individual with a role in public life. Women with a modern education and cultivation first appeared in Joseon in the 1890s, while the term “new women” appeared in major media and magazines during the 1910s and came into frequent use between the mid-1920s and late 1930s.

Joseon’s modernization followed a different historical experience and trajectory from the West. Caught in rivalries between the premodern and modern, imperialism and colonialism, Western and Eastern, women found themselves in a dilemma, facing multiple layers of repression and contradiction—sometimes opposing and other times compromising with the gender discrimination of traditional patriarchal society. As colonial subjects and as women, the new women of Joseon were positioned as doubly “other,” unable to function as major driving forces in modernization. For this reason, the new woman in Joseon Korea also became an icon for the disruptive implications of modernity.

The exhibition consists of three sections: “New Women on Parade,” “I Am Painting and Painting Becomes I: Women Artists in Modern Times,” and “The Women Are Man’s Destiny: Five New Women of Korea” The first section, “New Women on Parade,” uses images of the New Woman from mass media, popular songs, and film—chiefly by male artists—to explore the concept’s development over time. The images relate to a number of different themes surrounding the New Woman: education and enlightenment, the “wise mother, good wife” ideal and the gisaeng, romance and marriage, sexuality and love, urbanization and westernization, and consumer culture and popular culture. Together, they show all of the complex and delicate tensions and conflicts surrounding the modern “new woman” as she appeared through the cracks in the ideological, moral, social, and political contest of modernity and premodernity under the colonial regime.

The second section consists of works by female artists, showing all of the ability and potential possessed by women as creative agents. Works by female artists from the time are exceedingly rare, which limits what can be shown in an exhibition, but the section includes work by Jung Chanyoung and Lee Hyunok, who were taught by male artists in Korea; the gisaeng artists Kim Neunghae and Won Geumhong; Tokyo Women’s School of Fine Arts students Na Hyeseok, Baek Namsun, Lee Gapgyeong, Na Sangyun, Park Rehyun, and Chun Kyungja; and embroidery exchange students Jeon Myeongja and Park Eulbok. The work offers a glimpse at art education and professional issues faced by modern women and the activities of the earliest group of Korean female artists pursuing self-awareness and identity as creators.

The third section spotlights five “new women” who played pioneering roles in male-dominated fields such as art, literature, the socialist movement, and popular culture: painter Na Hyeseok (1896–1948), literary writer Kim Myeongsoon (1896–1951), women’s activist Ju Sejuk (1901–53), and dancer Choi Seunghui (1911–67). Subjects of censure more than admiration in their day, these new women’s iconoclasm and challenges to prevailing social values offered an opportunity to re-examine modernity from a gender perspective. By connecting them over time and space with contemporary female artists, the section enables a new interpretation of new women from a contemporary standpoint, expanding the discourse on new women by establishing a present-day linkage with the pathways of philosophy and practice that they pursued at the time.

This exhibition was organized as part of an effort by MMCA to break free from an overemphasis on the West and males, reinterpreting modernism by focusing attention and research on neglected non-Western and female figures. Among the most challenging and controversial figures in modern and contemporary Korea, the new women of the modern and colonial era offer an opportunity to question our established understanding of modernism and restore a half-formed sense of modernity to wholeness.

Organized by Jang Yujeong.

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