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How a photograph in LACMA’s new exhibition captures a pivotal moment in Korean history

The young woman in the sepia-toned photograph gracefully curtseys, 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 girlish innocence. But when this photo was taken in Korea in 1930, local viewers probably would have found it unsettling.

The photo is one of over 130 artworks currently on display in LACMA’s The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art. Running until February 19, the exhibition documents the development of modern art in Korea between 1897 and 1965. It was a turbulent period that included the country’s colonization by Japan, the resulting influence of Western culture and technology, and the Korean War, which tore apart the nation in two.

Amidst these dramatic transitions, the photo represented a harrowing modernity invading traditional Korean society. Here was a young woman with cropped hair, wearing revealing Western attire, posing flirtatious in a medium that had only been introduced to Korea in the late 19th century. Much like her flapper counterparts in the West, she embodied a short-lived cultural moment known as Sinyeoseong, or “New Woman.” The photo hangs in a small room dedicated to this moment; Like many works in the exhibition, it will be shown in the USA for the first time.

According to the curator of the exhibition, Dr. Virginia Moon, Sinyeoseong represented a “little flutter” of feminist sentiment that emerged in the 1910s. Unlike American women’s empowerment movements, Sinyeoseong was largely founded and promoted 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 to better raise and teach their children. “It wasn’t this big movement that shook everyone’s world,” says Moon. But it created an opening for single women who wanted to do something other than being wives and mothers.

One of these women is the subject of the photo, Choi Seunghui. As an artist who studied both Japanese modern 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, captured by influential photographer Shin Nakkyun, may be one of the earliest depictions of Choi, capturing her on the brink of fame.

Moon admits that not much is known about the photo, why it was taken, or where it might have been shown. The print was found in a box in Shin’s apartment by its current owner and probably wasn’t widely distributed. She knows it was taken at a photo shoot attended by seven other photographers and suspects the gathering may have been an experimental study session. Shin was the first photographer to establish photography schools in Korea and was known for his technical ability.

Choi Seunghui became an international star and has lived in various locations in Korea, Japan and China. She founded her own dance institutes and revived forgotten Korean folk dances. At the peak 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 Sino-Korean dance. She continued to perform in Eastern Bloc countries through the 1950s, but was expelled from the North Korean Communist Party sometime in the late 1960s, after which little is known of her life.

But for the Choi in the photo, none of this has happened yet. Stepping gingerly forward, she is both daring and reserved, a “New Woman” caught in the tiny flutter of the camera’s mechanical eye.

“The Intermediate Space: Modernism in Korean Art”

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 11am-6pm; Fridays 11am-8pm; Saturday and Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Closed on Wednesday. Until February 19th.
The information: (323) 857-6000, lacma.org

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-09-23/photograph-lacma-korean-art-history How a photograph in LACMA’s new exhibition captures a pivotal moment in Korean history

Sarah Ridley

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