- The Achievements and Limitations of Ko Yu-seop, a Luminary in Korean Art History
Ko Yu-seop (1905–1944) occupies a unique position in Korean art history. During the period when Korea was a Japanese colony (1910–1945), he was the sole Korean art historian of his homeland. He entered the Department of Philosophy at Keijō (K: Kyeongseong) Imperial University (precursor of Seoul National University) to study aesthetics and art history in 1925. In 1933, aged twenty-eight, he was made director of the Gaeseong Prefectural Museum, an extraordinary appointment at a time when Japanese controlled all Korean institutions. In his new position he began writing not only on Buddhist art and Goryeo green-glazed ceramics, but also on aesthetics, Western, and modern art. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish what was to have been his most ambitious work, a complete history of Korean art. After a brief scholarly career that lasted just over one decade, Ko died in 1944, having completed a draft text only through the period of the Four Han Commanderies (108 bce–313 ce).
Ko Yu-seop studied Korean pagodas throughout his life. His first paper on the topic, entitled "Joseon tappa ui gaeseol (A Survey of Korean Pagodas)," appeared in 1932. From 1936 until 1940 he continued publishing papers on Korean pagodas in Jindan hakbo, the academic journal of the Jindan Academic Society.1 These papers were revised and reissued under the title Joseon tappa ui yeongu II (Research on Korean Pagodas II) in 1943.2 Portions of this book duplicate his earlier papers and are so titled, but the text is organized more systematically, causing it to be regarded as one of the outstanding achievements in the field. Ko's other books are listed in note 3.3
Throughout his life Ko Yu-seop wrote over a hundred essays and articles in Korean or Japanese. It is important to remember, however, that except for his work on the Korean pagoda, these writings were mainly essays published in newspapers or literary journals rather than scholarly research papers. His major essays are listed in note 4.4 These brief essays proved extremely influential in later Korean art circles, frequently becoming the subject of vigorous debate. In the 1960s Ko Yu-seop's contributions began to draw serious interest among aestheticians and art historians, who overwhelmingly recognized Ko Yu-seop as a pioneer of Korean art history.5 His methodology of art history and writings on the Korean sense of beauty stimulated early research, especially in aesthetics. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, his characterization of Korean art drew challenges and criticism.
This paper will focus on Ko Yu-seop's role in the formation of modern Korean art history. It will begin with an examination of his educational background, followed by an assessment of his achievements and limitations as an art historian. Lastly, his enduring influence on Korean art history will be discussed.
Ko Yu-seop's Education in Its Historical Context
When Ko began his studies at Keijō Imperial University, he was among a select group of Koreans in a student body that was roughly two-thirds Japanese. After completing a preparatory course, he chose to major in aesthetics and art history in the Department of Philosophy, apparently having a somewhat unformulated desire to study the nature of beauty in Korean art.6 When a professor advised him that a student of art history should be financially secure and prepared for a future without appropriate employment opportunities, Ko reportedly replied that he would major in what interested him, regardless of his financial status.
The faculty of the Department of Philosophy, in which he registered at Keijō, consisted of graduates of Tokyo Imperial University. They included Abe Yoshishige (1883–1966), who taught history of philosophy; Miyamoto Wakichi (1883–1972), who taught introduction to philosophy; Hayami Hiroshi (1876–1943), who taught psychology; and Ueno Naoteru (1882–1973), who taught aesthetics. Ko took Introduction to Aesthetics, Introduction to Art, and Western Art History from Professor Ueno.7 Also at Keijō he studied Chinese and Japanese art with Professor Tanaka Tōjo (1881–1948).8 Once or twice a week, he heard lectures on [End Page 79...