Artist of the month: Na Hye-Sok

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Why does Na Hye Sok represent the art and emancipation of women in Korea and across the globe? 

ca. 1896-1948. "Self-Portrait." Oil on canvas. Na Hye-Seok. Private collection. Korean Database Agency.

Na Hye Sok (나혜석) is the first female performer and pioneer of the “New Women” movement in South Korea. Hye-sok marks a milestone in Korean society, however, in this article we will only talk about Hye-sok’s career as a painter. 

Na Hye Sok is the daughter of a wealthy family of 4 children in Suwon during the Korean Empire. Born on December 10, 1896, the name Hye-sok was given to her when she began her education at Jin Myeong High School for Girls, where her great artistic talent couldn’t go unnoticed. 

In 1913, she completed her studies in Tokyo, specializing in Western oil painting at Tokyo Arts College. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, she fell in love with Choi Sung-gu, who died of tuberculosis years later. 

During her time in Tokyo, she organized the Korean Student Association in Japan. Around that time, Hye Sok had escaped arranged marriages by her family until 1920, when she married for love to Kim Woo-young, who would later become a diplomat. In 1921, Hye Sok became the first woman to have an art exhibition and the first Korean woman painter to have it in Seoul. In 1927, she went on tour for 3 years with her husband, where she traveled through Europe and North America. 

Na Hye Sok became the first Korean woman to travel for artistic purposes and be on tour for more than a year. 

Ca. 1930 Hye Sok keep studying and curating art in France. In 1931, she won a special award at the 10th Joseon Art Exhibition. 

However, between 1930 and 1930 (it is not known precisely) Hye Sok divorced her husband. Unfortunately, he claimed an affair. She appealed to the court with a lawsuit for defamation of the woman’s reputation, nevertheless, for those times, infidelity was very frowned upon, and almost always men had the last word (even when they were at fault, which happened to be Na Hye Sok’s situation). 

Several years after her 1931 art exhibition, in 1934 Hye Sok wrote a piece called “A Confession of Divorce” published in the Samcheolli magazine where she exposed gender inequality which Koreans severely criticized due to morality and traditional beliefs. In this literary piece, she makes strong declarations about her past marital relationship; Hye Sok evokes freedom for women throughout her writing. This episode in her life ends up destroying her, and her artistic career vanishes. 

It becomes impossible for Na Hye Sok to sell her works of art or literary pieces. She is ruined and socially rejected. So she secludes herself and ends up living what’s left of her life in Buddhist monasteries. Hye Sok died in a charity hospital on December 10, 1948. And for some time her name was used to punish women who pursued artistic ambitions -“Do you want to become another Na Hye Sok?” 

According to the website VIRMUZE, the artistic chronology of Na Hye Sok can be admired from two angles: before living abroad, from 1927, and after 1935. During the first phase, more realistic techniques are admired, as well as influences of realism and fauvism. During the second phase, the range of subjects was expanded, from farm life, nudes, satires to different types of landscapes. Due to the backlash that Na Hye Sok lived many of her paintings can not be verified as official and in the market, there are many imitations or simply works of art that are not hers. 

In 2000, the Seoul Arts Center organized a display of her paintings. It is very likely that several studies on Na Hye Sok are in the archives of the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation in Suwon. The vast majority of her works can be found in the Suwon Art Museum, among other museums such as the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The MMCA held an exhibition from 2017 to 2018 on New Women, where Na Hye Sok together with other colleagues is recognized as an artist and author.

2017-2018. Exhibition poster for “The Arrival of New Women.” Source: All images in this essay are courtesy of the MMCA.

Google celebrated Na Hye-sok’s birthday for the first time on April 28, 2019. To check out Na Hye Sok’s doodle, visit the following link:

For more information, visit the following links:


Written by: Esly Monjaraz

Reviewed by: Angie Salavarria

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