[expositie] Na Hye-Seok

Na Hye-Seok
by Chia-Jung Chang

Na Hye-Seok (Korean: 나혜석) was a fierce feminist in both her writing and art. Born in 1896 in Suwon, South Korea, Hye-Seok grew up in a wealthy family, and always loved drawing. Although it was uncommon for women of the time to receive higher education, Hye-Seok moved to Japan and graduated from Tokyo Arts College as the first Korean woman to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Western painting. In 1918, Hye-Seok briefly worked as a teacher to avoid an arranged marriage. She also published her first feminist literary work Kyonghui, a semi-autobiographical piece wherein she highlights the necessity of women’s education, which was at odds with larger Korean society. 

In 1919, Hye-Seok participated in the March 1st Movement, a massive Korean uprising against Japanese colonial rule, and was jailed for six months. In prison, Hye-Seok met other women with radical ideas, and together they launched the magazine Sinyoja, which focused on the intersection between Korean independence and women’s liberation. Hye-Seok married the lawyer that represented her case out of love, which was rare at the time, and eventually they traveled through Europe and America for three years. Hye-Seok observed European culture and especially the women and how they portrayed themselves. While studying painting in Paris, Hye-Seok fell in love with another man and her husband divorced her in 1931, claiming infidelity. In 1934, Hye-Seok published “A Divorce Confession,” which ultimately is the essay that resulted in her ostracization from Korean society. In the article, she addressed gender inequality in Korean society, the repression of female sexuality, and even preached for “test marriages” where couples could practice living together before marriage to avoid divorces. Further, she admitted candidly that her husband was not meeting her sexual needs. This discussion of sexual desire and premarital sex was far too taboo for Korean society at the time, and so she was shunned by society at large and her own family. She lived the rest of her life off charity from Buddhist monasteries and died at a charity hospital. Hye-Seok’s story became a cautionary tale for young women to uphold their gender roles, however, today her reputation is being rewritten as a progressive artist, author, and teacher. 

Hye-Seok mainly painted portraits and landscapes. The beginning of her artistic career, Hye-Seok depicted her work in a more realistic manner, following techniques taught to her in her schooling. However, after her time in Paris, Hye-Seok expanded her subject matter and style, as she took influence from Fauvism and Expressionism. One can see this in her use of impasto, or of using strong brushstrokes to thickly apply paint. Despite being one of Korea’s greatest painters, the lack of detail about the end of her life has created difficulty in verifying her works. Hye-Seok’s illustrations are notable as well, as their simple lines still shed light upon much about Korean society and the expectations of women. While using abstracted figures, these illustrations still convey the ways in which women are trapped in their endless responsibilities, and Hye-Seok’s frustration with being thrust into this exhausting role.