Born to an aristocratic family, Na Hye-Seok, modern Korea’s first woman artist of note, was never groomed to be ordinary. Unusually for the times, her parents chose to educate their daughter at a progressive school run by Protestant missionaries. At seventeen, she was sent to Tokyo so that she might obtain a first-rate artistic education.
Of course, once exposed to modern ideas, Hye-Seok was no longer content to assume a traditional role in society. She could not accept that life, with all its experiences, was for men and men alone.
In her writings, she extolled the virtues of free love and marriage between equals, and justified divorce as a way out of an unhappy marriage. She wrote that it was unfair that a Korean man should demand chastity in a woman while being unchaste himself, and that “Western men or men in Tokyo still understand and respect me if I am not a virgin.”1
Unsurprisingly, rather than engage in meaningful debate with her, Hye-Seok’s critics dismissed her as blindly mimicking Western ways.
Critics, upon viewing her self-portrait (above), have remarked that the way she portrayed herself indicated that she aspired above all to be a Western woman. They have noted her choice of medium, oil paints, was a Western art form, and that the facial bone structure she gave herself was that of a Western woman.2
But in reality, she tried to negotiate a new femininity within the confines of her Korean-ness.
For example, when other Korean women confused modernisation with donning Western clothing, Hye-Seok argued in favour of keeping the Korean dress, praising its innate practicality and economy.3
And although she insisted she would not fall into a traditional role vis-à-vis her husband, she made a conventional marriage to a man who was part of the establishment.
But when she accompanied her husband on a trip to Paris, the equilibrium that she had carefully cultivated collapsed. She fell in love with another Korean man. Attempting to reconcile her individuality with her Korean-ness, she wrote that although she loved another, and that it was only natural for humans to love, it was not a sin as long as she fulfilled her responsibility towards her husband and children.4
Nonetheless, when her husband discovered her “affair,” he promptly filed for divorce and was granted full control of the marital property (including all proceeds from sales of her paintings) and full custody of her children. Her lover and her family also disavowed her. She had been allowed a life, but she would not be allowed a mistake as well.
Broke and destitute, Hye-Seok continued to paint and remained defiant to the end. In an essay entitled My Divorce Statement, she condemned a Korean society that would ostracise her.
In her self-portrait, painted during the heady year in Paris, Hye-Seok dominates the space. She looks squarely back at the viewer. I will define myself, she says, and if you don’t like it, you cannot make me go away.