Na Hye-seok, an artist and women’s rights activist


A woman ahead of her time

At the turn of the 20th century when the old Joseon Dynasty lay in ruin and the oppressing Imperial Japan began its ambitious dominance of Northeast Asia, Na Hye-seok Korea’s first woman modern painter, author, and women’s rights activist, blazed the trail to usher in a new era of modernity to her motherland. But just as pioneers and trailblazers of the past had to pay great price for paving new paths for mankind, Na Hye-seok also made many personal sacrifices to earn the many titles of the “first.”

Living a passionate life

Born to a wealthy government official in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province on April 18, 1896, Na began to demonstrate her artistic genius from early on and graduated at the top of her class from Jinmyeong Girls’ High School in 1913.

Her brother, Na Gyeong-seok, encouraged her to study art further and with her brother’s blessing she enrolled in the western painting department at a Tokyo university at the age of 17. She became the first Korean woman to study art in Japan, the first of many “firsts” to come. She came to represent the idea of “shin-yeoseong” or modern girl after she published in a student magazine a controversial piece called “An Ideal Woman,” which denounced Korea’s traditional idea of a good wife.

Upon her return to Seoul in 1918, she worked as an art teacher while establishing herself as a serious woman writer. The first of her published works was a short story entitled “Gyeonghee,” which described how a modern girl persuaded narrow-minded people around her to open up to new ideas. She also became known as an independence fighter after being incarcerated for taking part in the March 1st civil uprising against the Japanese rule in 1919.

When she married a promising yet divorced diplomat Kim Woo-young in 1920, she shocked everyone by demanding certain terms of marriage from her future husband. She made Kim promise that he would love her for the rest of his life and would not interfere with her work. Deeply understanding and respectful of his wife’s passion and personality, Kim became the staunchest supporter of her artistic endeavors. In March of the following year, Na successfully hosted her first solo exhibition, the first one of the kind by a female painter in Korea.

Since then, Na had won successive grand prizes in the national art competitions, paving the way for other women artists. Then in 1927 she embarked on a trip around the world with her husband, becoming Korea’s first woman world traveler. But this globetrotting expedition turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for her.

A modern woman challenging the times

The three-year European tour with her husband gave her new inspirations and chances to observe women’s rights movement and progress in women’s status in the west. However, her encounter with Cheondo-gyo leader Choi Rin during her short stay in Paris apart from her husband rocked her life from the core.

Charismatic and artistically knowledgeable Choi swept Na off her feet and their affair became fodder for gossip columnists in the Korean community in Paris and later on in Korea. The scandal caused her husband Kim Woo-young to divorce her in 1931.

Despite the divorce and disgraceful reputation, Na continued painting and won a special prize at the 10th Joseon Art Exhibition in 1931. She also published a piece called “A Divorce Confession” in the Samcheolli magazine in 1934, raising issues with gender inequality endorsed by Korean morality and tradition. She challenged the patriarchal social system and male-oriented mentality of Korean society at the time, but her ideas were too avant garde for the time. She died alone on December 10th, 1948 at a hospital for vagrants. Having had no one to care for her in the later days, the location of her grave is still unknown.

Although her later life and death were tragic, Na’s exceptional talent as an artist and life as a pioneering modern woman in the early 20th century helped open people’s eyes to the fact that women are not silent puppets controlled by men and society, but individual human beings with their own thoughts and inherent rights. She was truly a pioneer of her day.

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