Displayed Modernity: Advertising and Commercial Art in Colonial Korea, 1920-1940

Yongkeun Chun

PhD Viva completed 2019-2020

Newspaper ad for the Tansŏngsa Theatre, Tonga ilbo

Yongkeun Chun: Displayed Modernity: Advertising and Commercial Art in Colonial Korea, 1920-1940


This thesis explores advertising and commercial art in Korea under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). It questions how visual artefacts, mainly press advertisements and posters, reflect the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions of colonial Korea. It focuses on the period from 1920 to 1940, when Korean-owned and -language newspapers were published for Korean readers.

The colonial period has largely been marginalised in histories of Korean design, partly because of the scarcity of the remaining material, but also due to the reluctance of many Korean design historians to acknowledge design artefacts produced under Japanese rule as authentically ‘Korean’ or genuinely ‘modern’. The thesis problematises existing nationalist and Eurocentric-modernist definitions of ‘Korean design’ and sheds light on a little-studied period with a scope beyond the single nation.

Advertising in colonial Korea was a complicated field in which the economic interests, political agendas and cultural identities of both Korean and Japanese agents were entangled. To disentangle this complexity, the thesis adopts a design-historical methodology; it closely analyses visual artefacts and traces their production and dissemination within broader contexts of commerce, industry, technology, and education. It also takes a transnational perspective to trace movements of objects, people, knowledge, and institutions in a more global contextual background, incorporating exchanges across Korea and Japan. To this end, an extensive range of magazines, newspapers, and books produced in the two countries by both Koreans and Japanese are examined.

The four chapters of the thesis discuss Korean nationalists’ promotion of advertising design as a project of ‘self-strengthening’; the expansion of Japanese companies and products in the Korean market through localised advertisements; the rise of urban consumerism and modernist design styles in advertisements, and commercial art education and the professionalisation of the commercial artist.

By examining advertising from the vantage points of nationalism, colonialism, consumer culture, and education, the chapters collectively articulate how design changes in print advertisements relate to the circumstances of colonisation and modernisation in Korea more broadly. The thesis argues that modernity was displayed in colonial Korea in the sense that advertisements presented images of modern lifestyles with modern stylistic vocabularies, but also in the sense that there existed a significant dissonance between the visual gloss and the fragile social and economic conditions of the colony. Such dissonance was particularly salient given the lack of social, industrial, and educational systems to sustain the production of the displayed images themselves.

Through this critical examination of design and modernity, the thesis contributes to the discourse of colonial modernity in Korea and East Asia more generally. It not only offers a history of design in colonial Korea, but also provides a more nuanced understanding of colonial Korea through design, in terms of the modernities aspired to, pursued, and experienced, as well as unachieved, during the period. It also suggests design history as an analytical framework for understanding cultural transmission within asymmetrical power relationships, or more generally for writing empirical and more nuanced histories, which may be relevant for historians of other regions and periods.

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