“Japonism” and the Rise of K-Pop


Who would have thought Amsterdam would be so inspiring? When I visited the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam last month, a moment of truth hit me after I arrived in a whole new section dedicated to “Japonism,” or the Japanese influence on Western art in the 19th century.

The room had more than dozens of art pieces painted, or brought in from Japan, by Van Gogh himself or other European impressionist painters. Van Gogh was an avid Japanese art collector and well-known admirer of “Japonism.”

For over 30 years, Western countries were captivated by Japanese art, particularly the ones based on “ukiyo-e,” or Japanese wood-block prints. As Japan opened its gates to foreign merchants, more and more Japanese paintings flooded into Europe, creating a craze for art work of Japanese design. Although the “Japonism” movement hit the wall after about three decades due to technical decline and invention of better art equipments, it is still regarded as one of the earliest and most profound phenomenon that linked the East to the West – Van Gogh was even quoted as saying, “We like Japanese painting. We are influenced by it—all Impressionists have that in common.”

Now fast forward 150 years, and we’re seeing a similar movement with Korean pop culture. Just over the past couple weeks, we’ve been flooded with news of Korean artists in Western markets: SM Town’s first concert in New York, SHINee’s performance in London, JYJ’s European tour in Barcelona, ticket sales for “United Cube in London,” and Cube Entertainment’s first concert in Brazil. All these artists received extensive press coverage by some notable foreign media and almost every day Korean press is reporting on K-Pop’s growing influence worldwide. We’re left thinking K-Pop is quickly reaching mainstream Western culture – much like “Japonism” did 150 years ago.

I’m not saying K-Pop is anywhere near “Japonism” both in terms of size or influence. It’s just starting to peak out in European markets, although at a rapid pace, and it should take at least a few more years to reach the heights of “Japonism” or Hollywood movies or U.S. pop music. Although it has the potential and talent to one day get to the European mainstream markets, now is the time to really focus and put together a more complete, and perhaps original product under K-Pop’s brand. It will have to quickly adapt to any changes and create more unique content that could directly influence other pop cultures. Otherwise, it could end up as a mere fad and gradually fade away over time – much quicker than the three decade glory “Japonism” had enjoyed.

Thunderstix is the Editor-in-chief for soompi.com. You can email him at [email protected], or follow his twitter.com feed at @eugenekim222.