Korean modern art masterpieces on display at the MMCA


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Curator Park Mi-hwa explains Kim Whan-ki’s works, “Eco 19-II-73 # 307”, “3-X-69 # 120” (right) and “Woman and Jars”, during a press preview of “MMCA Lee Kun-hee Collection: Masterpieces of Korean Art” at MMCA Seoul Tuesday (Yonhap)

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea presents a total of 54 masterpieces of modern art in its gallery 1. The masterpieces of 34 artists were selected based on their importance to the modern art, according to the museum.

Of the 1,488 works of art donated to the MMCA, about 60% are Korean modern works of art. Although what constitutes the period of modern art in Korea is still controversial, the exhibition focuses on modern artists born in the 1930s or before. Painter Chae Yong-sin (1850-1941), born at the end of the Joseon period, is the oldest artist in the exhibition.

“The exhibition showcases the best of many masterpieces among works of art donated by Lee and his family. Korea’s 20th century was a time of colonization, division (of the country) and the digital age. The works of art selected for the exhibition show how artists of the turbulent era perceived the world and created art with their own characteristics, ”said museum director Youn Bum-mo on a tour of press of the exhibition.

“White Bull” by Lee Jung-seop (MMCA)

Participating artists include three key Korean modern artists – Kim Whan-ki, Park Soo-keun and Lee Jung-seop. The works of these artists that were donated became so expensive in the market that the museum could not afford to buy them with its annual budget, according to the museum.

“Lee Jung-seop’s ‘Bull’ and Kim Whan-ki’s ‘Eco 19-II-73 # 307’ are important in Korean art history, but they are also very beneficial to the museum financially,” said Park Mi-hwa, curator of the exhibition. Kim Whan-ki’s Eco 19-II-73 # 307 was made in 1973 and that year Kim began his signature dot painting. The donated work is valuable as it is Kim’s first dot painting.

Kim Whan-ki’s large-scale painting, “Women and Pots,” is one of the highlights of the exhibition, encompassing objects of traditional Korean beauty, including blue and white moon pots that are known to have been the artist’s favorite objects. The painting is 283 centimeters high by 567 centimeters wide.

“I have never seen such a large piece of art by Kim. The composition of the painting also represents Korean feelings well, ”Park said.

“Children at play” by Park Soo-keun (MMCA)

The exhibition includes three paintings by Park Soo-keun – “Woman Pounding Grain,” “Children at Play” and “Nongak” – which were painted in the 1950s and 1960s. museum because previously we only had Park’s paintings of a grandfather and a grandson (the gift), ”Park added.

The exhibition is made up of three themes: “Adoption and transformation”, “Manifestations of individuality” and “Taking root and seeking new avenues”. The exhibition explores the upheavals in Korean art since Japanese colonization (1910-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953) and beyond.

The first section “Adoption and transformation” presents works produced during Japanese colonization. Western style oil paintings began to emerge during this period with the use of new terms such as “figure painting”, “still life” and “landscape painting”. “Paradise” by Baik Nam-soon and “Peach Blossom Spring” by Lee Sang-beom are on display in this section.

Upon entering the exhibition hall, Baik’s “Paradise” appears. Baik is said to have worked on the painting in 1936 with the intention of giving it as a wedding gift to a friend. Large-scale landscape painting represents how Korean artists of the time creatively embraced Western and Korean art in their work. The painting is Baik’s only existing painting.

The second section “Shows of Individuality” explores how Korean artists practiced their profession during the Korean War and the post-war period. Works by Kim Whan-ki, Lee Jung-seop and Park Soo-keun are exhibited in this section.

Another prominent artist featured here is Yoo Young-kuk, a pioneering Korean abstract artist who established his unique compositional approach to art. He also led many avant-garde groups in Korea with Kim Whan-ki, his close friend.

“Work” by Yoo Young-kuk (MMCA)

Because Yoo’s color paintings are sensitive to light, “Work”, completed in 1972, was one of the few paintings to have been restored before being on display, according to the museum.

The final part of the exhibition “Grounding and Seeking New Avenues” features artists who have expanded their presence abroad, including Lee Ung-no, Nam Kwan, Chun Kyung-ja and Rhee Seund-ja.

Rhee Seund-ja’s painting “A Thousand Years of Old House” occupies an important place in the artist’s career. Rhee traveled to France in 1951 to establish his artistic career, leaving his three sons in Korea. Rhee had said that the many brushstrokes were a representation of how much she missed her sons, each stroke an attempt to let go of her guilt as a mother who had come to France on her own.

“My sons will be able to lift a spoon if I lift my brush,” she once said, reflecting her determination to become a successful artist. She continued her career as a painter in France until the mid-1960s.

“The painting is Rhee’s representative piece. I was very happy when I learned that the painting had become part of the museum’s collection, ”Park said.

“Echo 19-II-73 # 307” by Kim Whan-ki (Whanki Foundation, Whanki Museum)

Opened in 1969, the MMCA is dedicated to modern and contemporary Korean art. Including the addition of the 1,488 works donated by Lee, the museum now has a collection of 10,621 works, 55% of which were acquired through donations.

The latest acquisitions are currently undergoing an MMCA collection registration process. The newly updated collection will be uploaded to the museum’s website.

The museum plans to host special exhibits featuring Lee’s collection in the coming years, including an exhibit next year that commemorates the first anniversary of the donation to be held in conjunction with the National Museum of Korea.

By Park Yuna (yunapark@heraldcorp.com)

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