Out of dark and tragic times, elegant art flourishes

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Out of dark and tragic times, elegant art flourishes

Koreans have always been optimistic people, or so goes the new thinking making the rounds in artistic and historian circles. Sure, Korea has suffered devastating ethnic wars and foreign invasions over its history, but tragedy was often conveyed in visual art with a sense of humor, albeit twisted at times, which produced a mature way of understanding the world.

This argument makes sense if you consider that funeral dolls found in ancient Korean graves are often smiling with spears in their hands, sometimes in the wacky position of a headstand. Because of that light and imaginative spirit, Korean art is often characterized as infused with wit and elegance. Those qualities provide the theme of the intriguing exhibition now on display at the Hoam Gallery, "Elegance and Wit: The Making of Modern Korean Painting."

The organizers of the exhibition posit that the political pessimism that colors many contemporary artworks is a modern invention influenced by a few postmodernists trained in the West.

The exhibition also argues that the popular subject matter in Korean folk paintings has always been "untainted" things from nature, such as magpies, flowers and crabs, which are portrayed in carefree settings on the canvas. Even in more serious works, depicting scenes from shamanist rituals or Buddhist revelations, monsters and Gods are often depicted in a ludicrous, sensational way. Moreover, the figures are usually disproportioned, suggesting the lighthearted minds of the artists.

The exhibition curator Kim Yong-dae cites the painter Chang Uc-chin as an example of a Korean artist who struggled to portray this innocent sensibility in visual form. Also noteworthy is Kim Ki-chang's famous "idiot painting" style, which tends to ignore logical compositional structure.

To stress the notion of "elegance" in Korean art, the exhibition also displays many works from the mid-19th century, when the role of artists approached that of scholars, poets or even philosophers rather than craftsmen. Works on display from this period include calligraphy by Kim Chong-hui, the founder of the Chusa School whose elaborate style is often interpreted as a form of figurative painting rather than writing. The exhibition also includes works by Lee Haung and Min Yong-ik, who inherited Kim Chong-hui's style of literary painting but also played around with the spatial arrangement of the surface by adding still life drawings.

As a whole, the exhibition tackles artworks produced between the mid-19th century and the 1960s, after which the modern art movement took hold. This was also when so-called Western art - works done with nontraditional materials like watercolors or oil paints - became fashionable. "Elegance and Wit: The Making of Modern Korean Painting" ambitiously provides a wide overview of Korean art that sheds light on the popular sentiment of the Korean people. That's what makes the conceptual structures of the exhibition so compelling: It enables the viewer to better appreciate the heart and mind of the Korean people.

Museum tours are provided in English on Saturdays at 3 p.m. For more information, call 02-750-7818.

by Park Soo-mee

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