Artist’s life celebrated in vibrant exhibitionKorean artist Park Saeng-kwang’s artistic quest consumed most of his life. He came into his prime in the five years before his death in 1985 at the age of 80.
“Park Saeng-kwang: A Special Exhibition Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of His Birth,” which opened Sept. 17 at the Ie-Young Contemporary Art Museum in Gyeonggi province, offers by far the most comprehensive look at the artist’s works, with more than 200 on display.
August marked the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth, and to celebrate, the director and founder of the Ie-Young Contemporary Art Museum, Kim Ie-hwan, collaborated with the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul and other private collectors. Kim, who had sponsored Park Saeng-kwang, owns more than 100 of the artist’s works.
Kim is most proud of Park’s grand masterpieces, titled “Jeon Bong-jun” (1985) and “Empress Myeongseong” (1983). These two works, measuring more than three and five meters wide respectively, tell the artist’s version of two significant moments in the history of Japan’s colonial domination of Korea.
The gruesome scenes depicting the murders of the late Joseon Dynasty empress and revolutionary can be compared to the terror and beauty of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), in which screaming women are juxtaposed with animals.
The works Park produced between 1981 and 1985 are now considered an artistic embodiment of the quintessential spirit of Korean history and tradition.
He evoked Korea’s historical moments during the colonial period (1911-1945), as well as shamanism, Buddhism, traditional Korean women and folk customs, by using Korean traditional hues: black, red, blue, white and yellow.
“Park Saeng-kwang’s paintings, including ‘Female Shaman’ (1981) and ‘Sunrise from Mountain Toham’ (1981), shocked the Korean art world at his one-man show at Baeksang Memorial in 1981. The dominant reception of his paintings could be epitomized by a simple phrase: ‘reincarnation of the Korean color tradition,’” wrote the museum’s deputy director and curator, Kim Yeon-jin, in the museum’s book.
Park was born on Aug. 4, 1904, in Jinju, South Gyeongsang province. While attending Jeil Elementary School, he met a classmate named Lee Chan-ho, who later became the celebrated Buddhist monk Cheongdam, and his lifelong friend.
After finishing high school, Park went to Japan and studied traditional Japanese paintings in Kyoto. He later returned to Korea to Jinju Agricultural School.
Decades of the artist’s adult years were spent dabbling in various genres of painting, holding exhibitions and winning awards in both Japan and Korea.
His early works, as exhibited at the Ie-Young museum, display surprisingly contrasting styles, very different from the artist’s later years. The works he created up until the early 1970s tended at first to display the influence of modern Japanese painting, and later mimicked the abstract genre made famous by the legendary artist Woonbo.
It is clear that the “aestheticizing of Korean culture” in his work begins in 1981 with solitary images of the Buddha, painted with traditional stone color pigments, or seokchae in Korean.
Vivid and exuberant, the images were clearly influenced by ubiquitous Korean Buddhist and shaman paintings, which use Korean traditional hues, proportion and popular motifs called dancheong.
The maturation of Park’s friendship with Cheongdam, the leading Buddhist monk, and Kim Keum-hwa, a celebrated shaman, who was designated as Major Intangible Cultural Asset No. 82, are evident in Park’s work ― the two men appear as the artist’s favorite subjects.
With his later work, the images reflect more uniquely Korean subjects, but at the same time, modernism in the art world drove Park to freely express himself using abstract techniques as he deconstructed and reassembled objects and proportions within a given frame.
His final paintings attain not only distinctively aesthetic visual effects, so shocking yet innately familiar to viewers, but also a sense of balance and harmony, showcasing themes that are both human and profound ― such as in the earthiness of the fifth-century Goguryo murals, a dancing shaman in a state of delirium, and attaining enlightenment through an imaginary trip to India ― while devoid of chiaroscuro and perspective.
Some art critics might dismiss what appears to be loud compositions of limited hues and Korean Buddhism as too folksy, but Park Saeng-kwang is “a creator of a new genre in Korean paintings,” wrote Kim Won-ryong, a former professor at Seoul National University, in the book published along with the artist’s 1981 exhibition in Seoul.
For his 1984 exhibition, Park expressed his original intention: “I seek good ones in the old, in my country. I see my heart in India, and here I present my foolish paintings of such things.”
Belated appreciation of Park’s work by the international art world began in earnest only last year, when a collection of his major paintings from 1981 through 1985 was exhibited in Barcelona. Kim of the Ie-Young museum said he plans to showcase Park Saeng-kwang in northern Europe in the near future.
by Ines Cho
“Park Saeng-kwang” is running until the end of October. The Ie-Young Contemporary Art Museum is located at 221 Yeongdeok-ri, Giheung-eup, Yongin-si, Gyeonggi province. For directions, see the article below.
Pastoral environment for a modern museum
Set in a pocket of verdant hills and corn fields, the Ie-Young Contemporary Art Museum in Suwon, Gyeonggi province, appears to be both a farm and an outdoor sculpture garden. Beyond the metal gate, which has been painted in bright red for the current exhibition, stretches a charred wooden path made with old railroad ties, leading to the main museum buildings.
The museum’s deputy director and curator, Kim Yeon-jin, is the daughter of the director, Kim Ie-hwan. She said her father had bought the old wood in bulk over a few years to make the walkway for the three-year-old museum.
The museum buildings look like ordinary farm houses with light gray slate roofs; in fact, they used to be pig barns and breeding houses up until five years ago.
For city-dwelling nature lovers, the museum grounds offer a refreshing break outdoors. The owners of the property, Kim Ie-hwan and his wife, Shin Yeong-suk, put in a good deal of effort to make the farm look like a private garden.
Their stone collection includes both original antiques and reproductions of Korean traditional stone works. Figures such as ancient guardians, child gods and animals emerge like storybook characters all over the place, and the grassy field that surrounds four museums and other buildings on the compound covers more than 3,000 square meters. Off the wooden path, the gravel produces a pleasant crunch with each footstep.
Bring comfortable rubber-soled shoes, because visitors have to do a lot of walking between buildings, and no shuttles are available. And don’t complain if you spot the director driving a golf cart reserved for his special guests.
The path toward the small hill behind Museums No. 3 and 4 is lined with rows of antique milling stones and earthenware pots as well as azaleas, lilacs, irises and pine trees.
Rows of enormous brown earthenware jars that gleam in the sun are not just for decoration. Ms. Kim said her mother has been making her own fermented soybean sauce for family consumption for years. Near the jars are tiny wooden steps to the top of the hill, which has a miniature hiking trail surrounded by aromatic pine trees.
At the bottom near Museum No. 4 is a small building where refreshments and souvenirs are sold. Ms. Kim plans to hold pork barbecue parties for group tours in the future.
The museum’s entrance fee is 5,000 won ($4) for adults, 3,000 won for students and 2,000 won for children. For a group of 20 or more, the fee is 3,000 won for adults, 2,000 won for students and 1,500 won for children. Tours, brochures and catalogues are available in English. The museum is open daily, except for Mondays, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and will be closed this Tuesday for Chuseok.
You can contact the museum by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), phone (031-213-8223, 8228) or fax (031-215-9317). The Web site is at www.ie-young.org (Korean only).
The museum is at 221 Yeongdeok-ri, Giheung-eup, Yongin-si, Gyeonggi province. Directions by car from Seoul: Take the southbound or Busan-bound Gyeongbu Highway. Get off at the Suwon/Yongin Exit and drive to Suwon-si on Road 42. Stay in the right lane. Do not go over the Yeongdong Overpass, and stick to the right. Several brown signs lead to the museum. In front of Suwon Church on the right, under the overpass, turn right and drive along the narrow path for 500 meters.
By public transportation from Seoul: Get off at Sadang station, subway lines No. 2 and 4, exit 4, and then take jwaseok (seated) bus No. 7000.
Alternatively, you can get off at Gangnam station, subway line No. 2, exit 6, or Yangjae station, subway line No. 3, exit 7, and take bus No. 5100 or 5100-1.
Whichever bus you take, get off at Hwanggol Maeul. Walk in the opposite direction of the bus’ arrival and cross the street under the Yeongdong Overpass. Walk up the small hill between Sinhan Car Center and Wangjeong Galbi. There is a brown sign that leads to the museum. Walk up about 500 meters.