Eponymous museums honor pioneer artists
What better time than now, then, to hit the art galleries in Seoul? Following that, a warm cup of coffee and a chat about famous artwork ― what could sound better?
But considering the number of Korean artists and the many art galleries and museums spread throughout the city, where should you start?
For beginners, a safe way is to catch a museum shuttle bus that will take you from the traditional art streets of Insadong to the more contemporary feel of the Greenwich Village-like Pyeongchang-dong. A round trip will easily allow you the opportunity to survey 10 major Seoul art galleries.
For more selective viewers, however, take a glance at eponymous museums built and named after particular artists, usually the largest holders of work by the individuals who pioneered modern art in Korea.
This may surprise you, however: There are not that many to choose from. Currently, there are nearly 60 private art museums in Korea, the vast majority of which are located in Seoul. But that number shrinks to 10 if you want to concentrate on a gallery dedicated to only one artist in an intimate atmosphere. The number can go as low as four if you want a gallery recommended by art pundits in terms of its historical and academic values.
The Whanki Museum (210-8 Buam-dong, Jongno, 02-391-7701), located near the Bukak Skyway and 15 minutes by car from the major Pyeongchang-dong museum street, should be your first stop to appreciate the aesthetic effect of a private museum.
The museum sits in a ravine in a residential area. Only a discreet plaque on a marble-white gate reading “Musee Whanki” reveals you have found your way through the twisting lanes. Across a manicured lawn, there are three sleek buildings in a white and gray color scheme. One houses the gallery, while the other two contain a cafe and a lecture room.
“It’s a favorite place for people to just come and have a cup of tea,” says Lee Co-ca, a curator there. “They like it because the place is beautiful and peaceful, a reason why I wanted to work here as well.”
The Whanki Museum was built to commemorate the artist Kim Whank-ki (1913-1974), or Suwha ― his pseudonym. He is one of Korea’s best known artists and lived in New York and Paris during the 1950s and 60s. (Perhaps a reason the gate plaque is written in French?)
He is referred to as being part of the first generation of abstract artists in Korea when the Western style technique was introduced here in the early 1910s. Like most Western style followers back then, Mr. Kim started studying in Japan but soon moved to the West after he gained attention for adopting a drawing technique called pointillism to express the freedom and fluidity of his work.
The artist remained with the themes of the Korean landscape and traditional household utensils in most of his oil paintings. A 1957 painting, “Maehwa and Hangari” (Japanese apricot and earthenware) is a good example.
The museum was not built until after Mr. Kim’s death in 1975 when his wife established a foundation dedicated to him. The museum currently possesses more than 300 of Mr. Kim’s artworks and displays his journals and sketchbooks as a complement to the exhibition.
“I was particularly touched by his drawing from the early 1960s in New York,” Ms. Lee said.
In 1963, Mr. Kim received financial assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation. Until then, he had been a poor international student who used scraps of newspaper because he didn’t have the money to buy art paper. Beneath one collage titled, “1962,” a faded copy of the New York Times is visible. In calligraphy font, the newspaper is dated 1962.
In the field of sculpture, the artist Kim Chong-yung (1915-1982) is celebrated in the Kim Chong Yung Sculpture Museum ― the largest current holder of the pioneer’s work.
The museum (453-2 Pyeongchang-dong, Jongno, 02-3217-6484) was built in 2002. Unlike many popular artists, it took a long time after his death until a museum was built in his honor. Much of the funds to create the museum was raised by the artist’s students and friends.
Mr. Kim was a quiet person. He was also the first professor to teach clay sculpture at Seoul National University, where he dedicated his life to art and teaching. A well known tale relates his refusal to create a sculpture for the government, despite promises of subsequent fame and riches.
“He didn’t want fame. He just wanted to teach without being disturbed,” Choi Min-shic, who majored in sculpture studies and is now a manager at the Kim Chong Yung Sculpture Museum, said. “Even during the Korean War, he packed up his teaching materials and continued to teach at places where the students had fled to.”
The museum displays the late artist’s belongings such as paintbrushes, books and old bags. His sculptures are made of marble, wood and metal. One of his best pieces is a 1965 self-portrait done in wood.
Mr. Kim became internationally renowned after he was chosen as one of 136 finalists from thousands that applied in 1953 to design London’s monument to “The Unknown Political Prisoner.” He also sculpted the Korean monument for the March 1 Declaration of Independence.
Many private art museums are struggling financially. Some have closed down over the past five years, while others are moving outside the city. The Ungnolee Museum, for example, partially moved to Daejeon last year because the city pledged to fund the museum.
Mr. Choi said many private museums could not help envying the fate of the Ungnolee Museum, a venue dedicated to the celebrated Korean painter Lee Ung-no.
“There were the good days when tens of private art galleries opened the in early 1990s using the names of artists,” he said. “But they closed down as soon as they opened.”
Given that such museums operate on a non-profit basis supported by personal funds, the fate of a museum usually depends on how affluent the backer is.
“I doubt you can find any more [prestigious private museums] in Seoul since Ungnolee left,” Mr. Choi said.
Another artist the pundits acknowledge is Park Soo-keun (1914 - 1965), a painter whose work “Trees & People” sold for 710 million won ($740,246) at auction late last year.
Not only is his artwork valued highly, but his eponymous gallery is much admired by art lovers.
The private museum that had once showed his works expanded to a Park Soo Keun Village in 2002 near his birthplace in Yanggu, Gangwon province, after the province decided to honor the late artist.
Three years later, the venue was enlarged again with funding from Gangwon province. Along with a new building to hold more of Park’s work, the tombs of Park and his wife were moved to the four-acre site. The village plans to further develop the village into a center to support developing young artists.
by Lee Min-a
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