Rescuer returns a nation’s artIt took years of hard work for Park Jae-gyu to bring some of the nation’s most coveted treasures back home.
In 1996, Mr. Park, president of Kyungnam University, began making personal visits to collectors in major cities across Japan who supposedly owned Korean art that had been looted during the Japanese colonial period. He planned to buy back some of those items, which would have been shown as part of the university museum’s collection.
That plan came to a halt when many of the collections he saw proved to be either fake or too expensive for the school to buy back. He tried persuading the potential donors by saying his school museum could arrange a special room named after the donor. No one took him up on the offer.
Mr. Park then petitioned the Japanese government to force the owners to relinquish the works. This also proved unsuccessful, mainly because returning some of its looted art from Japan would set a precedent that could eventually pressure other owners and museums in Japan to return other items taken during the colonial regime.
He finally made progress by setting up a sister-school program with Yamaguchi Prefectural University, whose enormous “Terauchi collection” was previously owned by the late chief of the Japanese army and the first Japanese governor general during the colonial regime, Masatake Terauchi.
A large portion of the collection was returned to Korea 10 years ago and is now on display at the Seoul Arts Center in an exhibit titled “Poems, Calligraphy and Paintings Embedded in the Minds of Joseon.”
The Terauchi collection is a mix of paintings, works of calligraphy and poems from the Joseon Dynasty, which had been preserved in the form of books in the general’s private library and passed down to his descendants.
Between 1910 through 1915, Terauchi ordered the cataloguing of all major cultural properties across Korea, as part of the Japanese government’s campaign to erase Joseon’s history and control Korean education.
A significant part of their collections was kept at Yamaguchi University, in the city of Fukuoka, until they were donated to Korea. After their return in 1996, some of the works were showcased at an exhibit in Seoul. Many of them, however, had not been properly examined until recently. After 10 years of careful study by art historians, these items are finally being shown to the public.
“The [donated] artworks are the treasures of Korea, but they’re also treasures of the people who spent time looking after them,” Mr. Park said. “They [Yamaguchi University] insisted that they would send them to us after they restore the destroyed items. Watching the museum director cry as he was handing the articles to us, it made us realize that a work of art can be as precious as your own child.”
The sister-school relationship between Yamaguchi and Kyungnam universities, however, demanded a lot of work on its own.
The night before Mr. Park signed the agreement with Yamaguchi about the art, he sent a press release to Korean media outlets about the news. The next day, the story was in every Korean paper. Shortly after, however, Mr. Park received an angry call from a Yamaguchi official, saying the university would have to cancel the agreement unless he sent a letter of correction to the Korean press explaining that Terauchi had “collected” Korean art, not “stolen” them, as was written in Korean papers.
Mr. Park agreed. He sent a fax to newspapers and broadcasting stations in Korea, asking them to run the correction. Only one of the papers, however, agreed. Still, the news was broadcast on NHK, a Japanese television news station, and the plan was carried out as it was originally scheduled.
Of the 1,500 Korean art works owned by Yamaguchi, 135 have been returned to Korea.
“I couldn’t relax, even when I was signing the agreement [with Yamguchi University], until I brought [the works] here,” Mr. Park said.
One of the major achievements of the show is that it reflects the Korean government’s recent move to restore the nation’s treasures to their rightful owners. But artistically as well, the returned goods allude to significant rediscoveries of early Korean art, which has lacked in-depth research partly because few pieces surived Korea’s turbulent times.
The current show also displays a revealing diary by Han Seok-bong, the Joseon Dynasty’s most celebrated calligrapher. The book tells of the artist’s confessions about the progression and transition of his work.
In one phrase, Han describes the art scene of his time, saying, “People have lost their own path as they recklessly imitate others, swept away by the flow. As a young man, I was born with talent that has been acknowledged... but I am yet to tell who is better than who.”
The exhibit also includes a book of poems by 154 poets who represent the literary scene of Joseon; another book gathers farewell poems by fellow writers that were written for Joseon scholars when they leave the main government posts to serve at regional posts or are dispatched to foreign countries as envoys with special missions.
by Park Soo-mee
“Poems, Calligraphy and Paintings Embedded in the Minds of Joseon” runs through June 11th at Calligraphy Museum within Seoul Arts Center. For more information call (02) 580-1281.
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