Enjoying the people’s art for art’s sake

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Enjoying the people’s art for art’s sake


The collage work “Landscape I” (1980) by Korean artist Shin Hak-chul is part of the exhibition “Reinstatement of Realism” which starts Thursday at Gana Insa Art Center in Insa-dong, central Seoul. The exhibition intends to shed new light on the Korean realist art of the 1980s and ’90s including the so-called minjung art, or people’s art. [GANA ART CENTER]

With dansaekhwa or Korean monochrome abstract painting getting global attention in recent years, there are efforts locally to shed new light on another movement that stands in contrast with dansaekhwa - so-called minjung art and other realist art.

Part of this work includes the exhibition “Reinstatement of Realism” that starts Thursday at Gana Insa Art Center in central Seoul.

Minjung art, which literally means the people’s art, was created in the 1980s and early ’90s, partly overlapping the dansaekhwa period. The movement is represented by realist paintings with strong political or social messages against the Korean military regime of the ’80s and later conservative politics. In contrast, dansaekhwa, which began in the mid-1970s, are politically neutral.

But while minjung art and other social realist paintings of the ’80s and early ’90s are often recognized as “the art of activists,” the “Reinstatement of Realism” exhibition intends to show the art is more than that.

“We didn’t put minjung in the title of this exhibition so that the theme of the exhibition would not be narrowed,” Yoo Hong-jun, an art historian and co-curator of the show, told reporters at the Gana Art Center’s Pyeongchang-dong headquarters last week. The exhibition featuring about 100 works by eight artists will take place at the gallery’s branch in Insa-dong.

“The realist art of the ’80s and ’90s visualizes the views and feelings of the artists who were keen on their social environment and the hardships of ordinary people, whether they are categorized as minjung artists or not,” Yoo added.

Five of the eight participants - Hwang Jae-hyung, Lee Jong-gu, Lim Ok-sang, Min Joung-ki and Shin Hak-chul - are often called minjung artists.

Among them, Lee often depicts his father and other relatives, who are farmers, on rice sack labels or in front of government posters, alluding to the farmers’ stress in Korea’s rapidly changing economic environment that included the import of agricultural goods and the psychological distance between them and the government’s policies.

And Shin often summarizes Korea’s complicated modern political history in Dadaist-style collages or symbolic paintings. Hwang depicted the hard life of miners while living and working with them in a mining village in Gangwon.

The other three artists - Kwon Sun-cheol, Ko Young-hoon, and Oh Chi-gyun - are seldom categorized as minjung artists but their works show the everyday life of ordinary people affected by the macro flow of society and history, Yoo said.


Lim Ok-sang’s “The Way Home,” a relief sculpture made of paper and colored with ink. [GANA ART CENTER]

For example, Oh, better known for his paintings of persimmon trees, depicted homeless people in expressionist paintings in the late ’80s.

Famous for his steady-selling book series “My Cultural Heritage Tours,” Yoo helped spread the word about minjung art in the ’80s. But he dropped the word from the title of this exhibition so as to not emphasize only the political messages.

“The works in this exhibition have great qualities as art,” he stressed.


Lee Jong-gu’s “Mr. Lee’s Summer,” an acrylic painting on a rice sack label. is also part of the exhibition “Reinstatement of Realsim.” [GANA ART CENTER]

BY MOON SO-YOUNG [symoon@joongang.co.kr]

The exhibition runs through Feb. 28. Admission is 3,000 won ($2.50). Go to Anguk Station, line No. 3, exit 6, and walk for five minutes. For details, visit www.insaartcenter.com or call (02) 736-1020.

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