Moon Young-dai, recipient for culture

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Moon Young-dai, recipient for culture

It’s not easy to navigate Moon Young-dai’s studio, which overlooks Mount Bukhan in Dobong District, northern Seoul, as the space is crammed with paintings.

“I spend my days collecting the works of Byun Wol-ryung,” says Moon, an art critic and winner of this year’s Yumin Awards in culture for bringing attention to Byun’s work.

Byun Wol-ryong (1916-1990) was a Koryo-in, or ethnic Korean from one of the post-Soviet states, whose name became known to Koreans last March through the country’s first retrospective exhibition for the 100th anniversary of his birth at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Deoksugung.

“It was, in truth, a pleasure to have learned of such a splendid Korean painter in the blind spot of 20th century Korean modern art history,” says Yoo Hong-jun, an art historian at Myongji University, “and I was ashamed I didn’t know his existence.”

“Unbidden tears came to my eyes,” said the poet Ko Un after visiting the museum at Yoo’s urging.

Having dedicated his life to researching Byun’s life and work after discovering him during his days as an overseas student in Russia, Moon says, “[Byun] is a creative person who connects the South and North in Korean art history.”

He adds, “I was spending my days at St. Petersburg’s State Russian Museum in 1994 when a painting caught my eye as I was passing by a corridor. I thought ‘surely Korean blood flows through that painting,’ and when I checked the name it was ‘Pen Varlen.” This is the Russian pronunciation of “Byun Wol-ryong.”

“When I went to the studio that his surviving family had watched over,” Moon says, “I felt a shudder. I found my fated task in front of a painting that expressed the history of the divided Korean nation. I will pursue the forgotten Koryo-in Byun Wol-ryung for the rest of my life.”

In the 23 years since that moment, Moon has devoted himself to marking the course of Byun’s life. Byun was a prolific artist who depicted Korean scenes in the style of Soviet socialist realism.

From 1953 to 1954, he worked at Pyongyang University of Fine Arts as a dean and adviser, developing an educational system that would become instrumental to North Korea’s home-grown socialist realism.

“What’s more important is what happens from now on,” Moon says. “There’s much to be done, the work of identifying and organizing Byun’s work, which is scattered throughout Russia, and the work of creating a touring exhibition across the country to display those paintings that were not exhibited in the South, North or anywhere else.”

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