Sculptures by Kwon Jin Kyu now on display at SeMA
The late sculptor Kwon Jin Kyu (1922-1973) is renowned for his busts with well-defined facial features. He preferred to make sculptures of people he was personally close to, and usually boldly skipped sculpting below the neck to guide all attention toward the face.
His pieces were not merely accurate resemblances of his subjects; his artistic values go far beyond that, and one can catch a glimpse of his goals as an artist in his poem that was published in the Chosun Ilbo in 1972.
The poem tells the process of Kwon sculpting his model and the complex emotions that follow, in a grim yet profound tone. He describes his model to be “adorned in vanity and religion” and that he must “resurrect her in plaster clay.”
“When covered with clay and fired, someone repents and is sublimated as an angel for whose existence I yearn,” an excerpt from the poem reads, when translated into English. The entire poem, as Kwon depicts, is like a spiritual redemption as the “angel” he refers to represents his sculptures.
It is by this very poem one realizes that Kwon sought to reflect the inner spirit of his subjects in his works, rather than the minor, exterior details.
The Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) in Jung District, central Seoul, referred to this poem for Kwon’s retrospective “Kwon Jin Kyu Centennial: Angel of Atelier,” to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth.
The exhibition includes 240 artworks encompassing sculptures, oil paintings and sketches from the 1950s to '70s. Kwon’s family and the Kwon Jin Kyu Commemoration Foundation donated 141 works to the museum, and a number of others were lent by private collectors, including one by RM of boy band BTS, who is an emerging art collector.
To Kwon, his atelier was a very special place — it was where he was able to fully concentrate on achieving fundamental ideals through his work. All his life, he was a devout Buddhist and secluded himself by strictly adhering to a rigid schedule every day to focus solely on sculpting.
Another element he pursued, eternity, was attained by investing in terracotta and lacquer, both materials that are highly resistant to decay, humidity and insects.
When Kwon studied abroad in Japan during this time, he found it difficult to find models for his sculptures. It was only after he met fellow Japanese art student Domo that he started featuring her in many of his sculptures that were all titled “Domo” from the 1950s to '60s. The pair also dated for years before he returned to Korea to care for his ill mother in 1959.
Another significant model figure in Kwon’s sculptures was Young-hee, an 11-year-old girl Kwon’s mother had hired in 1963 to live with her as a housemaid. The terracotta pieces “Younghee” (1963), “Bust of a Girl” (1964) and “Pigtail” (1968) are modeled after her.
Although some pieces are obvious depictions of females, distinguishable due to their hair or features, others, like Kwon’s masterpiece “Bust ‘Z’” (1967), appear androgynous.
“Honestly, it never mattered to Kwon who exactly he sculpted. What mattered was that he manifested the essence, the spirit of his subjects, into sculptures,” Han said. “This is why he sculpted his female models in a way that did not necessarily divide the sex. He didn’t intend on sexually objectifying them.”
His works were widely recognized in Japan, and there was never a time he wasn’t famous even in Korea, Han said. Despite his fame, however, Kwon struggled his entire life because he was unable to make a living off his sculptures.
“He held many exhibitions, but they never really sold well,” Han said, “because when you look at the sculptures, there’s a certain robust and supernatural force that people find a bit too bizarre to buy for themselves, like in the eyes.”
In the 1970s, Kwon found himself more immersed in Buddhism while living in temples and sculpting Buddhist sculptures. Although he found comfort in the religion, Kwon eventually took his own life in 1973 at the age of 51.
“Self Portrait” (1969-70) separates itself from Kwon’s other self-portrait sculptures as it portrays himself as a Buddhist monk. Although Kwon never actually was one, here he imagined himself wearing a kasaya robe that monks wear, looking upwards with a faint smile. He looks peaceful, as if he is transcendent of all pain.
Han says that a blue bird that Kwon references in his poem symbolizes himself, which reads: “While applying layer upon layer of lacquer in oblivion, I wait for spring to come. A crow and a magpie aspiring to fly up into the sky like a blue bird in a dream.”
“Kwon Jin Kyu Centennial: Angel of Atelier” runs until May 22. SeMA is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 7 p.m. on weekends. Admission is free.
BY SHIN MIN-HEE [email@example.com]