Yanagi exhibit navigates critic’s controversies

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Yanagi exhibit navigates critic’s controversies

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Japanese art critic Muneyoshi Yanagi (1889-1961), pictured above, is the focus of an exhibit at the Deoksu Palace branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. He is known to have influenced aesthetic perspectives about Korean traditional art. Provided by the museum

It was a big challenge for the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) to formulate an exhibition that looks back on Muneyoshi Yanagi (1889-1961)’s life and art criticism.

First, the exhibition is about a theorist and writer rather than an artist, so the related work lacks strong visual elements. As the exhibition follows the development of Yanagi’s aesthetics and philosophy, his art collection is on display - including, ceramics, textiles and wooden furniture of Korea and Japan - but they are not particularly stimulating from a visual standpoint. Instead “non-extraordinary beauty” and “unsophisticated beauty” prevail according to the Japanese art critic’s taste.

Yanagi is best known for founding the Mingei Movement, which regarded the craft of everyday objects created by anonymous people as art.

Yanagi’s Japanese ties also make interpretation of his work difficult as he was active during the colonial period (1910-45). Now, there are controversies about Yanagi’s intentions with regard to Korean art. Accordingly, any exhibition about the critic can be sensitive, and that is especially true given the high tensions with Japan’s right-wing government.

“We have considered these issues and have accordingly prepared the exhibition with more integrity,” said Choi Eun-ju, chief curator of the MMCA, during the press meeting on Thursday. “We do not make conclusions about Yanagi with the exhibition. We want to give viewers a chance to know more and think more deeply about him.”

Some Koreans have dubbed him “a Japanese who loved Joseon art more than Joseon people” because he shed new light on simple white porcelain from the Joseon period (1392-1910) that was generally ignored by people at the time compared to the splendid and elaborate celadon of the Goryeo period (918-1392).

In addition, Yanagi strongly opposed the Japanese government’s plan to demolish Gwanghwamun Gate, the main gate of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, so that it could be preserved. He also established the Joseon People’s Art Museum within Gyeongbok Palace in 1924.

But there are many who criticize Yanagi for highlighting relatively unsophisticated or simple art from Korea, accusing him of diminishing Korea in accordance with Japanese imperialist policy.

Regardless of the political undertones, though, it is undeniable that Yanagi has an important legacy in Korean modern art and art criticism. It is that truth on which the exhibition, which runs through July 21, intends to remain focused.

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The pieces show the development of interests held by Japanese art critic Muneyoshi Yanagi. From top, British poet and artist William Blake’s print “God Judging Adam”; a 17th-century Joseon white porcelain jar decorated with clouds and bamboo; Monk Mokujiki’s “Statue of Akasagarbha Bodhisattva”(1801); and a 19th-century miezu (sample pattern) from the Okinawa region of Japan. Provided by MMCA

“Yanagi has been a kind of task for us to perform because we cannot talk about Korean modern art without talking about him,” the curator explained.

Many important Korean modern and contemporary artists including abstract painter Kim Whaki and photographer Koo Bohnchang have been directly or indirectly influenced by Yanagi’s great appreciation of Joseon-period white-porcelain moon jars.

The exhibition heads back to Yanagi’s very first encounters with the Korean traditional crafts - when he traveled 21 times to colonial Korea between 1916 and 1940. In particular, it features some of the Joseon crafts, including white porcelain and wooden furniture, that Yanagi collected during that time

“Collecting these, Yanagi believed that these crafts were reflective of the sentiments of the Joseon people,” said curator Liu Jienne. “Starting in the 1920s, he argued that art was something that is born, not made, and that it could be explained with such notions as ‘disinterestedness,’ ‘randomness’ and ‘unconsciousness.’?”

And this is the point for which some Korean experts harshly criticize Yanagi - because he said Korean traditional art had “beauty of sorrow” as the country has long suffered indignities at the hands of foreign countries, including Japan.

“That view was in accordance with the cultural policy of the Japanese imperialists in the colonial period, who tried to make Koreans have a sense of defeat and shame about their history,” wrote Korean poet Choi Ha-rim in a 1974 article. That triggered hot controversy about Yanagi, which continues to this day.

Some other experts say Yanagi’s views about Korean art have limits but insist he had no intentions of following Japanese imperialist policy.

“Regardless, Joseon art and crafts had decisive roles in the formation of Yanagi’s aesthetics, which led to the Mingei Movement later,” Liu said. “And Joseon art and crafts led Yanagi, who toed the line of Western modern culture, to overcome the conventions of Eastern thoughts to turn his eyes back to the East.”

And in 1926, Yanagi saw a wooden Buddhist statue made by 18th-century Japanese monk Mokujiki in 1926 and discovered the “non-extraordinary beauty” that corresponded to Joseon ceramics, according to the museum. Then, Yanagi traveled throughout his own country to find Mokujiki statues and other arts and crafts by anonymous people. One of the Mokujiki Buddhist statues is included in the exhibition.

After studying Korean and Japanese folk art, Yanagi coined the word “Mingei” (folk crafts) in 1926 and made it a movement.

Though it focuses on Asia, the exhibition also makes a point of displaying some of Yanagi’s other interests.

For instance, it includes reproductions of English poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827)’s prints from Yanagi’s collection.

“Yanagi had an intense interest in Western cultures,” Liu said. “In particular, through Blake’s works, Yanagi deepened his understanding of the religion, ancient cultures and romanticism of the West. He then published books about Blake in Japan.”

Yanagi also became familiar with British art as he became friends with British studio potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979), who stayed in Japan from 1909 to 1920.

One of Leach’s works is also on display at the museum.

By Moon So-young [symoon@joongang.co.kr]


The exhibition runs through July 21. Admission is 5,000 won ($4.45) for adults. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday. It is closed Monday.

Go to City Hall Station, line No. 1 or 2, exit No. 1, 2 or 3.

For more details, call (02) 2188-6114 or visit www.moca.go.kr.

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