On one heavily raining day, a young salesman took shelter under the eaves of an unknown shop. Through the show window, he spotted a copy of the painting “Hwangso (Bull)” by Lee Joong Seob. He bought the copy print for 7,000 won and gave it to his wife, promising that he will someday buy her the original. Quite extraordinarily, this vow was kept, and the salesman even built a museum to exhibit the painting alongside many other works.
The remarkable salesman in the story is Ahn Byung gwang, the founder and current ceo of union pharmacy. About 30 years from the rainy day on which he bought the copy, Ahn purchased the original “Hwangso” in 2010 at the second-highest price ever paid for a Korean painting. He also utilized his considerable fortune and extensive art collection to found Seoul Museum, situated on the slope of Yoon Dong Ju’s hill in Buamdong, Jongno district. The museum opened its doors to the public in August, and is presently hosting its opening exhibition entitled, “Doong Seob! Let’s go to Renaissance! ––Lee Joong Seob and the painters of the Café Renaissance.
▲ Hwangso. Lee Jeong Seob, Provided by Seoul Museum
During the difficult times of the Korean war in the 1950s, many prominent Korean artists moved to Busan, where they continued their artistic pursuits around cafés. one particular café called the “renaissance” was the gathering place of some of the leading artists of the era, including Lee Joong seob, park Ko-suck, son Eung sung, Rhee pong sang, Han Mook, and Cheong Kyu. The café renaissance served as the venue for socializing and exchanging ideas, and also hosted numerous exhibitions. In such manner, it helped artists lay the foundation of Korea’s modern arts through the tumultuous times of war and poverty.
It is on this particular café, its artists, and époque that the seoul Museum’s exhibition focuses on. In fact, the name “Doong Seob” in the exhibition’s title is actually the North West dialect of Korean for “Joong seob.” the exhibition offers its visitors a valuable opportunity to admire a significant collection of café renaissance’s six prominent artists, and learn about the artists’ lives around cafés. Through the paintings exhibited in the second floor of the museum, visitors are able to venture back to the past, and witness the renaissance of Korean modern art.
When entering the exhibition hall of the museum, visitors are first greeted by the exhibition’s objectives, brief biographies of the artists, as well as accounts given by many renowned figures such as the writer choi In Ho.
Following the background information, one gets to actually see some of the most celebrated paintings of Korea, starting with Lee Joong seob’s self-portrait. The faded pencil drawing makes us feel its age, and Lee’s eyes would silently confess his sorrows and pain. the self-portrait is then followed by other paintings signed “ㅈㅜ ㅇㅅㅓㅂ.” Many of them portray smiling children, often accompanied by animals like birds and crabs, all quite aloof of the real world. There is also a letter that Lee sent to his wife, vividly reflecting his love for his family, and his longing to be reunited with them. Such sentiment of loneliness seems especially clear in the drawing “river of no return,” which Lee named after a film starring Marilyn Monroe, while drinking with fellow artists. the drawing seems to sing of Lee’s profound solace, so effectively expressed in his inebriated state, that the spectator is immediately plunged into the sadly placid sentiments of the drawing. Meanwhile, Lee’s drawings on tinfoil show us his passion for art, refusing to succumb to poverty and hunger.
Of course, of all the paintings by Lee Joong Seob, we must not forget Hwangso; which was the starting point of the whole exhibition. The painting is both the most expensive and well known work of Lee, and one would approach it with great anticipation. The painting seems t o have successfully caught the raw image and feeling we have of a Hwangso (bull); strong, taciturn, and patient. The thick brush touches in varying layers adorn the bull with a cubic-effect, in addition to an explosive, yet serenely controlled energy in the bull. Seeing the picture, one would be able to understand what critics meant by the bull reminding us of the courageous spirit of the Korean people during hard times.
After the moving display of Lee Joong Seob’s drawings, one comes across other master pieces of early Korean modern art. The portraits by Rhee pong sang will grip the observer’s attention with their rather peculiar expression and lightings. The consequent paintings of Rhee are certainly less directly revealing than Lee Joong Seob’s drawings, but they may help us realize, through some effort, a valuable truth about the human condition and social state.
The abstract, demanding tendency in Rhee’s drawings is to be continued in park Ko-suck’s paintings afterwards, among which “So (cow)” is to be quite differently observed from Lee’s “Hwangso.” In this drawing, we do not really see a cow, but we have a highly simplified and economized figure, which accentuates instead the lines and colors, making us wonder in the abstract. In front of Park’s “So”, we no longer employ our reason, but our immediate sentiments and unprocessed thoughts.
Towards the end of this exhibition hall, we come across somewhat fewer, but nonetheless important, paintings of the three other artists from café renaissance. Han Mok’s “Mother and son” appeals more to the pleasures of immediate visual impressions. On the other hand, son Eung Sung’s still-life painting “Pomegranate” is extremely calm and restraint, to the degree of perfect stillness and cold reality. Such classical moderation and details are said to be the result of son’s rigorous communion with the objects of drawing. Finally, although there are only two pieces displayed, Cheong Kyu’s drawings give us a strong impression by combining the abstractness of modernity with the folksy air of the objects portrayed.
Our readers are strongly recommended to visit in person this exhibition and witness the birth of Korea’s unique modern art. The paintings would be enriching for both the head and the heart, and the visitor would find oneself in awe of the sheer creativity and courage of the artists.
Venue Seoul Museum Date 2012.8.22 ~ 11.21 Days Tuesday ~ Sunday, Closed on Mondays Hours 11:00 ~ 19:00 Entrance fee: Adult (20~) 9,000 won Student 5,000 won Children (3~7) 1,000 won Senior Citizen (65~) 5,000 won
▲ Seoul Musem. Photographed by Choi Ji Won
▲ Self Portrait. Lee Jeong Seob. Provided by http://gunhyul.blog.me/110104428639
▲ So. Park Ko-Suck, Provided by www.hani.co.kr/articulturemusic.548278.html
▲ Pomegranate. Son Eung Sung, Provided by Seoul Museum