After being thrown in at the deep end of Korean Art on my visit to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul (see my post). I’m trying to learn more by reading Youngna Kim’s Modern And Contemporary Art in Korea (Hollym, 2005, New Jersey). The first thing about Korean modern art is that it is only a century old and most of it happened after 1953 when the Korean War ended in the present stalemate. In South Korea artists through themselves into the deep end of modern art and before they had finished with working through modern art post-modern art appeared.
I am considering Kim’s book in relation to the life of Kwan Yuk, an artist that I met on my wandering around Seoul. I saw a couple small galleries in the streets in the Insa-Dong district of Seoul amongst the antique dealers, the artist supply shops and second hand bookstores. In one of these modern commercial galleries, Gallery 500, I saw a solo exhibition by Kwan Yuk, it was a mini retrospective of his work. Kwan Yuk is an old artist with a young mind. I want to look at his art and life as a random sample of a post-war Korean artist, to test the accuracy of the Youngna Kim’s history against the life of this artist.
I like an artist who continues to change throughout his life and in the exhibition I could see that Kwan Yuk has roamed from Chagal like expressionist paintings to collage with spray paint. Kwan Yuk and I could only communicate with gestures but when your subject is the art in front of you this rudimentary sign language comes alive. And he generously gave me both the two-volume book of his work.
I have put together a short history from Youngna Kim’s history and Kwan Yuk’s short year-by-year resume in his book.
Like many Korean artists Kwan Yuk studied in Japanese art schools. This was in part the legacy of Japanese colonial occupation of Korea and that Japan had the most progressive modern art education in the region. Kwan Yuk exhibited in Japanese University alumni association between 1952-57.
In 1961-64 Kwan Yuk then exhibited in the National Exhibition. The National Exhibition was another legacy of Japanese occupation. It continued under the post-war government until 1981 when the national exhibition was privatised. There were breakaway exhibitions from artists of the Art Informel movement in the 1950s when they were included in the National Exhibition in 1961. It doesn’t look like Kwan Yuk was one the hard core of Art Informel abstract artists and not because he was frightened to attempt it.
Kwan Yuk had his first of many solo exhibitions in 1963. He worked as an art teacher and exhibited in the Seoul Teacher’s Art Exhibition between 1974-82. He has won awards and participated in various invitational exhibitions. It looks like Kwan Yuk has worked his way through European modernism in his own way. And ending up with his most recent works are collages that use candy-wrappers and nude photographs with a light bondage theme. Are these elements the Minjin influence on Korean art or sexy interpretation of Matisee’s collage?
I refer back to Youngna Kim’s book again to consider the Minjin, folk art movement. In describing Korea’s introduction to modernism Youngna Kim discusses the introduction of the idea of an artist, the continuity of tradition in modernism and the change of the role of Korean woman. And briefly looks at the Soviet-realist direction that modernism took in North Korea. This different history of modern and contemporary art full of references to tradition while seriously engaging with the modern, both international and local in focus and all happing very quickly.
Kwan Yuk, my random artist must have seen much of this history in his life and had an influence on a younger generation of Korean artists. And his art continues to develop becoming more colourful, playful and sexy.