“Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang” (1751) by Joseon-era painter Jeong Seon / Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea
By Park Han-sol
Ever since the news of the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee’s unprecedentedly massive art trove being donated to state-run museums swept the country back in April, the public has been waiting with great anticipation to see firsthand the masterpieces that cover a wide array of eras and genres.
Now, the much-anticipated exhibitions will be held in Seoul’s two major museums ― the National Museum of Korea and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA). They will showcase more than 100 pieces spanning from the early Bronze Age all the way through to the turbulent modern era, starting Wednesday.
The National Museum of Korea’s exhibition, “A Great Cultural Legacy: Masterpieces from the Bequest of the Late Samsung Chairman Lee, Kun-hee” running until Sept. 26, exhibits 77 pieces ― paintings, metalcraft, earthenware, porcelain, bibliographic materials, calligraphy and wooden furniture ― that have been carefully selected based on their historical, artistic and technical value.
“The museum aims to present the value of these masterpieces that represent part of Korea’s culture and history in a proper setting with a detailed explanation. Following the words of the late Chairman Lee, we’ll help viewers develop a true understanding of Korea’s culture and make it a part of their everyday lives, rather than simply restating its excellence,” curator Lee Su-kyung explained.
The face of the exhibition is the ink-and-wash painting “Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang” (National Treasure No. 216), recognized as the greatest masterpiece of the Joseon-era court painter Jeong Seon (1676-1759).
“Although there are other theories explaining Jeong’s motive for completing the artwork at the age of 76, the museum offers another interpretation ― living at the foot of Mount Inwang, the painter knew its every nook and cranny, as we see in his careful depiction of small streams and rocks throughout the scenic mountain. His affection toward the place is reflected in every corner of the piece,” Lee noted.
Two Buddhist paintings produced during the late Goryeo Dynasty ― “Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara,” left, and “Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara” / Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea
Another highlight of the showcase are the two Buddhist paintings produced in the early 14th century during the late Goryeo Dynasty ― “Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara,” which is the only extant painting of its type, and “Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara.”
The experience of witnessing the rare, surviving Buddhist paintings from the Goryeo Dynasty is greatly enhanced with the help of the museum’s infrared and X-ray imaging. The technology brings to the fore the details within the drawings that have been faded over centuries and therefore can no longer be observed with the naked eye.
Infrared photography reveals the thousand eyes drawn over the Buddha Amitabha’s nimbus in the painting “Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara” / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea
“In the infrared image of the ‘Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara,’ we can now see the faded details including the thousand eyes drawn over the Buddha Amitabha’s nimbus, his eleven heads and even the rough sketch of the shape of his hands,” curator Yoo Su-ran, who specializes in Buddhist paintings, told The Korea Times.
X-ray imaging also helps distinguish subtle differences in colors of the mineral pigments, as well as notice the parts that have been restored and repainted over time.
Kim Whan-ki’s “Women and Jars” (1950s), top, and Lee Sang-beom’s “Peach Blossom Spring” (1922) / Courtesy of MMCA
Meanwhile, MMCA’s special exhibition “Masterpieces of Korean Art” presents 58 paintings produced mainly from the 1920s to 70s by 34 Korean artists, among a total of 1,488 donated pieces, until March 13, 2022.”This is a historic day as the museum hosts the first exhibition showcasing some of the best of the best works from Lee’s collection that will help enrich Korea’s modern and contemporary art history,” MMCA director Youn Bum-mo stated at a press conference.”The country’s 20th century has been marked by Japanese colonization, civil war, division, famine, as well as the rapid transformation from an agricultural society to a high-tech industrial one. We witness here how the artists against such a backdrop viewed this changing world and reflected it in their unique oeuvre.”The most prominent part of the exhibition is the section dedicated to five of the most iconic artists, serving as the backbone of Korea’s modern art: Lee Jung-seop, Kim Whan-ki, Yoo Young-kuk, Chang Uc-chin and Park Soo-keun.Kim’s large-scale wall painting “Women and Jars” immediately grabs the eyes of the viewers. It features East Asian motifs favored by the artist in the late 1940s and 50s: “moon jars,” or round porcelain jars that resemble the shape of the full moon, cranes and deer. After he moved to New York in 1963, he made a dramatic stylistic transition into abstract dot paintings, as can be seen in “Echo 19-II-73#307.”
Other notable works on display include Lee’s “Bull,” Park’s “Woman Pounding Grain,” Chang’s “Ferry Boat” and Chun Kyung-ja’s “Yellow Road.”
The two museums plan to hold a joint exhibition next April dedicated to Lee’s collection to celebrate the first anniversary of the donation.