Ecole de Seoul: How artists, writers survived dark ages through friendship
In the early 20th century, Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, which is generally considered as a time of darkness and despair. However, art and literature never stopped blossoming despite the troubled times, as artists and writers gathered at cafes and bars and shared communion in search of a new era.
|Installation view of "Encounters Between Korean Art and Literature in the Modern Age" featuring first editions of modern Korean literature at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung / Courtesy of MMCA|
"Encounters Between Korean Art and Literature in the Modern Age," an exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Deoksugung, looks into how artists and writers shared the spirit of the times and navigated the colonial era together.
MMCA director Youn Bum-mo said the exhibit highlights the priceless legacies left by modern artists and writers who challenged the times with their visions.
"This exhibition invites audiences into a new world as envisioned by the featured artists and writers, who lived lives that were rich in terms of unprecedented intellectual affluence even during a time marked by poverty and contradicting values," Youn said.
From rare first editions of Korean modern literature, such as an original copy of Kim So-wol's poetry collection "Azaleas," to Korea's pioneering abstract artist Kim Whan-ki's poetic paintings and letters, some 140 artworks and 200 bibliographic materials are on view at the museum.
The exhibit centers on life in colonial Seoul, known back then as Gyeongseong, in the 1930s and 1940s, when Koreans were experiencing and absorbing modernity.
Cho Young-bok, a professor at the Division of Northeast Asia Cultural Industries at Kwangwoon University who specializes in modern Korean literature, said she focused on how literature reflects and criticizes the present era while raising expectations for the future.
"We typically think that literary works reflect the period at the time of writing. However, as I researched poems and novels under Japanese colonial rule for this exhibition, I wondered how such splendid works were created during the dark times. Maybe art and culture look to the future, not just reflecting the era," Cho said.
Cho sought the origin of hallyu, or the Korean wave, from the accumulation of culture including collaborations between artists and writers.
"Great culture does not pop up all of a sudden, but is a result of accumulation. Rediscovering Korea's modern culture will provide us with insight into the worldwide popularity of Korean culture now," Cho said.
|Gu Bon-ung "Still Life with a Doll" (1937) / Courtesy of MMCA|
The first section, "Confluence of the Avant-garde," introduces artists and writers who were embracing new concepts and ways of thinking as they stood on the front lines of an era when traditional Korean values collided with new philosophies and cultures from the West.
Hwang Jeong-su's "Twelve Thousand Peaks of Modern Geumgang," which was featured on the cover of the July 1933 issue of popular magazine, "Byeolgeongon," provides a kaleidoscope view of the era in a mountain with a Paramount movie theater, cafe, bar, a field of honor, chapel and even a place for suicide.
"This shows a slice of society in the 1930s. What is interesting is that many socio-pathological issues seen today also existed back then. Considering that it was an era when Western concepts and ways of thinking were being introduced, the culture shock might have been much bigger than what is being felt now," said Kim In-hye, a curator who organized the exhibit.
Poet Yi Sang, known for his avant-garde and experimental poems, opened Coffeehouse Jebi (Korean word for swallow) in 1934, decorated with a gloomy portrait of Yi and Fauvist-style works by his friend, painter Gu Bon-ung. The place soon became a popular hangout for both artists and writers.
"Poet Yi liked the music of Mischa Elman, so he had a phonograph at the coffeehouse to listen to his violin concerto," Kim said. "Gu Bon-ung's Still Life with a Doll was hung at Yi's cafe and later rediscovered in the 1970s after it was sold along with the coffeehouse."
Yi was best known as a poet. But he was also a graphic designer and created illustrations for some novels.
"His illustrations were experimental, just like his literary works. For example, he produced a collage of images inspired by words and overlapped them to reinterpret the text through image," Kim said.
Along with the vibrant modern works, Yee Soo-kyung pays tribute to the rich culture of that era by creating a crystal bead blind installation with a peacock pattern, inspired by an album of paintings gifted to writer Cho Pung-youn's wedding on the MMCA's commission.
Another creation of Yee's, "Moonlight Crown_Toy Bride of Poet Yi Sang," was inspired by Yi's 1936 poem.
"The avant-garde atmosphere of the times was influenced the early works of Yoo Young-kuk and Kim Whan-ki, such as Rondo," Kim said.
|Installation view of "Encounters Between Korean Art and Literature in the Modern Age" featuring illustrations for newspaper novels from the 1920s to 1940s at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung / Courtesy of MMCA|
The second gallery, themed "A Museum Built from Paper," is different from a typical art exhibition featuring paintings. Instead, the gallery is full of illustrations from writings serialized in newspapers and magazines, displayed in a mood reminiscent of a library.
"Hwamun" was a new genre introduced in literary magazines where painters provided images matching poems. The top book designer and illustrator of the time, Jung Hyeon-woong, provided illustrations for Baek Seok's poem, "Me, Natasha and the White Donkey," capturing the verse's exotic atmosphere using a simple style.
Also on display are 33 rare first editions of modern Korean literature.
"Most Koreans know these poems and novels from school textbooks, but it will be the first time for them to actually see the first editions up close," curator Kim said.
Some of the notable books are Kim So-wol's "Azaleas" and Yun Dong-ju's "Sky, Wind and Stars."
"Only 100 copies of Baek Seok's Deer were published at the poet's expense and Yun Dong-ju had to transcribe the book since he couldn't own a copy. Kim Ki-rim's Weather Chart was designed by poet and designer Yi Sang. The sleek black cover with silver foil looks modern even in the 21st century," Kim said.
|Jung Hyeon-woong's illustration on Baek Seok's poem "Me, Natasha and the White Donkey" (1938) / Courtesy of Adan Mungo|
The third section, "Fellowship of Artists and Writers in the Modern Age," delves into the relationships between artists and writers and gives visitors an idea of how the unions caused sparks to fly.
Curator Kim said looking into the collaboration between artists and writers broadens one's perspective in understanding both art and literature.
Painter Chang Pal, who was the first to paint Western-style religious artworks in Korea, was close with poet Jeong Ji-yong and provided illustrations for her poems.
Poet Kim Ki-rim, who was a reporter for the Chosun Ilbo, got to know Lee Yeo-seong, then editor of the social affairs desk and brother of painter Lee Que-de. Lee later provided images to Kim's works as a painter.
Novelist Lee Tae-jun maintained a close relationship with Kim Yong-jun after getting to know each other when they both studied in Tokyo. Kim designed most of Lee's books as a result of their friendship.
"Kim Kwang-gyun is a poet adhering to the school of imagism and was at the center of a network of poets and painters including Lee Jung-seop, Kim Whan-ki and Ku Sang. He owned a Kim Whan-ki painting, Moonlit Night, which was presented in a 1951 exhibition. It is presumed that Kim Kwang-gyun, who was the richest among the group, took over the unsold painting from Kim Whan-ki," curator Kim explained.
Lee Jung-seop's "Family of Poet Ku Sang" shows a dark time in the artist's life, separated from his family and residing in Ku's house. His yearning for his family is presented in the painting depicting the members of the house in which he was living.
|Kim Whan-ki's "Moonlit Night" (1951) / Courtesy of MMCA|
"Writings and Paintings by Literary Artists," the fourth and final section, offers a glimpse into literary works of artists primarily known as painters.
Kim Yong-jun, known for his essays, also offered his skills to ink-and-color painting. "Ten-panel Folding Screen with Still Life" is an example of how the artist incorporated modern elements into the traditional style.
Chun Kyung-ja is best known for her paintings of female figures, but she also wrote many realistic and honest essays as well as her autobiography. She also produced illustrations for the covers of novels and poems.
Kim Whan-ki left many poems attached to his paintings in addition to his famous dot paintings and cultivated friendships with writers of the time.
"Kim Whan-ki's artwork, Where, in What From, Shall We Meet Again, is titled after a phrase from his friend Kim Kwang-sup's poem, In the Evening, after receiving mistaken information that Kim Kwang-sup passed away. This became the only Kim Whan-ki dot painting with a title," curator Kim said.
On a wall are over 50 covers of "Hyundae Munhak" (contemporary literature) magazine from its inaugural January 1955 issue to the July 1987 issue, featuring the artworks of Kim Whan-ki, Chun Kyung-ja, Chang Uc-chin and Han Mook. These are part of the 1,916 issues of the magazine donated to the MMCA by Hanyang University Paiknam Library.
"The series of cover illustrations showcase changes in artists' styles. Illustrating covers of literary magazines was an important source of income for the artists. For instance, Kim Whan-ki supported his mother and daughters through cover illustrations when he left for Paris and New York," the curator said.
"Unfortunately, the original paintings do not exist now as they were thrown away after printing the covers."
The exhibit runs through May 30. Reservations are required to visit the museum according to COVID-19 safety measures.
|Covers of "Hyundae Munhak" (contemporary literature) magazine from January 1955 to July 1987, featuring artworks by Kim Whan-ki, Chun Kyung-ja, Chang Uc-chin and Han Mook / Courtesy of MMCA|