Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA
From gold robes to laboratory flasks to smashed glass, the artists across The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art provide a glimpse into the path from Modern toward Contemporary Korea. Writer Scarlet Cheng interviews exhibition curator Dr. Virginia Moon, and reviews the exhibition through selections of oil paintings, works on paper, photographs, and sculptures.
Today's South Korea is an economic powerhouse, boasting the world’s tenth largest GDP and exporting cars and consumer goods that are in demand the world over. In tandem with its economic success is the strength of its pop culture—from music to the movies. Think “Gangnam Style” and K-pop bands, think Boon Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “The Squid Game.”
Yet this is a country that became “modern” late, hampered by a number of factors including conservative imperial rule and the Japanese occupation (1910–1945). The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art, an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through February 19, 2023, tries to tell this important but little known story through art and its artists. It is the second exhibition of The Hyundai Project: Korean Art Scholarship Initiative at LACMA. Many of the 130-some artworks have never left the country before, and they are presented across five sections and arranged both chronologically and thematically.
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), photo © National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea
“The Space Between begins in 1897,” says exhibition curator Dr. Virginia Moon, the museum’s associate curator of Korean art, “because that is the year the traditional dynasty, the Joseon (1392–1910), converted to the Korean Empire.” For her, the period marks the beginning of the modern era, which brought many changes—among the most obvious being clothing. The emperor went from wearing traditional robes to Western style military uniforms, which we see in the first section of the exhibition, “The Modern Encounter.” In an ink and color scroll painting by Chae Yongsin in 1920, Emperor Gojong appears in his gollyongpo (royal robe) and ikseongwan (winged cap). This was the emperor who helped launch the country on the road to modernization, and during his reign, electricity, trains, and banks were introduced. Though he languished his last years under confinement, this portrait shows him ruddy and in the peak of health, a portrait made from Chae’s in person observation of the ruler. Nearby are portraits of his son Emperor Sunjong, who succeeded him after Emperor Gojong's forced abdication. Emperor Sunjong is wearing a Western military outfit, with epaulets on the shoulders and medals hung across the chest, ready to pose shoulder to shoulder with any European royalty on the viewing stand.
In a broader sense, becoming modern implies new ways of seeing, both through technological innovations and through the mind’s eye. The next two sections show how artists chose to incorporate 20th-century art movements, as well as the new mediums of photography and oil painting. They also sometimes expressed a certain national pride, although such expressions might be done indirectly through landscapes while under the censorship of the Japanese occupation.
In the early 1900s, art schools had not yet been established in Korea. Potential Korean art students had to travel to Japan to study. “At the time, art schools in Japan were emulating those of Europe,” says Moon, “and as a result, Korean art students were trained in academic realism.” They learned human anatomy through nudes and practiced self-portraiture and still-lifes. Examples of these genres are in this exhibition, with certain works offering hints of Cubism, Impressionism, and Fauvism. “These artists were not only trying to figure out how they want to express themselves in light of the incoming foreign influences,” says Moon. “They were trying to figure out what the future of Korean art is.”
Suwon I Park Museum, Photo courtesy Suwon I Park Museum
One of these early artists was Rha Hye-seok, widely known as Korea’s first woman oil painter. Hailing from an affluent family, she was able to travel to Japan to study at the Private Women’s School of Fine Art (now the Joshibi University of Art and Design). When she returned, she had a solo show in Seoul in 1921, the first oil painting exhibition in the country by a woman. Later that decade, she traveled to the U.S. and Europe, and her "Self-Portrait" (circa 1928) in the exhibition shows a woman in a black dress, her eyes looking thoughtfully to the distance. Her frontal pose and strong facial contours harken to post-Impressionist artists, such as Cézanne.
Section four is “The Pageantry of the New Woman (Sinyeoseong) Movement,” a movement beginning in the 1910s in which women could officially receive an education and work outside the home in order to help modernize the country. An early photograph shows four young students in a chemistry lab at the YMCA—the second from right is a woman. Then there are a pair of large ink and color paintings by Lee Yootae. In "Composing a Poem in Response" (1944), a woman in a white blouse and blue skirt sits at a small round table, contemplating a bowl of peonies in bloom. Behind her is a grand piano, with sheet music propped up over the keys, the piano clearly a Western import and a major status symbol. I found myself wondering whether her response was to the beauty of the peonies, or to the music. In any case, she lives in a privileged space where there are both Asian and Western refinements. Another Lee painting, "Research" (1944), provides a counterpoint, with its focus on science, and how delightful to see that a woman can have her place here as well. This one sits confidently in a laboratory—glass flasks on the shelf behind her, a microscope on the table next to her, and two white rabbits (the subject of experiments, no doubt) in cages nearby.
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, © The Estate of Yi Yu-tae. Photo © National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea
While it is generally agreed that Korea's modern period ends in 1957, Moon wanted to provide a glimpse of the art moving into the contemporary by letting the exhibition end in 1965. The final section shows this transition and includes a number of powerful abstract paintings and sculptures. The curator points to one work in particular—Quac Insik’s "Work" from 1962. The artist was fascinated by the properties of glass and methodically smashed a sheet of glass with a piece of metal, then reassembled the shards on a panel. This piece has a web-like pattern radiating from the point of force on the right side, and was deemed satisfactory enough to preserve.
“To me, his work clearly reflects where contemporary art starts to go, from starting to question the two-dimensionality of paintings to setting the stage for the notions of found art as well as performance art," says Moon. Indeed, Quac’s work is provocative, using an act of destruction to create a new work of art. I venture to say it can also be read as a metaphor, as the old ways of seeing must be shattered to allow new ways of seeing.
Through such carefully selected works of art, The Space Between helps us understand some of the important transitions that set Korean Art on the path to the now. The artists may have followed and borrowed au courant art movements from abroad, but they ultimately made work that spoke to their own culture and identity. Exhibitions such as this one show us how these artists actively participated in the global dialogue of what place art has in our lives.
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, © The Estate of Quac Insik. Photo © National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea