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Review: Korean modern art has long been a spotlight in Los Angeles

Artists, being people, are attracted to power. Like moths to a flame.

What they do in their work with the relationship they seek with it can vary widely. But power is rarely ignored. A sizable new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art takes a look at what 88 painters, sculptors, and photographers in Korea did with their curiosity about artistic power over seven rather tumultuous decades.

The show begins in 1897, when the staunchly isolationist Joseon dynasty came to an end after a sweeping 500-year rule. It ends around 1965, or more or less at the beginning of the contemporary era.

The power that attracted these Korean artists was modern art in the West, especially in Europe and, secondly, in the United States. That art was often filtered through the example of Japanese artists and masters, who had been involved in a variety of Western interactions and who colonized Korea between 1910 and 1945. That makes the transfer of power even more complex.

Lee Qoede, “Self-Portrait in a Long Blue Coat”, circa 1948-49, oil on canvas

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

According to LACMA, “The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art” is the first major exhibition anywhere to examine art produced during a major cultural transformation that laid the groundwork for the relatively recent rise of a decisive technological power and, more modestly, , artistic. — at least in the southern part of the peninsula. The democratic, rich and liberal South could not be more different from the isolated, poor and authoritarian North.

A poignant moment comes in a technically accomplished 1948-49 self-portrait of Lee Qoede, and learning that he all but disappeared after moving across the 38the parallel in 1953 when the Korean War came to an end. From the front, at waist height, staring straight ahead, the artist holds a palette and brushes on his chest as an emblem to signify his identity.

Lee’s portrait is layered with subtle yet complicated shapes.

The different brushes he wields are for oil paint, watercolors and ink, the first of an illustrious European material since the Renaissance, introduced in Lee’s homeland less than 50 years earlier, the other renowned art materials used in Korea for centuries . (The first oil painter was Ko Hui-dong, whose 1915 self-portrait is an informal and subtly erotic composition in which he reclines with his shirt open, fanning himself, as if sensing Willem de Kooning’s later statement that meat is meat.) reason why the oil painting was painted). invented.) Lee’s long blue smock is a common type that evolved from an ancient Chinese style of coat, but her felt hat with an elegantly pinched crown is ultra-modern, first adopted by French feminists in the late 19th century and It became fashionable for men in the 19th century. 1920 by none other than the Prince of Wales.

Lee is sailing in different times and places.

His overall pose is like that traditionally reserved for a dignitary, so he is raising his rank as a working artist. In the placid, rolling landscape that unfolds behind him, women in traditional dress work in the fields. The self-portrait celebrates work, a key value in Confucianism, firmly rooted in Korea from China in the 15th century. Here, the work includes the artwork.

“The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art” is the first major museum show on the subject.


LACMA curator Virginia Moon, lead organizer of the show with colleagues from the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea, notes in the helpful catalog that once “Western things were equated with modern things, Korea changed irrevocably.” . The origin and spread of that equation is the subject of the show, which is a relatively new field of art historical scholarship.

It’s cleverly presented, though without much emotion. The galleries are divided into five sections. Few of the 131 paintings, photographs, and sculptures are convincing except in a documentary fashion.

The show begins with the impact of photography, its most attractive medium. “Modern Encounter” considers the arrival of the camera, more than 40 years after its European invention, in the closed society of Joseon for a long time. Formal ink portraits of dignitaries are juxtaposed with equally formal photographic portraits. A 1923 painted study for a royal portrait of Emperor Sunjong by Kim Eunho looks almost like a linear tracing made from a photographic poster.

Cameras, as always, turn everything upside down, and the medium took off during the Japanese colonial period. The photographs take on a variety of forms and themes, whether it be Jung Hae-chang’s study of the idealized figure, Min Chung-sik’s strange construction of a mountain range on a table, or the pictorial social realism of rural laborers and a sick unemployed boy from Limb Eung city

In fact, according to the show, one photograph is the most widely reproduced Korean image: Shin Nakkyun’s playful 1930 black-and-white image of celebrated dancer Choi Seunghui. Dressed as a soon-to-be-popular Shirley Temple (Choi was 31 at the time), she bows, holding her boyish skirt in delicate fingers, her mischievous grin casting doubt on any assumptions of feminine obsequiousness.

Shin Nakkyun, “Photograph of Choi Seunghui”, 1930, gelatin silver print


“Modern Response” traces the struggle for a distinctively Korean identity during the Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945, while “The Pageantry of the New Woman Movement” highlights the rise of an unprecedented feminist attitude in a heavily male-dominated Confucian culture. (That’s where Choi’s photography comes in.) “Modern Momentum” incorporates cubism and abstraction, and “Evolving Into the Contemporary” pushes more into the globalized present.

The most striking object is Quac Insik’s aptly titled “Work of Art” (1962), a pane of glass that he smashed and then painstakingly reassembled, fragment by fragment. The spider lines of the reassembled panel are a careful worker’s diary of its destruction and reconstruction, and not a bad metaphor for the arc of Korean history in the 20th century.

The difficulty of the show is the relative lack of adventurous works like this. Much is merely derivative, noteworthy as historical chronicle but less so as invention and artistic achievement.

Lee Ungno has a knack for ink, for example, but executing the densely intertwined vines of a wisteria, frequently a symbol of longevity, to resemble a completely non-figurative drip painting by Jackson Pollock seems dismissive in a maybe. unintentionally funny. The 1959 woodcarving by Kim Chung Sook, one of the few women on the show, looks like expert student work that crosses Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore. She also doesn’t turn influences into good results.

The organizers seem to know this, grouping many paintings on the gallery walls into an old Victorian tapestry, where nothing takes precedence over anything else. Being drawn to modern Western art opened up Korean culture in many ways hitherto unknown in the West, and the exhibition is worth seeing to understand the dynamics. Just don’t expect much satisfaction beyond organized historical narratives.

Ko Hui-dong (1886-1965), center, was Korea's first oil painter;  Rha Hye-seok (1896-1948), left, the first woman

Ko Hui-dong (1886-1965), center, was Korea’s first oil painter


Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 11 am-6 pm; Friday 11am-8pm; Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday closed. Until February 19
Information: (323) 857-6000,


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