Lee Jung-seob’s “Bull” is on display at the newly-opened Seoul Museum near Mt. Inwang, Seoul.
Seoul Museum opened at the foot of Mt. Inwang in central Seoul in late August with rare paintings of prominent Korean artists such as Lee Jung-seob, Park Ko-Suk and Han Mook.
Founded by art collector Ahn Byung-gwang, CEO of Union Pharmacy, it is a treasure trove of modern Korean art. Making the museum more special is its site, built next to Seokpajeong, a historic pavilion from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
After looking at the collection, visitors look at the villa and imagine the lives of their ancestors. Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin” is on outdoor exhibit, against the backdrop of Mt. Bukak.
The selection of the location, the restoration of Seokpajeong and the quality of the museum’s collection prove the discerning eye of its owner. He could have kept the place and pieces to himself but decided to build a museum to share with the public.
With rich tradition, artworks and support from the founder, Seoul Museum is growing into a new Seoul hotspot.
Art collector’s dream
Art collector and CEO Ahn Byung-gwang of Union Pharmacy founded Seoul Museum to share what he has gathered for 30 years.
“Korean art collectors tend to consider artworks as their property and do not even hang them on their walls. Sometimes these collectors are regarded with jealousy and it took a great deal of courage for me to open an art museum,” he said. “As I grew older, I wanted to share these great artworks with people. Collecting art is a great pleasure for me, but sharing it is another pleasure.”
The history of Ahn’s collecting dates back to 1983, when he first joined a pharmaceutical company. His boss was into collecting art as a hobby and recommended him to buy paintings. Ahn bought an ink-and-wash painting by Lee Nam-ho for 200,000 won, when his monthly salary was 237,000 won.
He learned about art and bought pieces one by one, now enough to fill a museum.
The 56-year-old is a big fan of Korean artist Lee Jung-seob. He has about 20 of his works, which is about one-tenth of Lee’s oeuvre.
Ahn first purchased a photocopy of “Bull” in 1983 at a small shop in Myeong-dong in Seoul for 7,000 won.
“At first, it looked like a child’s drawing. However, when I looked at it over and over I felt the power of the bull, as if it was going to butt me,” Ahn said.
He gave the copy of “Bull” to his wife and told her he would gift her the original picture. The promise was kept some 30 years later, when “Bull” was up for auction in 2010 and Ahn bought it for 3.56 billion won.
“I think ‘Bull’ portrays the spirit, especially the diligence, of Koreans,” he said.
Purchasing Seokpajeong, a pavilion of Heungseon Daewongun, the father of King Gojong from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), in 2006 for 6.5 billion won led him to opening a museum.
“I was excited to purchase such a wonderful place but didn’t realize I could not develop the area because Seokpajeong is designated as a cultural asset,” he said. He searched what he could do on the site and found out building cultural facilities such as a museum is allowed. “I felt destined to build a museum — from collecting art to purchasing Seokpajeong,” he said.
The museum has about 350 visitors on weekdays and 700 on weekends. “There were many difficulties in establishing and operating this museum but expressions of gratitude make me feel it’s worthwhile,” Ahn said. “I thought all the paintings and Seokpajeong were mine until I opened the museum. Now I share them with the public but I feel even richer and calmer.”
Lee Jung-seob’s ‘Bull’
Two inaugural exhibits are at Seoul Museum now — “Dung-seob, Go to Renaissance!” and “Deep & Wide.”
Dung-seob is Lee Jung-seob’s name in a North Korean dialect and the exhibit used the affectionate name as the title. Visitors can appreciate Korean art from the 1950s and ’60s at the “Dung-seob, Go to Renaissance!” exhibition.
It begins with a pencil self-portrait of Lee. Unlike his other intense paintings, the self-portrait is subtle and detailed.
“Bull” is also on display. The oil painting portraying a powerful bull is one of the most well-known paintings in Korea. However, most people have only seen it in books or pictures and the painting has not been on public display, except for a brief appearance during the auction in 2010.
The painting is smaller than expected — 52 centimeters wide and 35.5 centimeters high. Despite the size, “Bull” has extraordinary power.
“Deep & Wide” is a permanent exhibition celebrating the opening of Seoul Museum. It features works of prominent Korean artists including Kim Tchang-yeul, Yoo Young-kuk, Chun Kwang-young and Chun Kyung-ja.
The third floor of the museum is connected to Seokpajeong and visitors can look around the restored pavilion of Heungseon Daewongun, a man of great influence in the late Joseon Kingdom.
Ahn said going to a museum is important for appreciating art. “Look at artworks and listen to them. Many of the paintings are available online as pictures but actually seeing them up close is a totally different experience,” he said. “Koreans just pass by artworks without spending even three seconds in front of them. You have to be absorbed in paintings, listening to them and communicate with them.”
He hopes other collectors bring their artworks out for public viewing. “They could lend it to established museums or build a small art museum of their own,” he said.
Seoul Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. Admission costs 9,000 won for adults and 5,000 won for students, including entry to the museum and Seokpajeong. For more information, visit www.seoulmuseum.org or call (02) 395-0100.