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THE INVESTOR
May 11, 2021

A treasure trove of Korean art unveiled twice a year

  • PUBLISHED :June 10, 2011 - 18:55
  • UPDATED :June 10, 2011 - 18:56
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Director of Kan Song Art Museum says his legacy is keeping the collection intact


At the home of Chun Sung-woo, director of the country’s foremost private museum of Korean art, where one would expect to find old Korean masterpieces, hang large abstract paintings.

“These are part of my mandala series,” explains Chun, pointing at the paintings that hang on the wall of the living room and its adjoining room. The keeper of Kan Song Art Museum ― a veritable treasure-trove of Korean art, including 12 national treasures ― is a well-known artist himself.

In fact, his slight limp is a result of years of painting on the floor.

“My paintings are Western, but I keep the spirit of the East by painting on the floor,” Chun says.

The cobalt blue and white paint reflects the colors of Joseon-period porcelain.

“I believe the blue contains all colors,” says Chun. “My father passed away at the age of 59. When I turned 59, I was shocked that I had outlived my father. I did not paint for six months and when I resumed, I used just blue and white,” says Chun.

It was only last year that he began to use more colors.

Chun’s father is the late Chun Hyeong-pil (1906-1962), a great collector of Korean art and founder of Bohwagak, the forerunner to Kan Song, who used the fortune he inherited from his father at age 24 to collect Korean art. Kan Song is Chun Hyeong-pil’s nom de plume.

The only extant copy of Hunminjeongeum is at Kan Song Art Museum. Chun discovered the 15th century book describing Hangeul, the Korean writing system, and bought it for 10,000 won in 1943. At the time, it was an unheard of sum for a book, but Chun considered its acquisition the greatest achievement of his collection.

The book was designated National Treasure No. 70 in 1962 and registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.

The museum was built in 1938 but it was not until 1971 that it was opened to the public under Chun Sung-woo.

“The museum was established during the Japanese colonial period and the conditions did not allow for opening to the general public,” explains Chun. 

Kan Song Museum director Chun Sung-woo at his home in Seongbuk-dong. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

People view paintings and books on display at Kan Song Museum in Seongbuk-dong, Seoul, on May 29. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)


The biggest crises for the museum came with the Korean War. When it broke out in June 1950, the National Treasures at the museum were sent to Busan on a freight train provided by President Syngman Rhee.

“I was a college freshman at the time and I was dispatched to guard the artifacts which were stored at a warehouse owned by a Japanese,” Chun recalls.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans wanted to take the collection to the North.

“The staff who were forcefully recruited by the North Korean military to pack the collection used all sorts of excuses to delay the move,” Chun says.

By sheer luck or perhaps the heavens helping, the North Koreans retreated from Seoul in September 1950 following the Incheon landing by U.S. General Douglas McArthur and the Kan Song collection remained in Seoul.

“We brought back the National Treasures from Busan to Seoul in 1953 as the war came to an end. A week after our departure, a great fire broke out in Busan, burning down the warehouse that we had used,” says Chun.

“I believe cultural artifacts have a fate of their own,” says Chun.

Of his father’s legacy, Chun admits that there are many things that are not comprehensible, even to a son. His father had inherited great wealth ― a recent biography estimates the land he inherited would be worth 100 billion won today ($92 million) ― and had studied law at Japan’s Waseda University. While many wealthy Korean men of his time led profligate lives indulging in wine and women, the older Chun focused his energy on collecting art.

In his collection, he was assisted by the artists and cultural figures of the highest standing of his time.

“I suppose he also had a patriotic heart,” Chun says of his father. By purchasing Korean art for large sums, he was able to save priceless cultural heritage from being taken abroad by Japanese colonialists.

The older Chun was also an avid book collector who had a bookstore on Jongno 5-ga. “When he bought a book, he would buy two to three copies. I think he was planning on opening a museum even back then. I think it was his way of providing for future students and researchers,” Chun says.

In fact, Kan Song Art Museum is unique in its emphasis on research. It was designed as a museum for researchers and the exhibitions are geared toward researchers as well, according to Chun.

While the museum is open only twice a year ― in May and October for two weeks each ― it is always open to the 50 researchers at the research institute associated with the museum.

The most recent exhibition that ended May 29 showcased 108 items depicting the “Four Gracious Plants” ― plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo ― from the 16th century to the 20th century.

“It marked the 80th exhibition and we wanted to do something we had not done in the last 40 years,” Chun explains.

The Four Gracious Plants occupy a special place in the cultural history of Korea. These were the plants that were cherished by the literati who strove to express human character and the relationship between man and nature through plants.

“The painting of the Four Gracious Plants was a must among the literati and painters. How good the paintings were determined one’s dignity, class,” Chun explains.

The biannual exhibitions are always packed with crowds ― particularly on weekends when the waiting line stretches beyond the museum compound to the street outside well before the doors open. Leisurely viewing is almost impossible, as the long line snakes around the exhibition rooms on the first and second floors.

Why not keep the museum open year-round?

“Ours is a small private museum and we have limited staff. We are also more focused on exhibitions and the research book that accompanies each exhibition,” Chun explains. “Of course, we are thinking over several things.”

The possibility of turning the private museum public does not seem to be on the Chun family’s mind.

While art insiders have raised the issue of the difficulty of preserving fragile paintings and books in a private facility, Chun maintains that the artifacts are well-preserved.

“Some experts have said that the painting scrolls should be kept hanging. However, I believe that the best way to preserve them is to keep them rolled up,” Chun says. Each scroll is rolled up, put inside a wooden box, wrapped in newspaper and put inside a metal box. The paintings are aired twice a year with the curtain drawn to protect them from direct sunlight.

“The storage room is built on a boulder which acts as a natural humidity control. Experts who came to examine the humidity level went away impressed,” Chun says.

The challenge for Chun is to keep the collection intact.

“Once a private collection is scattered, that is the end of it. In order to keep the character of the collection, it must be kept together,” Chun says.

Over the years, there have been requests to donate some of the items to the National Museum of Korea but Chun is skeptical about how often the public will be allowed to view the National Treasures there. “The ideal way to do it would be to have a separate operation for the Kan Song Collection. If this were possible, it would be a different matter. However, I think this is impossible in Korea,” Chun says.

The current museum law, with its roots dating back from the Japanese colonial era, is not appropriate for Korea, Chun claims. “The law makes it difficult to run a museum properly. It should be made more flexible,” Chun says.

“When it becomes feasible, we will undertake major repair work. Even now, we conduct repairs when necessary. We also plan to expand the storage facility,” Chun says.

“The descendents of a great man have a difficult time,” says Chun, who gave up a successful career as a painter in the U.S. and returned to Korea in 1965 following his father’s death in 1962, half-jokingly.

As for his own legacy, it would be that he has kept the collection together, upholding his father’s wish.

By Kim Hoo-ran (khooran@heraldcorp.com)

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