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Rehyun Park & Saengkwang Park – Hometown to the Unadulterated Colors

Bummo Youn (Art critic)
The history of Korean painting unfolds across the vast tapestry of time. However, the harsh realities of war and tribulation adversely affected the preservation of the artworks, and not many artworks are left now. Among them, paintings on paper or silk suffered more severely – it is a pity. Looking at the current research in art history, most of them are centered around the Joseon Dynasty, and ink-wash literati paintings dominate among them. This point will be visible if one looks at a textbook-like book entitled The History of Korean Painting, where Minhwa (Korean folk painting) and polychrome paintings are only briefly covered. How did this happen? Recently, I made frequent critical remarks about the research of Korean painting history centered on ink-wash literati paintings. Nobody can deny the brilliance of our history of polychrome painting, from Goguryeo murals to Buddhist paintings in Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, various palace paintings, and folk paintings in the late Joseon dynasty. Looking back on polychrome painting. This is an important task in our time. Japan has cultivated a tradition of ‘Japanese Painting’ characterized by a central focus on color. Notably, the color predilections favored by the Japanese, which gravitate towards secondary hues, stand in contrast to the Korean preference for primary colors, notably anchored by the quintet of Obangsaek – the five traditional Korean colors encompassing white, black, blue, yellow, and red. The innocent-looking Japanese portrait painting proves this. In the first half of the 20th century, Korean Peninsula underwent the colonial era by Japan. Polychrome painting in Japanese style was popular at this time. The problem occurred after liberation. Viewing the polychrome painting itself as Japanese-style, the domestic art world dismissed the polychrome painting. This has reduced the position of the polychrome painting in the art field day by day. Looking at the art studios in universities, we can see the absence of students majoring in polychrome painting. In fact, there are no professors to teach even if the students want to learn. There are even cases of all professors in the Korean Painting department working in oil paint, and polychrome painting does not even exist. Disconnection of tradition. This is a regrettable scene of nowadays art education. If I were asked to choose the artists who represent polychrome painting, Rehyun Park and Saengkwang Park will resonate in distinction. They were introduced to art during the colonial period, and have background in studying Japanese painting in their youth. But after years of hardship, they developed an independent painting style. In the 1960s, Rehyun Park emerged as a representative painter of the art world during that time. As well known, Rehyun Park was the wife of Kim Kichang, a painter with a hearing impairment. She adeptly served as an interpreter of three languages. If they were on a trip abroad, she handled triple interpretation in Korean, English and lip reading. She was also socially praised for her symbol of a wise mother and wife. She went through hardships as a female artist where remnants of feudal society remained. As a result, she was able to emerge as a representative female painter in Korea in the 20th century. Saengkwang Park is a painting in his 70s. The polychrome painting he achieved in the 1980s were by far unrivaled, and played a huge role in rerecognizing the primary colors including Obangsaek. During the mid-1980s, I held the role of a practical manager for the exhibition hall within the newly inaugurated edifice of JoongAng Ilbo. (It was initially called JoongAng Gallery but then changed to Ho-Am Gallery. As part of the Samsung Foundation of Culture, it later changed to Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.) At the time of opening, the Korean art world did not even have a term curator. Even at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the curatorial arts room has not yet been established. As an exhibition planner, I promoted various exhibitions, including Rehyun Park retrospective. It was a large-scale compilation of Rehyun Park’s art in the form of a 10th anniversary retrospective in 1985. It was also an opportunity for me to become closer to the artist Kim Kichang. We initially communicated through writing, but after we got closer, he could read my lips to understand my words. Rehyun Park’s exhibition was like a feast for polychrome paintings or women’s art. In 2020, as a Director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, I held a large-scale retrospective of Rehyun Park’s to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. This exhibition deliberately removed the trace of Kim Kichang and focused purely on Rehyun Park’s art. As a result, it was possible to reveal the true nature of Rehyun Park, where the exhibition contributed greatly to the re-examination of Rehyun Park. In a word, it allowed to confirm that Rehyun Park was the best Korean women artist in the modern period. The exhibition at Deoksugung was moved to Cheongju and held an encore show, which continued to draw attention. Saengkwang Park has been on the list of artists I am interested in since my time at the Korean Journal of Art Criticism. I naturally got to say hello to the artist and saw his works often. I was convinced of Saengkwang Park’s significance in art history and promoted it as one of the exhibitions at Ho-Am Gallery. However, at that time, the understanding of Saengkwang Park was low in the art world. I even often heard reproaches saying, “What kind of shaman paintings are you exhibiting?” No matter what people said, I did not give up and went to the studio of Saengkwang Park to plan the retrospective exhibition. I cannot forget the doorway of Suyuri Hanok. It was a cramped space where even small works, let alone large ones, could not be comfortably worked Still, the passion for creation was at the highest level, and the painter attempted a masterpiece. He painted by unfolding one side of the rolled paper and rolling the other. It was only when the work was hung in the exhibition hall that the artist could see the whole view of his work for the first time. How can I forget the image of him drawing while crouching down in a poor environment where he could not even afford a common studio? The environment was poor, but there, the masterpieces of his later years were produced. That is how we can see masterpieces like Empress Myeongseong, Jeon Bongjun, Seokguram Grotto, or Guksadang. In his later years, the artist suffered from laryngeal cancer. A large balloon-like hump formed on his chin. As you put it, it was a terrible look. So the painter could not meet other people. As his condition worsened, he hastened my steps. The more I voluntarily organized his works, the higher the value of the work increased day by day. The initiation of Saengkwang Park retrospective was not successful, and after his death, I was able to hold it as a posthumous exhibition. The posthumous exhibition served as an opportunity to publicize the true nature of Saengkwang Park’s art, and the reaction of the art market also began to heat up. Within the realm of our art community, a profound acquisition had been made. The mantle of a profoundly significant polychrome artist had been secured There were several important occasions in Rehyun Park’s life, but among them, 1956 is noteworthy. The artist submitted to the Korea-US Cooperation Exhibition and to the National Exhibition, and received the Presidential Award for each. As an attempt at a new painting style, these award-winning works gave a fresh shock to the contemporary art world, which was steeped in old conventions. 

It was a masterpiece, paying attention to real life, including the structure of the composition, the expression of characters in a cubist atmosphere, and the use of elegant lines and stable colors. It was a world of its own, free from the Japanese style of painting as well as the classical Chinese literati painting style. Rehyun Park held a duo exhibition with his husband Kim Kichang almost every year after liberation, from the first exhibition in 1947 to the twelfth in 1971. This duo was unique in the traditional art world. Still, ‘Shadow of Unbo’ always followed Rehyun Park and she finally made an ‘escape’ at New York. From 1969 to 1973, she entered a new world while traveling in South America while working on prints with new techniques in New York. Later, she moved away from figurative works and worked on pure abstract paintings. The beauty of the composition and the sense of color, this was an entry into an unrivaled world. In particular, the work of color bands, such as straw mats or bundles of old coins, stood out by far. This kind of color band work allows us to read symbolism other than visual beauty. Feeling like tree rings, female body, or pregnancy, I read the symbol of ‘life’ in these colored band works. A new challenge from a female painter – it was a bold challenge based on the idea of reverence for life.

Saengkwang Park draws attention through his adept manifestation of the very essence of coloring. While his artistic foundation derives from tradition, his intent lies not in mere replication but in a transformative reinterpretation. The subjects he artfully appropriates from our cultural heritage encompass the rich tapestry of folklore, shamanism, Buddhism, and the annals of our history. However, it is pivotal to note that this act of borrowing does not inherently render his works confined to the realms of shamanic, Buddhist, or historical motifs. As my engagement with Saengkwang Park deepened through the conduit of exhibitions and essays, I do not want to repeat myself here. To emphasize one part, Saengkwang Park created a new formative world based on Obangsaek and our tradition – for this, I believe he deserves more recognition in art history. It is truly groundbreaking to pay attention to Rehyun Park and Saengkwang Park for this special exhibition at Kiaf SEOUL 2023. It is meaningful to be able to introduce these works to a large-scale art fair that attracts domestic and foreign art lovers. Korean Dansaekhwa has been in the limelight in the art market, and now, for the expansion of Korean art, it is necessary to reexamine the polychrome painting. In fact, the center of Korean painting history was polychrome painting. It is necessary to re-recognize the historically brilliant tradition of coloring. Although a hobby to many, there are hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts who are engaged in drawing folk paintings today. Among these amateurs, artists who are working in earnest are emerging one after another. The term Minhwa (Korean folk art) was coined by an aesthetician during the colonial era, and the concept of it is careless. In addition, its position was narrowed further by bringing about contradictions, such as including palace paintings in the category of folk paintings. The characteristic of folk paintings is formally colored paintings and content-wise pursuit of happiness. Therefore, folk paintings can be called polychrome Gilsanghwa. Traditional Korean polychrome painting, including all this, desperately needs modernization and globalization. I believe that our polychrome painting is a field full of international competitiveness. This is because polychrome painting is the mainstream of Korean painting. This Rehyun Park and Saengkwang Park exhibition is based on the duo exhibition at Hangaram Arts Center Museum (March 2023). It was a large-scale exhibition presenting about 270 pieces, and it attracted public acclaim. With this momentum in mind, this special exhibition hopes to recreate the glory of Korean polychrome painting on the occasion of this Kiaf. The title came from the pseudonyms of Rehyun Park and Saengkwang Park. The color as it is, pure and untouched. This is also an expression of the desire to reexamine the glory of our traditional painting centered on color. Due to the limitations of the exhibition space, it was inevitably decided to present some of the core works exhibited at Hangaram Arts Center. Some changes were made by adding the collection by the Gana Foundation of Arts and Culture. Now, in this new atmosphere, we can only hope that the true nature of Rehyun Park and Saengkwang Park’s masterpieces will illuminate.

Executive Director- Bummo Youn

Since entering the art criticism field in 1982 when he won the Dong-A Ilbo New Year’s literary prize, he has been active in various art scenes, including art criticism exhibition planning and art management. He has worked as a journalist for the JoongAng Ilbo and as a curator at Hoam Gallery. He has served as a professor of Fine Arts at Gachon University and a chair professor of the graduate art history department at Dongguk University. He was also the director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, artistic director of the Changwon Sculpture Biennale and the Gyeongju World Culture Expo, and chief curator of special projects at the Gwangju Biennale.

Curator – Yoonsub Kim

Kim is currently the President of AIF Children/Art Management, adjunct professor at Sookmyung Women’s University College of Fine Arts, and board member of the Korea Arts Management Service. He has served as a professor at Dongguk University’s Institute of Social Education and has contributed to the development of public art by serving as a operating committee member of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Seoul Public Art Commission and the Government Art Bank. He is also actively involved in exhibition planning serving as artistic director of the Anyang Public Art Project and exhibition director of the Hangang Sculpture Project

Coordinator – Borem Lee, Jaehoon Rim

Rehyun Park, Work, Ink and color on Hanji, 168.2×134.5cm, 1967

Rehyun Park, Early Morning, Ink and color on paper, 253x194cm, 1956

Rehyun Park , Work, Ink and color on Hanji, 150.5 ×135.5cm, c.1963

Saengkwang Park, Sunset, Ink and color on paper, 137x140cm, 1979

Saengkwang Park, Shaman12, Ink and color on paper, 136x139cm, 1984

Saengkwang Park, Flower Palanquin, Ink and color on paper, 170.4×90.4cm, 1979

Rehyun PARK (1926-1976)

Born in Jinnampo, South Pyongan Province
Kyungsung Normal University, Japan Women’s Art College
Bob Blackburn Engraving Laboratory
Pratt Graphic Art Center
Professor of Sungshin Women’s University

Selected solo exhibitions

2020 Park Rehyun Retrospective: Triple Interpreter, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung Palace, Seoul
1995 Siom Gallery
1974 Shinsegae Museum of Art

Selected group exhibitions

2023 Saengkwang Park, Rehyun Park Duo Exhibition, Seoul Arts Center, Seoul
2004 Power of Korean Art I, Gana Forum Space, Seoul
2001 The Breath of Colour – Its Beauty and Strength, Gana Art Center, Seoul
2000 Aspect of Korean contemporary art : in the 1950s to the 1960s, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul
1998 Korean Modern Art: Ink and Coloring – Eyes on Modernity, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul
1998 50th Anniversary Exhibition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Seoul Arts Center, Seoul
1995 50 Years of Contemporary Art, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul
1994 Art Exhibition of Music and Dance, Seoul Arts Center, Seoul
1992 Masterpiece of Korean Modern Art, Hoam Gallery, Seoul
1992 Exploring the Korean Characteristics of Korean Contemporary art IV, Hanwon Gallery, Seoul
1986 100 Years of Korean Painting, Hoam Gallery, Seoul
1985 Posthumous exhibition, Hoam Museum of Art, Seoul
1978 Posthumous exhibition, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul
1973 Miami Graphic Biennale, Florida Museum of Art, United States
1972 60 Years of Korean Modern Art, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul
1972 Korean Contemporary Painting Exhibition, Asian Gallery, San Francisco
1967 9th Sao Paulo Biennale International Exhibition, Sao Paulo
1957 Exhibition of Baekyanghoe, Hwashin Department Store Gallery, Seoul
1957 Modern Korean Painter Exhibition, World House Gallery, New York

Saengkwang Park (1904-1985)

Born in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province
Graduated from Jinju Agricultural High School
Graduated from Kyoto City University of Arts
1969 Lecture at Kyung Hee University
1968-1975 Lecture at Hongik University Oriental Painting Department

Selected exhibitions

2023 Saengkwang Park, Rehyun Park Duo Exhibition, Seoul Arts Center, Seoul
2019 Daegu Museum of Art
2005 Hosted by MBC in Jinju, Exhibition of 100th Anniversary of Saengkwang Park’s birth
2004 Gyeongnam Provincial Museum of Art <100th Anniversary of Saengkwang Park’s Birth> Memorial Exhibition
Gallery Hyundai <100th Anniversary of Saengkwang Park’s Birth> Memorial Exhibition
Busan Museum of Art
Space C
1993 Posthumous exhibition, Daboseong Gallery, Seoul
1986 Hoam Gallery, Seoul
1985 Grand Palais , Paris “Art from the 16th Century to the Present Day” Exhibition
1984 Seoul Arts Center, Seoul
1978 Dongseo Gallery, Masan
1977 Jin gallery, Seoul (first solo exhibition)
1975 Tokyo Gallery, Tokyo