Ryu Kyung-chai, Korean abstract painting pioneer, to be remembered

A major retrospective on Ryu Kyung-chai (1920-1995), one of Korea's first-generation abstract painters, is to be held at a local gallery in Seoul starting next Thursday.

"Ryu Kyung-chai: Abstract Painting 1960-1995" at Gallery Hyundai goes through more than three decades of the painter's artistic endeavors from 1960 to 1995 when he delved more deeply into the realm of abstract painting, thereby starting a new chapter in the Korean art history.

Some 30 paintings with "poetic lyricism" as the gallery put it, most rarely seen in public, show Ryu's remarkable efforts to bring refreshing elements to the Korean art scene, devastated by the harsh reality in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953).

This undated black-and-white photo provided by Gallery Hyundai shows South Korean painter Ryu Kyung-chai. (Yonhap)

Though he is not widely known outside art circles, Ryu is credited with having contributed to the development of the Korean art community throughout his life.

Making his debut as a painter by participating in the Joseon Art Exhibition in 1940, he won the inaugural presidential prize at the first National Art Exhibition nine years later with "Neighborhood of a Bare Mountain" that depicted the desolate landscape of Wangsimni in Seoul.

The greenish-bluish abstract painting marked a stark departure from the previous mainstream art style of the times. Art critics said the work, initiated with concrete ideas about a physical location, ushered in a new era of "lyrical abstract painting." The painting in which nature "retains a tenacious hold on life" oozes invigorating spirit as if to demonstrate that the nation remains strong and undeterred despite decades of plunder and oppression by the colonial Japanese.

He spent the better part of his life, teaching art in a high school and two universities in Seoul -- Seoul National and EwhaWomans -- writing school textbooks, and working to coordinate the country's loosely organized art groups and discover new talent.

The image shows "Neighborhood of a Bare Mountain" by Ryu Kyung-chai. The painting is in the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art's (MMCA) possession. (Yonhap).

YooHee-young, a painter himself and Ryu's former student, attended Wednesday's press preview, which happened to be the 21st anniversary of the painter's death, and recalled his professor's indifference, if not outright apathy, to boosting the commercial appeal of his art work.

Yoo quoted Ryu as saying: "No one would buy my paintings. Moreover, I would not sell them. I don't like putting myself in an awkward situation of selling my paintings and I utterly hate kowtowing to get some money. I'd rather prefer skipping a meal."

The episode explains some of the reasons why Ryu distanced himself from commercial galleries and held only two solo exhibitions in his lifetime. The gallery said his artwork, some 200 pieces in total, is still highly undervalued compared to other paintings by his contemporaries with similar historic significance.

Advancing into his later years as an artist, he developed original artistic practices focusing on geometric abstraction of explicit simplicity. Paintings in the 1980s and 1990s prominently feature various new artistic elements such as color field painting, atypical forms and unconventional colors.

The exhibition, which runs through Feb. 5, is the first in 26 years since the gallery had its first retrospective on the artist in 1990.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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