Sunday, August 4, 2013

Korea # 20: The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul

Looking out onto the sculpture garden in the top photo, looking back to the museum itself in the bottom one: 

Like any number of museums, this nine-year-old beauty in Seoul is itself a major work of art.  Or rather three works of art by three architects.

“The Leeum” stands by its own name but it is the creation of the Samsung Foundation for Korean Culture so is usually referred to as “The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.”  Located off a busy street in the central city, next to a pleasant park and below a Hyatt Hotel, it can easily occupy an afternoon.

It has three parts, each designed by one of three European architects, Museum 1, by Swiss architect Mario Botta, which is built as a cone and an inverted cone and features Korean art through history; Museum 1 by Frenchman Jean Nouvel, composed of giant steel-clad cubes next to a deeply sunk garden, which features modern art; and the Samsung Child Education and Culture Center by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, which is largely underground and understated.
An attempt to give a feel for the sunken garden of Museum 2, first looking at a courtroom wall through a gallery window:
Then into the same space from above:
Then into part of that space from the sculpture garden:
This fabric greets you coming out of Museum 1 into the central  plaza of the museum.

Korean work in bronze and other metals centered around Buddhism from the 4th to the 8th centuries is quite strong; however a form of ceramic called Celadon, created from the 8th century forward, is recognized as among the world’s finest.  White to off-white in color, Celadon’s delicate design, tiny incisions and radiant glazes on small pieces are best appreciated up close.  This the Leeum provides under superb lighting and with few enough examples that you want to slow down and spend time with each of them, remembering they are well over 1,000 years old in most cases.  After a few hundred years small figures and stronger designs emerge on the work and the light green we associate with an era o Chinese pottery appears.

Museum 2 blends major world figures with modern Korean work.  My photography does little justice to it so I offer limited examples. 
The content is constantly changing as the foundation must have a large collection, begun by Samsung’s founder, Hoam Lee Byung-chui and continued by its present chairman, Lee Kuh-hee.


A space reserved for traveling exhibits is showing 114 pieces by  Alexander Calder.  I knew Calder as a painter and sculpture of stationary objects and as the inventor of mobiles as art but I had not appreciated his full merit.

So much humor, lightness, freedom, variety and delight!  This tour guide had a rapt audience.
A few examples of his work follow, again subject to my poor photography ut perhaps to convey a feel. 


False snake, above, how to build a mobile below:

My hostel host directed me to the Leeum once I said I was interested in art but he wanted me to know that Samsung  did it to avoid taxes.  Well, no doubt, and a lot of taxes it must have saved but the collection was begun to preserve Korea’s legacy in art 77 years ago and certainly succeeded on that score.  That it invests major money in art and its exhibition makes it no different than major corporations, or their leaders, in other countries and civilizations.  New York City’s philanthropists give primarily to the arts, not the poor, and in massive amounts.  Samsung has done no less and has done it well.         

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