Seoul’s Korea Art Week is in full swing, and one of the best shows to see during it is a recently opened Moon Shin retrospective at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea’s Deoksugung branch.
Marking the centennial of Moon’s birth, this retrospective incisively charts the uncategorizable work of an artist “who took up a challenge in the new world in the midst of tumultuous times in Korea,” as Hong Nam-pyo, the Mayor of Changwon City, writes in a foreword the exhibition catalogue. (Changwon City, where a museum devoted to Moon is located, is a a co-organizer of the retrospective, and that institution made a number of loans to this show.)
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Put simply, the show is a stunner. It’s a testament to the true tour de force of an artist that Moon was.
Spread across four distinct galleries, the show, titled “Towards the Universe,” has one of the best installation designs I’ve ever encountered. Each gallery has its own feel, from curving brown walls for the paintings to large stone slabs to display the sculptures. A custom soundtrack meant to accompany the mood of the room is piped in. In one area, for example, cool jazz nicely complements lush blue carpeting.
Born in 1922 in Kyushu, Japan, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, Moon came to Korea when he was five years old; he was raised by his paternal grandmother. At 16, he returned to Japan to study painting and then moved back to Korea in 1945, following the country’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. Having established a painting practice, Moon traveled between Seoul and his hometown of Masan, until he moved again, at age 40, to Paris, where he spent the next 20 years. He permanently returned to Seoul in 1980.
Though he began his practice with painting, Moon eventually branched out to sculpture, craft, design, and architect. “He also transversed various dichotomous borders between the East and the West, traditional and modern, figurative and abstract, organic and geometric, craving and modelling, form and content, original and reproduction, material and spiritual, eventually to find the exquisite balance between the two opposing terms,” exhibition curator Park Hyesung writes in the catalogue.
Moon achieved fame both locally and internationally throughout his life; he died in 1995. But his work now remains little known, in part, Park writes, because he “was a potential wanderer” and a “disparate figure in the history of Korean modern art.” Moon was at the height of his career around the time of the postwar Dansaekhwa movement, which prized the flatness of the monochrome. But his art is decidedly different from anything that movement ever produced.
Below is a look at nine works to know by Moon, whose retrospective at the MMCA Deoksugung runs through January 29, 2023.