One of Korea’s best and most interesting museums may also be one of its least known. Tucked away behind Seongbuk Elementary School is a treasure trove of Korean traditional art, including many national treasures, housed in the colonial splendor of the Gansong Art Museum.
The museum’s astoundingly important collection is only open to the public for two weeks in the spring and two weeks in the fall each year, with each opening focusing on different aspects of the museum’s holdings. (left: Ujuk (“bamboo tips”), by Lee Jeong, gold ink on black paper. Picture courtesy the Gansong Art Museum)
Founded by Jeon Hyeong-pil in 1938 as a way to save Korean artistic and cultural properties from being bought up and taken to Japan, the Gangsong Museum is the oldest modern private museum in Korea. After witnessing the Japanese colonial authorities exporting many of Korea’s most valuable and important pieces of art, the wealthy Jeon took it upon himself to save works of artistic and cultural importance by buying them himself.
His actions saved many valuable pieces, including an original copy of the Hunmin jeongeum, King Sejong’s proclamation of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, which is now National Treasure No. 70. Shin Yun-bok’s famous portrait of a gisaeng entertainer, Miindo (Portrait of a Beauty), is also part of the collection, along with paintings by the famed Joseon artist Shin Saimdang and painter and calligrapher Kim Jeong-hui.
This spring, the Gansong Art Museum is focusing its exhibition on paintings of the “four gracious plants.” The phrase “sagunja” in Korean refers to the plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo, but is also used as a euphemism for scholars and learned people.
The four gracious plants, also known as the “four gentlemen” or “four friends,” also stand in for the seasons and virtues, with plums representing courage and early spring, orchids for refinement and summertime, chrysanthemums symbolizing productivity and the fall and bamboo known for its integrity and greenness even in winter.
These plants were popular themes in Joseon period art, and were seen as a distinct genre of painting, and were usually done in ink or watercolor. (right: Baekmae (“white plum”), by Kim Hong-do, colored ink on paper. Picture courtesy the Gansong Art Museum)
Despite the fact that the museum is relatively unknown and off the beaten tourist path, the short amount of time when it is open to the public can create long lines for admission, stretching all the way out to Seongbukdong’s main street at peak times.
According to the museum, an average of 800 people visit their two gallery rooms during the exhibition period. Although the museum itself is small, its extensive collection means that each exhibition brings an almost entirely new set of paintings and artworks, along with new fans and repeat visitors. (left: Sansangnanhwa (“orchid on the mountaintop”) by Kim Jeong-hi (Chusa), ink on paper. Photo courtesy of the Gansong Art Museum)
One of the museum’s visitors was Kookmin University art student Kang Jin-hon, who was especially impressed to see such a large collection of distinctly Korean pieces and hadn’t heard of the museum before her professor recommended it. “I didn’t really have much interest in traditional Asian art before,” she said, “but I’m having a really great time looking at the exhibit and am starting to understand its charms. I will think more about our national treasures and try to come to these exhibitions in the future.”
There’s more than just art to enjoy at the museum, though. Architecture fans are sure to appreciate the exquisite art deco and colonial period details of the main building, called Bohwagak.
Fans of gardening will find much to enjoy in the lush grounds, and kids will surely appreciate the museum’s small menagerie, including albino peacocks and peahens.
The museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm until May 29, and admission is free. Gansong Art Museum is located at 97-1 Seokbuk-dong, Seongbuk-gu, and is a ten minute walk from exit 4 of Hansung University Station on line 4. For more information, please call the museum at 02-762-0442. (right: Gansong Art Museum, photo courtesy of Yonhap News)