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Gansong Art Museum (간송미술관)

* Autumn 2009 Museum Dates: 18 October - 1 November 2009
* Autumn 2009 Museum Hours: 10:00 - 18:00

I've been writing about festivals a lot recently and - despite mentioning how I probably wouldn't make it to the Jinju Lantern Festival - I found myself at another festival over the weekend. This one was down in Seongbuk (성북), northern Seoul, and was called the D·Festa after the Daehagno district (대학로) - an area well-known for its theater performances.

Prior to the festival I was at the Gansong Art Museum (간송미술관) with the academy director and his wife. Founded in 1938, the museum is a private collection that is only open to the public twice a year - a couple of weeks in the spring and a similar period of time in the autumn. The museum has its origins in the efforts of Jeon Hyeong-pil (전형필; 全鎣弼), who used his wealth to buy Joseon Dynasty artwork that had been taken to Japan during the colonial occupation of 1910-1945.

[ 훈민정음, Source ]

The museum hosts a large number of paintings and includes some very famous cultural pieces. Perhaps foremost among them is National Treasure No. 70, the Hunmin Jeongeum (훈민정음; The Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People), written in 1446 by King Sejong the Great (세종대왕). Prior to the introduction of hanmin jeongeum (now called 한글; hangul in South Korea, 조선글; joseongeul in North Korea) the Korean language was written using Chinese characters. King Sejong reportedly came up with hangul as a way to improve literacy among the population, most of whom could not afford the education required to learn hanja (the Korean term for Chinese characters).

The copy on display in the Gansong Art Museum is the Haerye Edition, considered lost until 1940 (according to Korean National Heritage Online) or 1942 (according to this government page), when it was found in an old house in Andong. Lee Han-geol's family had kept the original copy of the Hanmin Jeongeum for 550 years before he decided to sell it. Japan had already banned Korean newspapers and forced everyone to adopt Korean names by then in an attempt to stamp out the Korean language and, given the political climate of the time, Jeon Hyeong-pil feared that the Japanese would destroy the Hanmin Jeongeum if they heard of its existence. As the government website describes the situation:

In 1942, he noticed another antique dealer busy going somewhere. He learnt that the original copy of “Hunmin Jeongeum (National Treasure no. 70)” was discovered in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do (North Gyeongsang Province) and the owner was demanding 1,000 won. He immediately sent the owner 10,000 won and passed 1,000 won to the antique dealer to bring it to him.
This was at a time when 1,000 won was enough to buy a fancy house. Last week (October 9) happened to be Hangul Day in South Korea, which made it an appropriate time to see the Hunmin Jeongeum on display. Of course, the Gansong Art Museum also contains paintings from some of Korea's most famous artists. Shin Yun-bok (신윤복; pen name Hyewon), Kim Hong-do (김홍도; pen name Danwon), and Jang Seung-eop (장승업; pen name Owon) are all represented in Gansong.

[ paintings from the museum - click to enlarge ]

1. "고매서작" by 조속, 17th cent.
2. "혜원풍속도첩 (蕙園風俗圖帖)" by 신윤복, 1805
3. "미인도" (Portrait of a Beauty) by 신윤복, 1825 - 'full size' version available here
4. "월하정인 (月下情人)" (Lovers Under the Moon) by 신윤복, ???
5. "해웅영일" by 정홍래, 18th cent.

Portrait of a Beauty is an extremely popular image to use on products marketed to tourists, but it's still a painting that I find breath-taking. Two of my other favorites from the collection don't have images that appear under a Google search, but I may look for them through Daum or Naver later in the week. With the museum open for such a limited period of time it should come as little surprise to hear that there was a line to enter the building. However, the wait was an enjoyable one due to how the estate is laid out. True, waiting on the sidewalk wasn't the greatest, especially when the ajumma behind me started cracking her gum, but she did share some 떡 with me later and turned out to be pretty nice. Once past the gates there are a few statues, a garden, and albino peahens to keep your interest while you wait.

[ trees next to the museum, albino peahens, and a child-sized statue ]

Overall, visiting the museum was a fantastic experience and I'm really glad to have been invited by the academy director and his wife. Mrs. 한 grew up in Seongbuk, not far from the museum, and pointed out that one of the artists is currently seeing a renaissance of interest after a historical novel - 바람의 화원; The Painter of Wind - was published last year. The book speculates that Shin Yun-bok was in fact a woman pretending to be a man in order to escape the gender roles prescribed in the rigidly Confucian Joseon Dynasty. It was turned into a Korean drama that began airing this fall. You can read an article discussing his modern appeal here from the Korea Times, and one about the drama here from KDrama Queen.

For anyone interested in going: Take Line 6 to Hansung University Station (한성여대입구; Station 419 on the light blue line) and go out using Exit 6. There's a basic map in English here with a more detailed map in Korean on Naver's site. The general directions are to follow 성북동길 (Seongbuk-dong Road) to the north, away from the university, and look out for signs to either the museum or the Seongbuk Elementary School along the right hand side of the road. The museum is open 10:00-18:00 and admission is free; a book explaining the collection (in Korean) with photos of the artwork is available for 20,000 won.

The museum holds 12 national treasures and 10 other national cultural properties, which you can find on a list provided by the Cultural Heritage Administration website. Look for anything managed by Jeon Seongu, son of the late Jeon Hyeong-pil. Blogger 'limesecret' has a post with photos from last spring that you may also want to check out.