On April 28, 2021, the bereaved family of the late Chairman Lee Kun-hee (1942-2020) donated 21,693 items to the National Museum of Korea (NMK) and 1,488 modern and contemporary artworks to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA).
An additional 102 modern and contemporary artworks were divided among regional institutions, including the Gwangju Museum of Art, Daegu Art Museum, Park Soo Keun Museum, Lee Jungꠓseop Art Museum, and Jeonnam Museum of Art. In swift response to the explosive public interest in the unprecedented “donation of the century,” on July 21 the NMK opened the exhibition A Great Cultural Legacy: Masterpieces from the Bequest of the Late Samsung Chairman Lee Kunꠓhee (July 21-Sept. 25, 2021), featuring 97 items, while the MMCA opened Lee Kun-hee Collection: Masterpieces of Korean (July 21, 2021-June 6, 2022), featuring 57 works.
This year, to celebrate the first anniversary of the donation, the National Museum of Korea (NMK) and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) organized A Collector’s Invitation – The First Anniversary of Lee Kun-hee’s Bequest, running from April 28 to August 28, 2022. A large-scale exhibition featuring 355 major works from the collection, it includes 308 donated to the NMK such as Clearing After Rain on Mount Inwang by Jeong Seon (National Treasure)Fig.1 and The Sound of Autumn by Kim Hongdo(Treasure); 35 donated to the MMCA such as Echo 9-II73#307 by Kim Whanki, and The Water-Lily Pond by Claude Monet Fig.2; as well as 12 donated to regional institutions such as A Leisurely Day by Park Soo Keun Fig.3.
When planning the exhibition, the first issue was how to satisfy public interest in the late Chairman Lee Kun-hee’s bequest. Some of the items had long ago been exhibited at the Ho-Am Art Museum and Leeum Museum of Art, and although they also featured in various special exhibitions in Korea and overseas, many people still considered them to come from a “secret collection.” So, based on this general perception of the collection, the exhibition was prepared under the concept of “a collector’s home,” the place where the treasures were brought together. After establishing the late Lee Kun-hee as “a collector” who loved cultural artifacts and art, the first exhibition hall was fitted out as a virtual space housing the works he had accumulated.
The second issue was what meaning should be invested in the act of appreciating and collecting cultural artifacts and works of art. Cultural artifacts and artworks are objects made by humans as they adapted to nature or expressions of the artistic inspiration they received from nature. “A collector” was quick to realize the value of these items and acquired diverse treasures from all periods and fields. So, the second exhibition hall was designed to show the nature of the items he had collected and convey to people today the various experiences and wisdom of humankind embodied in them. Hence, the exhibition is divided into two sections: “Into My House” and “Introduction to My Collection.”
The first section is a place where visitors enjoy looking at the items that reflect the discernment and tastes of “a collector.” On behalf of the collector, modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures greet visitors, exhibited under the theme of “Family and Love.” Next, in the sense of serving visitors a cup of tea, small dining tables (soban) and white porcelain ewers and cups are displayed with the subtle scent of tea hanging in the air, made possible by the support of AmorePacific.
In addition, writings and paintings containing family memories express the importance of spending time with loved ones, while the White Porcelain Moon Jar Fig.4 and Work by Kim Whanki Fig.5 are placed side by side to show the discernment of a collector who loved art and nature. Moreover, along with the 19th-century folding screen Painting of Scholar’s Equipment (Chaekgado), which represents the fever for collecting during the Joseon Dynasty, various items are arranged in a type of bookcase to show the tastes of the collector. Notably, two garden-like spots have been created to showcase dongjaseok (stone statues of young boys) from Jejudo Island, and Claude Monet’s The Water-Lily Pond. A media art of a pond with water lilies is projected onto the area around Monet’s painting to make viewers feel that they’re standing in the garden.
The second section, “Introduction to My Collection,” is where the stories of humanity contained in the items unfold. Divided into four areas, the first area, “Experience of Communion with Nature,” presents Joseon-period landscape paintings and ceramics along with modern paintings, alluding to the various ways people have been inspired by nature or given nature special meaning.
In the “Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter” part, the display is changed every month to highlight human emotions in tandem with seasonal changes. From the opening of the exhibition through May 31, Jeong Seon’s Clearing After Rain on Mount. Inwang imparts the freshness of a summer day after rain; from June 1 to 30, Kim Hongdo’s The Sound of Autumn shows the loneliness of autumn; from July 1 to 28 Park Daesung’s Winter Scene of Bulguksa Temple shows the peacefulness of winter; and from July 29 to August 28 separate paintings titled Butterflies by Nam Gyeu and Lee Kyungseung convey the splendor of spring. Clearing After Rain on Mount Inwang and The Sound of Autumn will be moving onto the Gwangju National Museum in the latter half of the year and to the Daegu National Museum and the Cheongju National Museum in the first half of next year.
The second area, “Wisdom of Using Natural Resources,” features earthenware, ceramics and metal crafts made with earth and metal, making the most of the heritages of these basic materials humans obtain from nature. The third area, “Wisdom of Conveying Thoughts,” takes visitors to the world of Buddhist art and Joseon-period calligraphy, which express Buddhist doctrines and human thoughts in writing and pictures. The fourth area, “Exploration of Humanity in Change,” looks at the way human beings have gradually changed over the ages, from the time social beliefs were considered more important than individual thoughts to the time when individual independent thoughts and emotions became an important force behind human development, with imagination and creativity surpassing limitations. Here, a video explores the love of culture and collection philosophy of the late Lee Kun-hee, “a collector,” conveying to visitors the donor’s philosophy and mission of helping Korea become a cultural powerhouse.
Many people took part in preparing the special exhibition, in line with the sharing spirit of the bequest. In July 2021, officials from NMK and MMCA first met to introduce by theme the items each had received, based on which the NMK out the exhibition together. The exchange of opinions among numerous people gave the exhibition greater substance.
Lee Hyeonsuk, exhibition designer at the NMK, created the space utilizing the concepts of “collection” and “home.” At the suggestion of Kim Youngna, chairman of the bequest utilization committee, the title of the exhibition was changed from “A Collector’s Home” to “A Collector’s Invitation.” There has been lively interest in the exhibition, simply because it is the collection of the late Lee Kun-hee, attracting even people who have never visited a museum or art gallery before.
This is the most positive effect of the bequest – the growing number of people taking an interest in art and culture in the midst of their busy everyday lives. As per the words of Chairman Lee Kun-hee, “Cultural competitiveness is created when ‘Koreanness’ becomes a part of daily life,” and it is hoped that culture and art will further inform and enrich our lives.