Artist Leaves Distinctive Mark on Modern Korean Sculpture
A few years ago, Musashino Art University in Japan prepared an exhibition to commemorate the 80th anniversary of its foundation. At the time, professors and students unanimously selected a Korean sculptor named Kwon Jin-gyu.
Kwon became the first Asian artist to be chosen for the school’s commemorative exhibition. That was partly because he studied at the university from 1949 to 1953. But it also indicates that the prominent sculptor left a distinctive mark on modern art.
Let’s explore the life of Kwon Jin-gyu.
Learning Sculpture in Japan
Kwon was born in Hamheung, South Hamgyeong Province. His family was relatively well off as his father was a businessman. It is said that Kwon liked to play with earth from childhood and he was good with his hands.
He was rather weak when he was little. For years, he stayed in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, where his father ran his business, to recover his health.
During the Japanese colonial rule of Korea, Kwon was conscripted and taken to an ironworks in Japan. But he was fortunate enough to take an art class at a private studio in Tokyo. A few years later, in 1944, Kwon smuggled himself into Korea and settled in Seoul to learn painting at a local art institute.
Kwon went to Japan again in 1947 and entered Musashino Art University. There, he learned sculpture from Takashi Shimizu, a leading figure in the world of Japanese sculpture. Since Shimizu was the student of Antoine Bourdelle, Kwon was also greatly influenced by the French sculptor.
In Search of Answer to Eternity
Kwon thought that the more he knew about the model, the better his work would be. He believed the model’s spirit would be reflected in the work. It was only natural that the best model for an ideal work of art was none other than Kwon himself. For the same reason, he would look for his students or people around him when he chose a model other than himself.
Kwon’s works mostly capture a particular moment of life. These works are comparable with a truth-seeker who is trying to find an answer to eternity.
He usually created figures and animals, like horses and chicken, out of baked earth. These works express the artist’s spiritual attitude in seeking truth and his perception of things in an intuitive and natural situation.
In most cases, the art pieces leave out unnecessary decorations but intensively seek the spiritual unity between the artist and the objects he was working on. His works such as “Self-Sculpture,” “The Girl’s Face” and “The Statue of a Woman” are believed to have contributed greatly to upgrading modern Korean sculpture to a higher level.
Kwon liked to use terracotta, which is a technique to make earthen pieces last the longest. Once shaped with earth, the pieces are baked without being glazed. Kwon continued to use terracotta until he began to apply dried lacquering in the 1960s.
But sculptures made of terracotta could cause a problem when they are not completely baked. When Kwon’s works were transported for a joint exhibition between Korea and Japan, specialists in preservation and restoration of art works discussed how to move them for months and confirmed the method more than six times. Some even asked whether the art works were cultural assets.
Ill-Fated Sculptor Ends his Own Life
Kwon held the first private exhibition in Seoul in 1965, but it didn’t draw much attention from local galleries. His second exhibition, held in Tokyo three years later, received rave reviews from the art community in Japan.
Kwon gave his third exhibition in 1971 in Myeondgong, downtown Seoul, in the form of the invitation exhibition, which was the first of its kind in Korea.
Unfortunately, he suffered from diseases as well as tremendous emotional distress, and he committed suicide in his workshop in 1973. He was just 51 years old. The following year, a memorial exhibition marking the first anniversary of his death was held in Myeongdong Gallery to display his posthumous works.