2024 is the 120th anniversary of the birth of Lee Ungno (이응노, 1904~1989). In commemoration of this, the Lee Ungno Museum and the National Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, Korea are jointly holding Lee Ungno, East Wind, West Wind. This exhibition, which is also a part of the MMCA’s public art museum exhibition cooperation program, possesses great significance also in that it allows the viewing of a new art realm of an artist representing Korea as overseas works are exhibited in force.
The keyword placed at the center of this international exhibition is convergence. Convergence is a word penetrating Lee Ungno’s art-making activity over seventy-plus years. Lee Ungno himself called this interference. This word, which was also the title of the exhibition of students at the Academy of Oriental Painting in Paris, which Lee Ungno founded, was about “the East and West’s art ultimately becoming qualitatively rich together” as participants in art activities “discover their own creative languages.” I.e., it can be sorted out as meaning all creative languages make one another leap while conversing as equals. As this word directly shows, it is not excessive to state that Lee Ungno’s art realm was built by the collision of socially and culturally mutually rivaling elements, including the East and West, and colonies and imperialism, and the ceaseless reinterpretation accompanying this. Within art as well, diverse elements forming Korean art history, including scholarly paintings, folk paintings, appreciation paintings, and decorative paintings, mutually intersected in his works. This international exhibition presents a world of convergence Lee Ungno thus created while freely crossing several boundaries.
In 2014, the Lee Ungno Museum held Étranger in West Germany, an exhibition inspecting Lee Ungno’s activities in Germany. Germany was where Lee Ungno’s European activities commenced. Beginning with this exhibition, the Lee Ungno Museum’s project following Lee’s trajectory in Europe expanded its range to include France and Switzerland. They were exhibitions mostly setting the focal point on Lee’s time in Europe since the 1960s and thus focusing on the achievements he displayed after entering the center of the Western art world. The enthusiasm his works, using the Eastern materials of paper, the brush, and ink, brought about in the European art world was vividly reenacted through these exhibitions. Also, they became an opportunity to convey Lee Ungno’s endless enthusiasm for inquiry through speech symbol abstraction using the Korean alphabet and Chinese characters, sculptures, ceramics, and tapestries, etc.
The Lee Ungno Museum’s recent exhibitions show another aspect of Lee while backtracking spatially from Europe to Korea and temporally from 1958, before he moved to Europe, to his early search period as an artist. They are Discernment: Cheonggwanjae Lee Ungno Collection (2022) and Reunion after 70 Years (2023). Lee Ungno has been evaluated as a most creative artist with a free attitude toward the forms and materials of traditional Eastern painting. Yet, Korea’s enduring tradition constantly shows its face in his works. The history of East Asian calligraphy formed the foundation of Lee Ungno’s works, and the signboard and interior decoration businesses he ran since the late 1920s infused his works with a design-like mood that is rarely found among his contemporary Korean artists. It is not easy to find the roots of the traditions he referred to and uncover their influences in diverse works ranging from those inspired by Chinese oracle bone inscriptions to those inspired by Arabic letters, from images of crowds representing onstage group dance scenes to traditional mountain-and-water paintings, and from “four gentlemen” iconography to wallpaper design. This international exhibition being held at the Lee Ungno Museum is intended to present the interactive relationship between various elements of East Asia, Europe, tradition, and modernity by displaying traditional works Lee Ungno painted before moving to Europe and in Paris alongside experimental works of Western Modernism. We hope it will be conveyed through this exhibition that Lee Ungno’s works were a festival produced by the new convergence of colliding and transforming plastic languages and models inspired by countless cultures.
The Lee Ungno Museum hopes this exhibition, in which unseen works are unveiled on a grand scale, will lead to a new transition of research on Lee Ungno. For this, we hold an international scholarly symposium in addition to the exhibition. The research papers included in this catalog are ones presented at this symposium. We hope research on Lee Ungno will spread afterwards through this symposium in which Korean and international researchers have gathered on the 120th anniversary of Lee’s birth. This is the future assignment this international exhibition and symposium brings up.