People / Critic

Yun Hyong-keun in Venice: The Artist Behind the Paintings

posted 07 May 2019

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Yun Hyong-keun in his studio. Courtesy Estate of Yun Hyong-keun. ⓒYun Seong-ryeol.

'He was not a "political" kind of person. He just wanted to be honest and straight. But it was not easy in Korea to live like that,' writes curator Kim Inhye on artist Yun Hyong-keun. For much of his life, Yun lived in proximity to some of the most tumultuous moments in modern Korean history, from which he emerged as a pioneer of abstract painting in Korea. More than 60 of the artist's works, as well as a recreation of his atelier, will be presented in Venice at Palazzo Fortuny (11 May–24 November 2019), marking the first major international retrospective of Yun's career since his death in 2007.

Curated by Kim Inhye, who also organised the artist's retrospective in 2018 at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul (MMCA) (4 August 2018–6 February 2019), the exhibition is a collaboration between MMCA, the Civic Museums of Venice (MUVE), and five partner galleries: Axel Vervoordt Gallery, David Zwirner, Simon Lee Gallery, Blum & Poe, and PKM Gallery, the latter gallery representing the artist's estate.

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Yun Hyong-keun, 〈Umber-Blue〉, 1977-1978. Oil on cotton. 145 x 200 cm. Courtesy Estate of Yun Hyong-keun. ⓒYun Seong-ryeol.

Born in 1928 in Cheongju, much of Yun's childhood was spent under Japanese occupation in Korea; he was 17 upon its termination in 1945. In 1947, he was set to study Western painting at Seoul National University (SNU), but was arrested and expelled that same year for taking part in the student protests against the school's establishment by the U.S. Military Government in Korea. Protestors responded by suspending class, and Yun was among the 4,956 students to have their admission annulled (3,158 of them were, however, later allowed to return to the university).

As the demonstration at SNU was a left-wing movement, Yun was suspected of being a communist in the following years. He was enlisted into the so-called Bodo League, an anti-communist organisation founded by the Korean government in 1949 to re-educate and convert those suspected of harbouring leftist tendencies. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the South Korean government arrested people on the Bodo League list—among them civilians who did not even know that they had been registered, or what the League was for—and many were executed. Yun was one of those who was rounded up and, as Kim Inhye explains, he narrowly escaped execution by hiding in a forest. Yun was then forced to work for the North Korean Army after becoming stranded in occupied Seoul, which led to six months of imprisonment in 1956 on charges of collaborating with communists, after the war ended.

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Yun Hyong-keun's studio in Seoul. Courtesy Estate of Yun Hyong-keun. ⓒYun Seong-ryeol.

In the midst of state oppression, however, Yun was able to pursue his path as an artist. When he took the entrance exam for SNU, he met Kim Whanki, an influential modern Korean artist who was a professor at the university, and would become Yun's lifelong mentor, friend, and father-in-law. By 1952, Kim had moved to teach at Hongik University in Seoul, and he allowed special admission for Yun so that he could continue studies there in 1954. Kim's influences can be seen in Yun's early paintings, many of which experiment with abstraction and feature bright colours. Circular shots of red, light blue, and purple congregate in 〈Title Unknown〉 (c. 1966), for example, while the vivid blue columns over yellow in 〈Drawing〉 (1972) bleed into the surface of the hanji paper, fostering an illusion of three-dimensionality.