Seundja Rhee, Chemin des Antipodes Avril N°1.92, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 53 x 65.1 cm, 20.9 x 25.6 in., © ADAGP, Paris
From 22 March to 29 July 2018, the Seoul National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the birth of a major artist from South Korea: Seundja Rhee (1918-2009). Based on four roughly chronological sections, the visit aims to retrace the artist’s career from the 1950s to the 2000s.
Seundja Rhee, Port d’Amsterdam, 1956, oil on canvas, 26.5 x 40.5 cm, 10.4 x 15.9 in., © ADAGP, Paris
After her studies in Japan, the Korean War forced S. Rhee to leave her country and her children behind, and move to France, where she was to remain for fifty years. She enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, frequented the École de Paris group, and created her first paintings.
The first part of the exhibition bears witness to this period during which, immersed in postwar western culture, she painted landscapes from her daily life, such as Port d’Amsterdam (1956), a work whose style is reminiscent of Nicolas de Staël’s during the same period.
The visit continues in a space dedicated to the decade 1960-1970, which marked her turn towards abstraction; in this period S. Rhee used techniques as varied as oil painting, woodcutting, mosaic, and pottery.
Seundja Rhee, Ying and Yang, May 1975 No.1, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 250 cm, © National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, South Korea, © ADAGP, Paris
Progressively, intelligent scenography using picture rails that are both straight and curved, allows the yin and yang to emerge: this is the central symbol and philosophical element of S. Rhee’s œuvre. In her large format works, she associated the cosmos and spirituality, presenting an intimate, touching poetry (Yin Yang, May No1, 75, 1975). The two chromatic spectrums of red and blue clash and unite by turns, a metaphor for the complementarity of the two cultures dear to the artist.
From 1973 until the end of her life, her work explored the construction and deconstruction of the yin and yang form. This was even used for the architectural plan of the studio the artist had built in Tourrettes-sur-Loup, in the Alpes-Maritimes region, in the late 1980s.
Seundja Rhee, A Night of Tourrettes, August No. 2, 79, 1979, © National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, South Korea, © ADAGP, Paris
It is regrettable that almost all of the artworks shown in this exhibition come from the Seund Ja Rhee Foundation. Loans of works from international collections, such as those of the Centre national des arts plastiques or from the Musée départemental des Arts asiatiques de Nice, would have given the South Korean public access to them and illustrated the artist’s constant travels between South Korea and France. That said, the error is partly corrected in the massive room located at the end of the visit, where a significant amount of S. Rhee’s international archives are presented – unfortunately in a more rudimentary and less thoughtful way than the paintings in the preceding rooms.
Characterized by nostalgia,1 her work offers a metaphysical journey into the depths of her soul. Thanks to exhibitions like this one, the work of S. Rhee, who was torn between two cultures during her lifetime, has recently acquired real recognition in her native country, recognition she still has difficulty attaining in France.
Rhee Seundja. Road to the Antipodes, from 22 March to 29 July 2018, at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Seoul, South Korea).