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The sculptor Kwon Jin-kyu’s exhibition at The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, in Deoksugung Museum of Art since the end of 2009 has been stirring a constant interest. Deceased at the age of 51, his death is referred to as an unfortunate premature death of an ingenious sculptor by many. After studying sculpture at Musashino Art University, Kwon started gaining acclaim as an elite emerging sculptor. Upon his return to Korea, he held three solo exhibitions in Seoul and Tokyo. However in 1973, after returning home from viewing his own exhibition at the Art Museum in Korea University Museum, he unexpectedly committed suicide in the evening, in his studio in Dongsun-dong. His tragic yet legendary life as an artist ranked him as a sculptor most beloved by Koreans, and his popularity gained momentum through his retrospective held at the Ho Am Art Museum in 1988.

To commemorate the 80th anniversary of Musashino University, Kwon was selected the most talented and outstanding alumni last year, and his retrospective was held at the library of Musashino Art University and The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Rohru Matsumoto, the assistant director of the museum organized and directed the retrospectives. Starting its preparation from 2008, the exhibition was held in Japan for 2 months, before it was co-hosted and reopened at The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea. Although some consider this order be a residue of the shadow of the Japanese colonization period when Western painting and sculptures had to be passed down by Japan before reaching Korea, it is also a testimony to the fact that the artists of his generation recognized him as the most outstanding artist. This provides the chance to confirm the fact that his work ultimately surpasses the limitations of historical backgrounds and the context of specific time, and is elevated to the status of being a masterpiece.


With all that said, there are obviously a few points to point out through this exhibition before he is placed at the zenith of art in Korea of the time. First of all, one point is the shadows of modern sculpture found in his early works. From 1949 to 1953 in the sculpture department of Musashino Art University, he studied under the direction of Shimizu Takashi, a pupil of
Bourdelle Emile Antoine. For the rest of his life, Kwon kept the catalogue of Bourdelle’s exhibition in Tokyo that his teacher published in 1956. The tradition and technique of the western modernism representational sculpture, handed down from Rodin to Broudelle, became his visual language for his whole entire life. Drenched in the classical bust characteristic of figurative sculpture, his female nude figures and self portraits show his pursuit for the perfect beauty that’s stern and ideal. However, the application of formal Modernistic experimentation is found in his studies after 1964. Actually, his studies are quite free from formality in comparison to his innumerous carvings and bust pieces with transcendental expressions. His work must be dealt with in a more intense research in the future, in the sense that his intention in abstract work is freely composed of variations in form, color and texture, and that his work is an experimentation of formality of material and elements of drawing.

Kwon Jin-kyu_The musician_terra-cotta·relief

Kwon Jin-kyu_The musician_08.1964_terra-cotta·relief_68.0x94.0x9.0_Kim Jin

Kwon Jin-kyu_reunion_terra-cotta·relief

reunion_1967_terra-cotta·relief_70.5x41.6x21.7_Hite Foundation for Arts and Culture

The academic influences he received in his early days are left intact, revealed in different forms and mixtures in his later works. His figurative works reveal that he directly applied the formal influences from the classical Egyptian sculptures. Also, archaic style is mixed in. Naturally, the Modigliani figures may be directly referenced with intentionally long necks and the bold rendering of slender shoulders. On the other hand, when taken into consideration of the fact that he taught architecture and participated in the restoration of National treasures such as Sungnyemun, it may as well be said that the bust is more similar to traditional Buddhist sculpture in form, such as a Bodhisattva. Another condition besides the technique of making sculpture figures of bodhisattva is the archaic smile found in the sculptural style of Shilla Dynasty made under the influence of Hellenistic art. He also created set design for broadcasted historical dramas as well as for films. His humorous and dynamic sculptures of animals are seen as a part keeping in line with traditional folk art.


His portraits in which the image and the model are in agreement started as portraits, and at the end of 1969, he started sublimating himself as a symbolic model of a truth-seeker. Therefore, anatomical traces that illustrate race and gender are completely removed, leaving the face into a skin that covers a mass of tofu-like soft muscles. Rather than alienation from the world becoming more apparent, it became more tightened with tension as if to break down in front of anyone at any given moment. Besides for his repetitive bust and head figures that probably seem to near excessively narcissistic, other portraits, animal sculptures and studies are produced in diverse approaches and intentions. In particular, the simple yet outstanding reclining female nude is a piece that exemplifies his abundance in individuality as an artist.

Kwon Jin-kyu_portrait_terra-cotta

portrait_1967_terra-cotta_23.5x17.3x16.0_Seoul Personal

Kwon Jin-kyu_couple

couple_09.1964_terra-cotta·relief_70.0x97.0x7.7_Garam gallery

Kwon Jin-kyu_couple

couple_09.1964_terra-cotta·relief_70.0x97.0x7.7_Garam gallery


Kwon Jin-kyu_horsepox_terra-cotta

horsepox_1967_terra-cotta_47.0x62.5x30.0_Seoul personal

Kwon Jin-kyu_cat_terra-cotta

cat_summer in 1964_terra-cotta_42.0x15.0x26.0_Seoul personal


His figures are often made out of stones, tree and plaster, but later on they are made of terracotta. Often used for simple bowls, primitive ax, or grave goods used in burial customs, terracotta is a technique of forming the basic material of earth into a piece of art work. According to Kwon, he favored terracotta because it’s a material that is under the control of the artist until in its final stages, as opposed to bronze, which is done through someone else. Therefore, he built a kiln himself in his studio using red bricks, and baked his own work. After casting a few works, they nearly lost their worth for preservation as many severe damages occurred on the works in its last stage.  Such works were destroyed by hand. Most fortunately, his studio in Dongsun-dong has been selected for preservation as National Trust People’s Cultural Asset no.3, achieved through the hard effort of his sister Kwon Kyung-sook.


The yearning for the talent unreachable by common people often yields an over-exaggerated myth. In the case of modern Korean art whose commencement in contemporary art is comparatively late, what are needed might be more of Park Su-geun, Lee Jung-sup and other artists like them who can fill up the void and link the traditional and modern. However, if we deal with these artists in an unintelligent manner like a Miss Korea contest of beauty or blindly following the text book images of art, what’s only being done is dealing with the world of artists in a repetitive superficial manner, making profound research more difficult. This exhibition of Kwon Jin-kyu can be a meaningful beginning to the research of the artist in the sense that it reflects the over-exaggeration and illusion that is created from the fusion of the word ‘genius’ with the notions of tragedy, isolation, alienation and suffering, and allows a calm reflection of the artist. He expressed that
We all die, but my sculpture will near immortality.If anything, an element of truth rings in that conviction.

Choi hyengchol Independent Curator

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Posted by EYEBALL_Media Arts Webzine


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