“Gansong” Jeon Hyeong-pil was born in 1906 and died in 1962. Anyone who regrets that the great art collector’s 56-year life was too short can feel his rebirth while viewing the Gansong Exhibition in the new Dongdaemun Design Plaza.
The dedication in March of the DDP as a center for promoting industrial and artistic design was no doubt one of the greatest cultural events in decades along with the opening of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul late last year. The huge amoeba-shaped edifice which consumed enormous portions of the Seoul City and national budget and occupied thousands of square meters of public land in this overcrowded capital could almost be branded the champion of financial and spatial waste ($450 million for 7,900 square meters), if not for the eerily attractive design, inside and outside.
Dongdaemun, a commercial district around the East Gate, looked like a war zone while the DDP was under construction on the former sites of municipal soccer and baseball stadiums. High-rise shopping centers built over the past decade competed not only for customers but in terms of urban disorderliness. The DDP project itself caused frowns as the structure’s curved surface was revealed through gaps in the scaffolding, which remained there for five years.
Complaints turned into appreciation as all barriers were removed upon the grand opening on March 20 and curious visitors were allowed into the five interconnected sections with different functions through a dozen entrances accessible directly from the street. The mysterious effect was that the tall buildings harmoniously converged toward the new silvery structure like the back chorus on a pop music stage. People talked about Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born, London-based architect, and expressed their approval of her work.
I don’t know how it happened but the choice of the Gansong exhibition as the major opening event was an admirable way to link the past to the very core of Korea’s contemporary culture. As is often the case with the opening of new cultural facilities, filling their inside with worthy content is a heady task. The DDP operators were fortunate that the Jeon family agreed to use its space for the public appreciation of the treasures which had so long been kept in the small halls and vaults of Gansong museum in Seongbuk-dong, which opened briefly twice a year.
Around the time of the DDP exhibition, the Jeon family turned all the artifacts in its possession over to a new cultural foundation, which signed a contract with the DDP for a series of three exhibitions. The opening exhibition wraps up at the end of this month and the second will open in July. Though never an art aficionado, I have been drawn to the Gansong exhibition three times already and found myself feeling deeper affection for the items on display each time I stepped inside.
While the beauty of the artifacts enchants the viewer, the uniquely respectable personality of the collector is magnetizing. A life-size picture of Gansong in a white ramie “durumagi” overcoat with a fedora above his round smiling face welcomes visitors to the hall. More pictures of the man appreciating Goryeo and Joseon era vessels he obtained in auctions in Seoul and Tokyo and socializing with archaeologists and art dealers cover a wall in the exhibition hall while some of his own distinguished artworks are also shown.
Resting my feet on a couch, I tried to estimate the wealth of Gansong, who is known to have inherited “100,000 sok” of rice fields from his adoptive and biological parents. One sok, roughly equivalent to one-tenth of a hectare, is currently worth about 10 million won in rice-growing areas. So, Jeon’s assets, in real estate alone, must have amounted to about 1 trillion won, or $1 billion, in present value.
Gansong’s great-grandfather Jeon Gye-hun made the family fortune through trade based in Seoul’s “Baeugae” district, now Jongno 4-ga and its vicinity. By the time Gansong was born and was adopted by his childless uncle, the family owned vast land covering the eastern outskirts of Seoul in addition to numerous stores along the streets of Baeugae.
A biographical note in the catalogue of the Gansong collection introduces an episode during the days when he was attending Waseda University in Tokyo. In a bookstore, he was looking at files for classifying books. A Japanese classmate looked over, approached and told him, “You think you can fill all the slots with worthy books? Maybe you can, if you try … ha, ha.” Gansong felt deeply humiliated by the remark with its implied contempt of his colonized country and its cultural wealth.
Back home, Gansong began collecting rare classical books, opening an antiquarian bookstore in Insa-dong. His hobby became his life mission as his collection expanded to old paintings, earthenware, Buddhist statues and stone monuments. Art dealers from across the country came to Gansong’s Seongbuk-dong estate with information on the location of great artworks which could interest him as well as Japanese collectors.
During the 1930s, the Gyeongseong (Seoul) Art Club regularly held auctions mainly for Japanese collectors, but Gansong competed with Japanese bidders until he outbid them by substantial margins. He paid 15,000 won for an 18th century white porcelain bottle with an orchid and chrysanthemum relief and about as much for a 13th century inlaid blue celadon plum vase. One thousand won at that time was enough to buy a large tile-roofed house in Seoul.
There are fascinating stories about how each of the artifacts, including many “national treasures” and “treasures,” came into Gansong’s possession, each worth a TV miniseries today, when chaebeol families often make headlines for their daring activities in the art market though they seem to be more interested in contemporary works. In my basic research on him, I didn’t find the faintest indication that he “invested” in art for financial gain. He simply wanted to keep the treasures out of the hands of colonizers.
Post-liberation Korea honored Gansong with a couple of posthumous national medals. By the time he died of acute kidney failure his wealth was gone, but because he bequeathed such assets to posterity the DDP is graced today with the light and fragrance of old Korea. And gentleman Gansong’s generous soul lives on with Hyewon and Danwon’s genre paintings, Gyeomje’s landscapes, Owon’s exquisite galloping horses and other artistic gems.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.