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Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

A visit to the Whanki Museum (환기 미술관)

Kim Whanki Self Portrait 1960

The Korea Tourist Office website advises us that Kim Hwan-gi (1913-1974) (known internationally as Kim Whanki — and he signs his paintings just plain “Whanki”) “was Korea’s top artist of modernism”. It is therefore frustrating that when you go into the Tourist Information Offices in Insadong no-one has heard of him, still less of the museum that was built specifically to house his work. On two occasions now (a year apart) I’ve struggled to get the helpful staff to believe that there really is such a place, and that I’d really like to know how to get there. I have to spell out the website address,, and make sure they type it into their browsers correctly, before they believe me. Once the website is loaded on their machines, the sailing becomes plainer.

Kim Whanki in his Paris studio, 1957

How to get there? Well you could take the 1020 bus from outside Jogye-sa, tell the bus driver you want to go to Buam-dong and hope for the best. Or you could get the Museum Shuttle Bus which sets off from immediately behind the Tourist Information kiosk at the north end of Insadong (which makes it doubly puzzling why none of the staff have heard of the museum). The latter is the risk-free alternative, and Mr Kim Jeong-woong the enthusiastic driver deserves your custom. He can get by in German and English, and he will point you in the right direction when he drops you off. He’s also a classical music enthusiast, so if you go prepared to discuss Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony he will be doubly delighted.

Kim Jeong-woong and his museum shuttle bus

The bus leaves at 11:30, 13:00 and 14:00, and takes 10 minutes to get to the museum. So if you’re feeling energetic it’s really close enough to walk back. (You wouldn’t want to walk there as you don’t know where it is, plus it’s uphill).

A lot of money has been spent on this museum. It’s an interesting building, designed by architect Woo Kyu-sung. The first phase was completed in 1992, and the remainder finished in 1997. There’s plenty of light and space inside, and on the day I visited there were more staff than visitors. So no-one’s going to get in your way if you want to contemplate your favourite painting for as long as you like.

When I visited, there was a maybe temporary display of two works by Felice Varini from 2006 (presumably from that year’s group exhibition at the museum, the Poetics of Space). At first, as you notice the strange yellow patches and dark blue curves painted on the walls, you think it’s a groovy design feature dreamed up by the architect. Then, as you climb the stairs, you see a notice on the wall staying “Yellow oval pierced by 7 holes”, 2006. You turn, and you see that the yellow splodges are designed to be viewed from one place, and one place only. If you close one eye, and get your positioning precisely right, the yellow splodges painted on the various pillars and walls coalesce perfectly, and you get an optical illusion of a yellow sheet of cellophane (oval, with seven holes), floating in front of your eye between you and your direction of sight. The other work, three large rectangles formed out of concentric blue oval lines, is an even greater exercise in three-dimensional perspectival trickery, with the patterns painted on pillars, walls both flat and curved, and even inside the staff office. The two works make clever use of the museum space, and complement the main show remarkably well.

DuetMoon jar paintingThe museum holds 1,000 pieces of Whanki’s work and personal relics. Many of the works are rough pencil sketches, but many of them are of course major pieces. There appears to be a sufficient quantity stored away to have an exhibition which changes regularly (every, say, two to three months). I went expecting to see loads of blue dot-paintings (example left), or less abstract works featuring Chosun dynasty moon jars (example right).

Something very different was on display:

Kim Whanki - untitled

The blue dot paintings are from Whanki’s final years in New York (1970-74), while the moon vases are from the mid to late 1950s. The works on display were from the late 60s, just before the final phase of his creative career in New York, and featured either a quadripartite design or other compositions featuring bold fields of colour.

Each painting was given due space to breathe, and given the crowd-free environment there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy the works and the building itself.

You can get a coffee in the museum shop, on the upper floor of which is more exhibition space. When I visited, they were showing some limited edition high quality reproductions of some of Whanki’s major works. Some of them were for sale in the shop — a bit steep at 2,000,000 Won each. There were more mass-produced posters available at 30,000 Won each, but without the authenticating seal of the museum.

A leisurely browse round the shop (some good quality Whanki memorabilia apart from the aforementioned posters, plus some books) plus a meditative perusal of the main museum and grounds will just about take the two hours between the time when the first bus drops you and the second bus comes by to take you back. If there was some nice cake to go with the coffee, or if you can find any evidence of the “Walking Trail”, the timing would be just about perfect.

Whanki Museum

Admission was 5,000 Won when I visited this week, with a 500 Won discount if you used Mr Kim’s shuttle bus (which itself was 1,000 Won). Well worth a trip.


  • 환기 미술관 / Whanki Museum website. Beware, however: the English language portion of the website has not been updated for over a year, and you will only find up-to-date information in the Korean pages. Do NOT rely on the bus timetables provided in the English section.
  • Tour2Korea Whanki Museum page
  • Mr Kim Jeong-woong’s Cyworld minihompy
  • More Kim Whanki info at Buddhapia
  • Recommended reading: Kim Whanki, A Critical Biography, by Oh Kwang-su. A helpful and straightforward introduction.

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