Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Wednesday 28 March 2012. It’s my last morning in Tongyeong, and like the previous two days, the air is crisp, the sky clear and the sea calm. I wish I could stay longer. There is an inviting jogging track, starting at the Chungmu Marina Resort, which takes you some of the way along the shoreline of Mireukdo. That would be a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. I haven’t had time to sample Tongyeong’s main delicacy – oysters. There’s the Ottchil Art Museum to be visited – home to traditional and contemporary mother-of-pearl and laquer exhibits. There are loads of islands still to be explored (including Somaemuldo). And there’s a good concert that night at the music festival. But in two hours time my friends from Sancheong will be arriving at the hotel to pick me up.
I stroll a brief way along the shoreline, where I am greeted by a picture of film star Jackie Chan, who is one of Tongyeong’s Goodwill Ambassadors, exhorting me to Keep Tongyeong Tidy. This is the last time for a while that I’ll be able to savour the morning light reflecting off the still water around Mireukdo, but I have a feeling I’ll be back again some day.
I pick up a taxi at the hotel and ask to be taken to the Jeon Hyuck Lim art museum, reckoning that I had just about enough time to look around before my friends arrived. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the taxi driver (a) understood my pronunciation and (b) knew where the place was. That is a first for me in a Korean taxi. And in five minutes I was at the museum.
Jeon Hyuck Lim is not one of Korea’s best-known artists, but he is certainly the best known in Tongyeong. Born in 1916 in Chungmu (later Tongyeong), it was in 1938 that he first presented his work to the public at the Busan Art Exhibition. His emergence as a national artist was complete when one of his works was included in the first National Art Exhibition in 1949.
Along with other prominent local artists including Yun Isang, Jeon founded the Tongyeong Cultural Association immediately after the liberation of Korea from Japan in 1945. The association aimed to rediscover Korea’s language and traditional culture, which had been suppressed under Japanese rule. The association organised lectures and performances under the slogan ‘Let us nurture our national ethos through cultural movements in our freed fatherland.’
While his colleague Yun Isang went on to achieve international prominence in Germany, Jeon never strayed far from his home town. He lived his life largely isolated from the contemporary art trends – you will not find a monochrome phase in Jeon’s output. Inspired by the colours of the south coast in general and the sea around Tongyeong in particular, much of his work is dominated by a rich blue, and the atmosphere portrayed in his work brings to mind Matisse. He also took inspiration from Korean folk painting, and the bright colours of his later works bear this out. His deep-rooted ties to Tongyeong are reflected in the names of his paintings, many of which are simply titled “Birthplace”; and he is sometimes known called “painter of the sea”. But his other soubriquet, which captures the atmosphere of his paintings much better, is “magician of colours”.
Like some of the western European artists of the 20th Century, he was versatile in terms of his medium, and you will find plenty of colourful ceramics in his output, having started researching into ceramics in the late 1950s. This is a tradition continued by his son Jeon Young-geun, who has decorated the outside of the museum with ceramics of his own. Jeon Jr is often to be found at the museum, of which he is director.
Jeon’s life and work was recognised in 2002 when he was selected as Artist of the Year by the National Museum of Contemporary Art, bringing with it a prestigious solo show at Korea’s pre-eminent Art museum.
The museum dedicated to his work in Tongyeong was opened in 2003 on the site of the house where he had lived since 1975. Jeon himself died in 2010.
The museum, arranged over three floors, contains a wide range of his work, with paintings from his final years particularly well-represented.
The museum is well worth a visit if you’re in Tongyeong, and can be combined with a trip up Mireuksan. Check the museum website for opening times before you go – when I visited it was closed on Monday and Tuesday, so I had to return on Wednesday before I had to head off to Sancheong County. Forty-five minutes was not quite long enough to browse round the gallery and the attractive gift shop, but that was all the time I had before catching a taxi back to the hotel. I arrive just as my friends from Sancheong pull up: Kyung-sook, who I’ve known for more than 10 years now, and Mr Yoon, who works at the mayor’s office. He is to be my host, driver and guide for my time in Sancheong.