Korea looks at European modernity through 20th century Czech art

Photo: archive of the National Gallery

South Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art is currently putting on a large-scale showcase of Czech modern art. The exhibit 'Memory of Landscape I have never seen’ is a result of three years of collaboration between Prague and Seoul and presents works of Czech painters from the Czech National Gallery, ranging from 1895 until 1943. I spoke to the National Gallery’s director Vladimir Rösel and asked him how the cooperation with the Korean museum developed.

Vladimir Rösel, photo: Filip Jandourek, ČRo
“We originally began discussions with the Nation Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul about three years ago. A group of curators came from Seoul to Prague to study the collection of the National Gallery. And they first wanted to present Western culture and fine art through Prague. Koreans see the Czech Republic and Prague as a window to Western Europe.

“Their idea was that we would present primarily old European art in Seoul. We had to explain to them that all the paintings we had from that period are mostly in our permanent exhibitions, so we would not be able to present them. And at the same time most of the paintings they selected are wooden panels, which don’t travel well.

“So we responded with an idea that we would like to present Czech modern art. In South Korea these days they are trying to find out what their roots are, what their national identity is. So we responded to this need and offered to present Czech modern art and how modern art and modern way of life penetrated into the society of our country in the beginning of 20th century. We could demonstrate through the way Czech art evolved in the first few decades of the 20th century, the changes and innovations that were happening in Czech history and society at that time. And that was a topic that they very much welcomed.”

How did the team of the National Gallery select the piece to offer to the Korean curators? What was the overarching idea behind the collection?

Photo: archive of the National Gallery
“Our primary goal was to present innovations and the avant-garde from the beginning of the 20th century. It was also important for us also to tell the story of how fine art and the avant-garde developed, primarily in Prague. We realized that it was not only fine art, though, it was also about how the society was changing, how the environment had changed. By environment, I mean that it was not only painting, literature, music, but also architecture, applied arts, furniture and so on.

“So, our original idea for the exhibition in Korea was also to involve sketches of architecture and to include sculptures. Unfortunately, we were unable to bring everything that we wanted to Seoul, because the logistic involved would have been much more expensive. In the end, we agreed that it would be only paintings – altogether 107 of them, from 28 different artists. The main message was that through Czech modern art you can appreciate what the European modern art was all about.”

So, which artistic periods and styles does the exhibition cover?

“We started with symbolism, from symbolism we went to expressionism, through cubism, abstract art, through to social art then finally the exhibit ends with surrealism. So I would say it is the development of the whole of the modern art in a nutshell. The exhibition ends in 1943. So you see there not only the pre-war time where you see fear and potential destruction screaming out from the canvases. But at the same time there are works that were painted right before or after some of the artists were taken to concentration camps. From that perspective the people were looking for the historical themes that were presented through art. We were able to demonstrate how art is important in forming society and also how society should see art as a tool to understand who you are and where you belong.”

Photo: Czech Television
What was the response from the general public over there? I guess, even though many Koreans have visited Prague, it does not necessarily mean that they know much about Czech art.

“There was great interest. This interest was partly due to the wonderful media coverage that the exhibition had received – in the first two weeks there were more than 120 articles about the background of the exhibit and Czech modern art in general. So people were intrigued to see the collection, but at the same time in t was also that people where interested in the historical context of the exhibit of what happened in Europe in early 20th century, which was in some ways similar to what had happened in Korea from 1910 onwards. So they were looking for similarities and ideas of how they should understand the First World War and the beginning of the Second World War.

“The Korean audience was very interested to see who we are, but at the same time they understand what the Czech Republic, and namely Prague, is all about. For many Koreans Prague is a brand name, as a destination through which they come to Europe. Definitely it helps that there is a direct flight from Prague to Seoul. They don’t actually say ‘Prague’, they say ‘Praha’. And Praha is a tremendous brand name. For them, Praha is the place to be, and if you haven’t been to Praha, you really haven’t seen the world.”

Since this exhibit seems to be a big success. Is there a possibility that there will be more cooperation with other museums in Asia?

Photo: Czech Television
“There was immediate interest in the exhibit coming primarily from mainland China, but also from Hong Kong. Our exhibition is quite substantial and encompasses quite an interesting period. So, we will try to meet the requests from China. We still have to discuss the arrangements for the exhibit, which will actually be a different exhibit, maybe with a similar background, but not necessarily the same theme. Our idea in general for the future is to get the world to know and understand more about Czech modern art.”

The exhibition will be on at the Museum of Contemporary Art in South Korea until April 21st.