Sometimes, two bite-sized paintings are all that it takes to encapsulate an artist's decades-long quest to find beauty in the mundane and the simple.
In a dimly lit space, reminiscent of a small room tucked away in a "hanok" (traditional Korean house), at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Deoksugung stand Chang Uc-chin's (1917-90) two mini-oil paintings ― "Family" (1955) and "Family Portrait" (1972).
For Chang, noted as one of the key 20th-century Korean masters on par with Kim Whanki, Lee Jung-seop, Park Soo-keun and Yoo Young-kuk, the 1955 "Family" was his "first" in several ways. It was the first of more than 30 family portraits he produced during his lifetime. It was also the first piece he ever sold at his debut exhibition in Seoul in 1964.
But since its last known sale to a Japanese collector, the painting's whereabouts had remained elusive for nearly six decades ― that is, until its unexpected rediscovery on the outskirts of Osaka early this year. The piece now greets viewers alongside "Family Portrait" ― the artist's recreation of the 1955 piece ― at his largest retrospective to date, "The Most Honest Confession."
Chang Kyeong-soo, the painter's eldest daughter and the honorary director of the Chang Ucchin Museum of Art in Yangju who appears in both portraits, recalled gently stroking the textured surface of her father's canvas work as a little girl.
"I joked that my fingerprints must still be there," she said during a recent press preview at the museum. "Although covered in dust and slightly damaged, the (retrieved) painting looked the same as I had seen six decades ago. That brought tears to my eyes."
Besides its long-awaited return to its home country, "Family" offers a glimpse into Chang's signature style achieved via an organic composition of his favored everyday motifs: birds, trees, houses and human figures, many of whom were inspired by his own family members.
Looking at a series of his canvas works populated by magpies, green trees, the sun and the moon is like entering the artist's version of utopia that retains childlike innocence.
"My paintings are my true self. I confess myself in my paintings; I reveal and release myself entirely. Nothing is truer than my works," the artist once said in an interview with Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper in 1973.
And there are plenty of chances to dive into the modernist's unique ensemble of poetic simplicity, idyllic nature and even Zen Buddhist musings in this exhibit that brings together more than 270 pieces ― oil paintings, ink wash drawings, woodcuts, illustrations and ceramic drawings ― from his early school years in the 1920s to his passing in 1990. (It is here that viewers get a chance to see for the first time the very last oil painting he created, "Magpie and Village" (1990).
The retrospective's sheer size alone ― featuring more than a quarter of the prolific artist's entire known oeuvre ― allows visitors to trace the lifelong evolution of his thematic and formative aesthetics.
Among the recurring motifs in his works, the show presents the magpie as Chang's avian alter ego that reflects his changing emotional state and the tree as the visual foundation of his autonomous, imagined universe. And the sun and moon, which often appear together on one screen, seem to embody the idea of timelessness.
But Bae Won-jung, curator behind "The Most Honest Confession," pointed out that even though the artist featured these same icons time after time for decades, none of his paintings are identical. In fact, it was the dynamically variegated composition of his figures, often placed in different forms of symmetry, that birthed unique visual microcosms for each of his pieces.
The exhibition also delves into Chang's lesser-known experimentation with different styles and materials in his later years.
It wasn't until spending a whole week without food as he worked on "Zinzinmyo: My Wife's Buddhist Name" (1970) ― a rare solo portrait of his wife, Lee Soon-kyung, a devout Buddhist, portrayed as a bodhisattva ― that he turned to incorporating elements of Buddhist beliefs into his canvas.
This shift coincided with his discovery of ink wash paintings. Although his works during this period, filled with spontaneous brushstrokes imbued with a sense of freedom, are not explicitly religious, they still visualize his pursuit of enlightenment and spiritual attainment.
Chang's formalistic experimentation continued until his passing as he began to mimic the airy visuals of watercolor and ink wash paintings with oil paint.
The pieces here reinterpret aesthetics from different periods of Korean art history, including Goguryeo-era tomb murals as well as Joseon-era literati paintings and folk art.
"By harmoniously expressing Eastern spirituality with Western materials, Chang achieved a true form of Korean modernism," Bae said. "The fact that he unwaveringly forged his own path (throughout his whole artistic life) allows me to say that Chang has become a singular genre in himself."
"The Most Honest Confession" runs through Feb. 12, 2024, at the MMCA Deoksugung.