Cultivation of the Feminine

  • Photo by Photo by Kate Brelje for Seoulist

    Space*c at the Coreana Art and Culture Complex showcases female portraiture in the exhibit, Modern Beauties. Photo by Kate Brelje for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Kate Brelje for Seoulist

    Photo by Kate Brelje for Seoulist

Space*c is a fascinating mixture of aesthetic culture; it houses a garden and an office area and holds a cosmetic history museum, skin care clinic, wine cellar, café, art gallery and performance space. Entering the angular, multi-story building, the founder’s philosophy is scrolled in English near the entryway: “This establishment is an icon of my dream and passion to understand art works from the past to our times. Many different concepts and ideas will be encountered at this place, present new values and meanings to society. This building will become the space where we can find wonder [sic] natures of human beings.” – Dr. Yu, Sang-ok.

Living in Korea, it can be overwhelming facing the importance of physical beauty and the strict definition of what makes the perfect woman.

Modern Beauties features the work of various Korean artists and their portrayals of women at various periods in recent history. The gallery opens in a sparse exterior hallway with the title of the show and a short blurb of information about the show in Korean. All of the text panels and information is in Korean, but the show is still enjoyable even if you do not have a handle on the Korean language. Understanding the text panels would add a greater depth and appreciation to the experience, but the images can also speak volumes by themselves.

Each room contains a different style of female portrayal. Some are exclusively shown in hanboks, while others don Western dress. Many of the subjects are Korean women while a few are foreigners. Living in Korea, it can be overwhelming facing the importance of physical beauty and the strict definition of what makes the perfect woman. Women are encouraged to have bright, wide eyes, a thin body with a touch of the appropriate curves (known as an “S-line”), pale, clear skin and stylish, feminine clothes. The subjects of these pieces of artwork exhibit a much larger array of beauty.

The first room meditates on the increasing prevalence of modern Korean women. Only two are wearing hanboks; the rest are portrayed in Western-styled clothing. One is a gestural, stylized nude with an upside-down head bearing a sad expression. Her head rests on a seated body with large breasts and thick thighs. 꽃 을 단여인 by Cheon Gyeong-ja (1924– ) is a particularly colorful print. The female subject’s face is tribally comprised of vibrantly colorful lines and shapes. The use of color in this piece is reminiscent of a Korean temple, with its loud colors punctuating the mountainside with dashes of orange and blue designs.

The next two rooms feature Korean women dressed in beautiful hanboks, represented in the more traditional style of Korean life and beauty. One provides images by Kim Gi-chang (1913–2001) and Kim Eun-ho (1913–2001) depicting women engaged in daily activities. Two of the women sit, playing harps, while another weaves. One woman waits outside in a garden, surrounded by flowers, while another sits indoors near a window. The other room highlights the pale beauties of Jang Un-sang (1926–1982). A handful of silk paintings with minimalist backgrounds show women with pale skin and bright pink lips.

The exhibit continues to the second floor of the basement. The paintings in the first room are much larger and interestingly portray a number of non-Korean women. Two large, up-close portraits of foreign women, Ocher-Rouge and Erika-Violet by Go Nak-beom, pull the viewer into the room. On the opposite wall, three works show photographs of foreign women juxtaposed to photos of wires, windows and paintings, respectively. One large black and white portrait by Jo Deok-hyeon of a Korean woman dressed in a hanbok decorated with medals contrasts the colorful depictions of foreign women in the room. Over the canvas, yellow spots are embroidered, giving the appearance of an accidental splash of paint.

The adjacent hallway has two intriguing holographic images entitled The Costume of the Painter by Bae Jun-seong. One is of a woman looking at herself in a mirror and the other is of a woman sitting on the edge of a pool. At first glance both women are clothed, but as the viewer moves, their clothing evaporates. For the woman sitting on the edge of the pool with her back to the observer, as her luxurious, elegantly ornate party dress disappears, the face of a man, peering from the pool through the space between her arm and body, catches the eye of the viewer, adding drama to the image.

The second is especially interesting in light of current societal trends in beauty in Korea. A woman sits alone on a small wooden step gazing at her image reflected in front of her in a large mirror. She is dressed in a long white dress with touches of matching frilly lace with an open book in her hands. As the viewer moves, the dress and chair disappear, but the woman’s gaze remains the same. Motionless. Endless. Staring through her image. The tone changes completely, from an innocent glance up at a mirror to an incredible gaze of emptiness.

Another room features the work of French artist Marie Laurencin (1883–1956). Her women have large, simple, dark eyes and a few are shown with dogs and lambs. They have a whimsical, innocent air to their stylized bodies.

The Modern Beauties exhibition displays beauty in an interesting cultural light, through the eyes of Korean artists and one French woman. A lot can be said about the use of women as objectified “beauties,” but I did not leave the show feeling uncomfortable with its portrayal of women. I was more interested in the displays of traditional Korean beauty and the mixture of non-Korean and Korean visions of beauty in the female form shown by the work, especially on the second floor of the basement. I wish the exhibit would have been larger, because it felt like too brief of a snapshot of such a rich and complicated subject.

If you go
Space*c is located next to Che, a club named after Che Guevara, where walls are plastered with colorful screen-printed images of JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol. The cosmetic history museum is located on the fifth floor. The gallery is located in the basement, next to the performance art and laboratory space. The admission for Modern Beauties is 3,000 won. Both an elevator and stairs are available for moving between floors. Space*c is a good walk from the Apgujeong Station (metro line 3), but the map provided on the website is fairly straightforward.

Kate Brelje

About Kate Brelje

Kate Brelje, lover of art museums, coffee shops, and green space, works on Korea's east coast teaching English. In her spare time, she sneaks away to her favorite local coffee shop to read or takes long walks around the city. She loves traveling throughout Korea and beyond, having great conversations over delicious food, and practicing yoga.

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