The first drops sprinkled down as I was admiring the Anish Kapoor sculptures in the garden. With greater urgency they continued to fall as I ran inside, eventually trapping me within the confines of the museum.
For four hours, the rain pelted down and I wandered the halls. I missed lunch. I read captions about Korean artists, their names unfamiliar but their emotions immediate, whose lives had disintegrated in suicide or loss or separation.
The museum, in theory, is divided in two halves. Ancient ceramics and calligraphy paintings fill one building, while the other is lined with artwork from after the war. But the curator has placed modern works among the traditional art, and so the torment of the second half trickles into the rooms of the first. In the room of Buddhist paintings, there is a Giacometti, emaciated and expressionless, and a Rothko, completed just before the artist’s suicide. A voluminous eighteenth-century jar in pristine condition stands beside a sculpture fused from the shards of discarded pottery. And so these paintings of bodhisattvas, this noble jar, once proud embellishments of a royal hall, have been dipped in the sealing glaze of despair. The whitest porcelains seem the loneliest in their cases.
They say that museums are good fallbacks for rainy days, but that logic is flawed. In looking to visit a museum, we should actively seek out rainy days, when our souls are already attuned to grayness and dampness. When we are braced to step out of an exhibit and look out the window and see melancholy echoed in the weather outside.
I don’t think I’ve ever visited a museum as sad.
The tripartite Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art consists of a museum housing traditional Korean art, a separate museum featuring modern and contemporary works from Korean and international artists, and a child education center. Each building is architecturally distinct, a reflection of the individual function of each building and of the styles of the three architects charged with designing the museum. Stunning examples of Joseon Dynasty buncheong ceramics and post-war Korean art, hard to find elsewhere, are more than worth the price of admission. Naturally, Samsung is keen to showcase its technology here, offering audiovisual guides detailing all the works in the exhibits; unlike the low-quality guides that often plague other museums, these are recommended.
Name in Korean
60-16 Itaewon-ro 55-gil, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
02 2014 6901