By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, May 24 (Yonhap) -- Arguably never in Korea's political history has a painting summed up the spirit of a new government better than the painting by Lim Ok-sang that made in onto a wall at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in November 2017.
The painting, "Standing in the Square," depicts the massive, peaceful and monthslong public protest in central Seoul against the corrupt government of former President Park Geun-hye.
On the day when the artwork was displayed in Cheong Wa Dae's Main Office Building, President Moon Jae-in, who succeeded Park in an unprecedented election on May 10, 2017, to fill the top office left vacant following her impeachment, said: "I liked the painting so much, for it corresponds exactly to this government's spirit."
Originally, Cheong Wa Dae wanted to purchase it, but the work had been already sold. It settled for a loan from a private collector, the contract of which finished at the end of the year.
The massive 16.2-meter-by-3.6-meter painting, comprised of 108 canvases, had to be adjusted in size, and in the process, some 30 canvases were removed to fit on the 11.7-meter-wide wall.
It was not without controversy. Some conservative supporters of Park raised eyebrows at the painting's blunt political message that angrily called for her removal.
But President Moon brushed off the concern, saying, "Art should be seen as art," before posing for photos in front of the giant painting with his staff.
"As a citizen who joined the protest, I felt grateful to see his message that he would keep the spirit of the grassroots demonstration," the artist told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview.
But he also acknowledged the sensitivity of the painting's message.
"It is a symbolic place and under enormous public spotlight," he said, referring to the presidential office. "I worried the innocence of the public protest might be misunderstood and politically interpreted because of my work."
Earlier this month, the presidential office opened an exhibition titled "Together: Memories of Cheong Wa Dae" with 30 art pieces collected over 40 years, the first such public exhibition in history. Among them, 14 items, including murals that can't be physically moved, are on view in the form of media art and video.
Paintings and sculptures in the presidential collection had previously been only occasionally seen in media in the background of Cabinet meetings.
Indeed, the president said, "The artworks of Cheong Wa Dae belong to the people of Korea. By displaying these works to the public, which have previously been seen only in photographs, we hope to return them to their original owners."
The message was posted on the website of Sarangchae, a tourism and exhibition center, where the exhibit is taking place. Located just outside of Cheong Wa Dae, the center is designed to give comprehensive information on Korea's presidency and history.
On display are some of the winners of the annual National Art Exhibition, the most important art event that happened in the country from 1949 to 1981, except for 1950-1953 when the Korean War ravaged the nation. It was so big an event then that a president never missed attending the opening ceremony. After the exhibition ended, the presidential office bought some of the finest works.
"We thought it was the only way for amateur artists to become professionals," said painter Lee Young-chan, the winner of the Presidential Prize in 1973, in a video clip shown at the exhibition. His painting "Autumn Wind and Mountain Peaks," which once adorned the wall of the presidential residence, is among those on display.
Also on view are four seasonal landscape paintings, which were created specifically to decorate the banquet hall on the second floor of Yeongbin-gwan when the state guest house was constructed in 1978.
After President Moon took office, he asked his staff to bring back from state storage a painting loved by former President Roh Moo-hyun, his ideological ally and close friend, to hang it again where it used to be -- the Inwang Room in the Main Office Building.
The painting, "Tongyeong Port" by late artist Chun Hyuck-lim, reimagined the scenery of the southern port city of Tongyeong and Mireuk Mountain in a cobalt blue hue. The artist, credited with creating a new ingenious style of abstract landscape, saw his career blossom in his later years. At 86, he was chosen as the artist of the year by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA).
In November 2005, former President Roh visited the artist's solo exhibition, where he reportedly talked to the artist, 90 at that time, about how the Tongyeong sea comforted him whenever he was in difficult situations.
Upon request, the artist spent the next four months to create the 7-meter-by-2.8-meter painting to fit into the wall of the Inwang Room.
Born and raised in the country's largest port city of Busan, Roh naturally felt comfortable around water and had reportedly known and liked the artist since he practiced law in Busan in the late 1970s and 1980s. Before being elected as president, he also served as the country's oceans and fisheries minister.
While in office, Roh showed great affection for the painting. He reportedly brought state guests in front of the piece to break the ice by sharing with them the country's coastline and landscape by the sea.
The painting was taken down after Roh's successor Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008. Roh died in 2009 in a tragic suicide, and the painter passed away the next year.
In 2012, the government established the Art Bank in order to unify a channel to buy artworks and lend them to government agencies, as well as to better store and preserve art.
According to the Public Procurement Service, which runs an online gallery of the government collection, late artist Jang Woo-sung has one of the biggest numbers of paintings in the state collection with 27 pieces, more than Chun Hyuck-lim's 16 and Lim Ok-sang's 17.
In November 2003, Jang put out a new artwork in which a bus full of people makes a bumpy ride. Under the black-and-white ink paining, he wrote in Chinese about how a novice driver makes passengers nervous, a statement that many at the time interpreted as a commentary on the supposedly amateurish administration of then-President Roh.
As if to reply to it, Roh said during a meeting on Jan. 30, 2004: "My responsibility as the driver of a fully loaded bus is to drive it safely and bring the passengers to their destination, where a next president awaits. I will do my best to drive safely during my turn."
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