[Book Review] 'Lee Kun
“Lee Kun-hee. Hong Ra-hee. Collection”
By Sohn Young-ok
Jaeum&Moeum Publishing Co.
When the extensive works collected by late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee were donated to the public in South Korea two years ago, it was widely referred to as the “collection of the century,” and the businessman was dubbed as the “Korea’s Medici” as a patron of Korean art.
In her latest book, “Lee Kun-hee. Hong Ra-hee. Collection,” journalist Sohn Young-ok of the local daily Kukmin Ilbo delved into what went on behind the scenes when Lee was building his collection through interviews with experts and gallerists with whom Lee maintained a close relationship.
“I vividly recall the atmosphere of the press conference when the Culture Ministry and directors from the National Museum of Korea and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea got together to hold the unprecedented collective press briefing. It was the most exciting moment as a journalist -- and the thrilling feeling might have motivated me to write this book,” Sohn wrote in the beginning.
Sohn was referring to when it was announced in April 2021 that Lee and his family would donate more than 23,000 works -- encompassing ancient to contemporary art -- to national museums.
The book was published in Korean in July by the Jaeum&Moeum Publishing Co. The 440-page book consists of six chapters, going through Korean and international masters of the collection, such as Kim Whan-ki, Lee Jung-seop, Yoo Young-kuk, Cheon Kyeong-ja, Rhee Seund-ja, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
What is significant is the author's inclusion of Hong Ra-hee, Lee's wife, in the book. Little has been known about Hong's involvement as a collector in Lee’s collection.
Sohn shed light on Hong’s contribution as co-collector, as well as her partnership with Lee while serving as the director of Hoam Museum of Art and Leeum Museum of Art run by Samsung Foundation of Culture.
While the Hoam Museum of Art was founded in 1982 to house traditional Korean art collected by Lee Byung-chull, founder of Samsung Group, the museum’s collection grew to 6,000 works in 1995, of which two-thirds was collected by Hong and Lee, according to the book that quoted Hong about the museum’s collection.
In the chapter that focuses on historic artists -- little known to the public but came to attention thanks to Lee's collection -- the author introduces pioneering female artist Baik Nam-soon. Her legendary large-scale painting “Paradise” was unveiled to the public at the MMCA, and was the opener of the special exhibition of Lee’s collection in July 2021 in Seoul.
The author also highlights two Korean art figures -- Park Myeong-ja, the founder of Gallery Hyundai and Lee Ho-jae, the founder of Gana Art -- as significant gallerists who helped Lee and Hong discover masterpieces and Korean artists.
“Lee Kun-hee wanted to collect works of Korea’s representative artists," gallerist Lee Ho-jae was quoted as saying in the book.
For sculptures, he mainly purchased works by sculptor Kwon Jin-kyu, Moon Shin and Choi Jong-tae. Lee bought one of Moon's early paintings, "Chicken Coop," before Moon's death in 1995, according to Lee Ho-jae.
As a journalist specialized in art, Sohn gave lectures at Seoul National University, Hongik University and Ewha Womans University. She joined Kukmin Ilbo in 1990, and writes columns and articles on the art scene.