Moon Shin’s Earthly Geometries: Remembering a Master Sculptor
Moon Shin, Untitled (1968). Pen on paper, 48.5 x 64 cm. MMCA Lee Kun-hee Collection. Courtesy MMCA Seoul.
Moon Shin is among a generation of artists who revitalised Korean art in the years following the Korean War, developing a practice that stands out among his contemporaries.
The artist's unique sculptures of biomorphic forms emerged from free-flowing drawings on paper connecting circular and oval shapes with lines, which the artist said formed 'the fundamental matrix' of his sculptural work.
Moon extracted geometries from these drawings to create minimalist three-dimensional objects rendered in wire and plaster, which were cast in bronze or carved from ebony, with organic symmetries recalling those of a Rorschach test.
Among his early sculptures are works from the series 'An Ant', or 'La Fourmi', created in the mid-1970s. A horizontal form resembling that of an ant faithfully turns one of the artist's line drawings into a voluminous reproduction in carved ebony.
'La Fourmi' is a far cry from the distilled forms that would characterise Moon's later work in both three and two dimensions; but as a point of departure, it anchors a moment in the artist's stylistic transition.
A later version of the work from 1977, also titled An Ant, presents a totemic form carved out of ebony, with strong orbs and lines drawing a hieroglyphic shape of an upright ant. Its form is repeated in a 1985 iteration cast in bronze.
Forms that followed reflect an ever-expanding universe of otherworldly organisms, including an untitled 1983 bronze form rendered like an alien cicada, and a 1989 bronze whose name, Seabird, grounds an angular peacock-like shape with a plume of bladed edges.
Then, there is the bronze sculpture Towards the Universe (1989), in which the flowing lines carved into the original La Fourmi have been extracted and positioned upright. The work's title is connected to other sculptures, too. The black, polished bronze Towards the Universe 3 (1989), appears like an extraterrestrial transformer poised for take off, revealing the cosmic sentiments that infuse Moon's enigmatic lifeforms.
As Moon explained to dealer Lise Cormery, who worked with the artist in Paris, the transference of line into volume in his sculptures has 'no precise meaning'. His works, he insisted, are not actually 'based on any real "image"'. Rather, each object represents the process of coming to life, and indeed, of life itself.
'In almost all cases, it is after the work is finished that those looking at it tell me that it looks like this or that, for example a stylised ant,' Moon said. 'And it is for this reason that I will then call some of my sculptures Ant.'1
Born in 1923 in a Japanese coal mining town to a Korean father and Japanese mother, whose family apparently did not recognise the union, Moon's was reportedly a hard-knock life. He returned to his father's hometown in Korea, Masan, at the age of five, where he was raised by his grandmother.
At age 16, Moon travelled to Japan to study painting at the Tokyo Fine Arts School. To earn a living between classes, he polished shoes, pasted theatre posters, and performed chores for a film company, among other things.2
A self-portrait painted in 1943 during his time in Japan puts Moon's artistic tenacity on full display. While remaining within the bounds of Western academic painting, dense sharp strokes build volume and texture across a canvas defined by warm, noon-day tones, Gongbi lines, and the artist dressed in dapper summer whites.
Part of the artist's legacy was to transcend the battlefield of his life through his art, notes curator Hyesung Park.
The technical confidence conveyed in this self-reflection matches Moon's careful, clear-cut gaze from his easel, trained on viewers as if in cool confrontation. Perhaps the self-portrait foreshadowed the artist's return to Korea following its liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945, and the strides he would make from there.
In Korea, Moon established himself as a painter, with canvases from the 1950s edging towards abstraction. One oil painting from 1950, Chicken Coop, is a loose and light expressionist capture of a farmer in blue jeans sitting in front of his ward, marked by lines that dance across the scene.
A 1959 painting, Landscape of City, shows a free-form interpretation of a tree-lined avenue with impressionist lines dissecting plumes of leaves, heralding drawings to come.
Both paintings are in the collection of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), which is organising Moon Shin Retrospective: Towards the Universe, a survey of the artist's work at the museum's Deoksugung branch (1 September 2022–29 January 2023) ahead of the centenary of Moon's birth.
Also included in the exhibition is Cow, an oil on canvas from 1957 in which the form of a brown cow in a golden field moves between solidity and transparency, as lines and lighter internal planes seem to convey the animal's bones.
Moon painted Cow the year he joined the Modern Art Association,3 which shunned the Korean government's sponsored national exhibitions because of their conservatism.
As Moon explained, each sculpture represents the process of coming to life, and indeed, of life itself.
A few years later, in 1961, he left Korea for France and made his decisive turn to sculpture. While in Paris, he worked as a mason, carpenter, and plasterer. 'It was a time when I was fighting the despair of throwing myself into the Seine,' he once recalled, 'but the work of that time formed the basis for my growth as a sculptor.'4
A stint lecturing at Hongik University in Korea from 1965 to 1966 followed before Moon returned to Paris in 1967, when his international career took off.
Among his major projects was the monumental Totem, a 13-metre-tall wooden stack composed of orbs seemingly split into semicircles as one side slips down a step from the other. Created for the Musée des Sables in 1970, the work is installed on the Allée des Arts on the coast of Barcarès, France.
The sculpture's form is doubled up like a symmetrical reflection for the 25-metre-tall stainless-steel sculpture Moon created for the Art Olympiad in 1988 on the occasion of the Seoul Olympics. Installed in the Olympic Park, the massive form, whose internal slippage creates a vertical rectangular indent running down the centre, is surrounded by a peppering of steel orbs.
Numerous designs for these Olympiad works were included in Moon's solo show of abstract paintings and drawings staged as part of the Paris Art Olympiad exhibitions, organised by Lise Cormery for the French Olympic Committee between 1991 and 1992.5
Around the same time, Moon was awarded the Légion d'Honneur Chevalier (1992) and the Légion d'Honneur Officier (1994) for creating connections between France and Korea—a link that continues in Barcarès, where the artist's centenary is being celebrated with an exhibition at the Maison des Arts (29 July–18 September 2022).
As a sculptor, Moon was prolific, leaving behind an exceptional body of work that showcases his indisputable skill. His wooden sculptures are particularly arresting, where a timeless material hosts futurist figures that look as if they might come to life at any moment.
But Moon was as prolific in his drawings as he was with sculpture, with a series of sketches from the 1970s onwards titled 'Moon Shin Museum Dream' hinting at what was to come. Moon returned to Korea for good in 1980. Settling in Masan, he eventually opened the Moon Shin Art Museum in 1994, one year before his death.
On the façades of the Moon Shin Art Museum, located on the hillside of Chusan-dong looking over the city of Changwon, are blown-up images of Moon's drawings.
A russet-scale flourish has appeared on one side, with reds, pinks, and burnt yellows filling in the petal-like spaces between sharp lines. On the other side, a minimalist swirl of black lines on which bold curls in blues, oranges, and reds lined up like stitches has been replaced by a blue-scale amoeba-like form containing the meeting apexes of two internally lined triangles.
Besides housing the artist's works, including plaster originals, Moon's museum organises lectures, workshops, and exhibitions—its current show Cast, Carve, and Crack, brings together 100 works by 60 artists from Carrara, Italy, to explore sculptural methods across time and space. The museum's annual Moon Shin Art Award is now entering its 20th edition, having just awarded sculptor Park Yeon Yool.
It's fitting that Moon's museum functions as a supportive community platform. Part of the artist's legacy was to transcend the battlefield of his life through his art, notes curator Hyesung Park, who worked on Moon Shin Retrospective: Towards the Universe for MMCA.
With that in mind, it makes sense that Towards the Universe is opening on the heels of a show of Korean masterpieces from the Lee Kun-hee Collection at MMCA Seoul, where Moon's work was included in a postwar section titled 'Setting Down Roots and Seeking New Avenues'. Moon was an artist who created portals to earthly universes, after all. —[O]
1 Lise Cormery, The Art of Post-War Ecole de Paris, as quoted from Artsper: https://www.artsper.com/ae/contemporary-artworks/drawing/1190868/sculpture-monumentale-moon-shin-1979.
2 'The late Moon Shin, a sculptor who devoted himself to life in a life full of hardship', Yonhap News, 24 May 1995: https://n.news.naver.com/mnews/article/001/0003967717?sid=103.
3 Yoon Min-yong, 'Korean art in the 50s and 60s through "Western painting doujin"', Kyunghyang Newspaper, 26 December 2006: https://www.khan.co.kr/culture/art-architecture/article/200612261805311.
4 Yoon Min-yong, 'Korean art in the 50s and 60s through "Western painting doujin"', Kyunghyang Newspaper, 26 December 2006: https://www.khan.co.kr/culture/art-architecture/article/200612261805311.
5 'EXPOSITIONS 1948-2020 SHOWS', Galerie Lisa Cormery: https://www.lisecormery.com/1948-2022-art-shows-2/.