The Leeum is a privately owned art museum in Seoul. It did not feature very prominently in our travel guides, and if it hadn’t been for the overcast and grey weather, we might have missed this world-class exhibition.
The museum is spread over three different buildings, each of them designed by a different architect and each of them a sight in itself. The permanent exhibition has two parts. The section about traditional Korean art is housed in Mario Botta’s interpretation of a castle or fortress. The collection of celadon, porcelain, Buddhist paintings and royal treasure does not fall short of the one at the National Museum in Seoul and spreads over several floors. The floors are connected by a tower-like staircase that is impressive to look at both from the top and from the bottom. As photography is not allowed inside the exhibition halls, I am showing you only the view from below.
The second part of the permanent collection shows modern and contemporary art from Korea and elsewhere. You will find Anselm Kiefer, Andy Warhol and lots of other big names in there. I was irritated (in a positive way) by two of Damien Hirst’s butterfly images in which the wings of specifically bred butterflies are arranged to look like the stained-glass windows of Christian churches and to create an extreme and disturbing beauty. There also was a bird-robot that I could barely stop staring at. Beyond the international big names, there are also works by Korean and other Asian artists to discover, making the visit all the more rewarding. One of the most interesting was a landscape by Zeng Fanzhi, a Chinese artist who is not all unknown but whose work was all new to me.
On the weekend, the museum offers free guided tours in English which start at 3pm and take 1.5 to 2 hours. We visited the museum on one of them and would recommend everyone to do the same. Our guide’s English was not perfect but she explained everything really well and knew a lot about art and art history. There were four of us on the tour and she never tired of our many questions and almost never ran out of answers even if we pointed at totally different exhibits than the ones she meant to show to us.
Going with the guided tour also helped us to understand that the museum is not just a random collection of things that took the fancy of some rich Samsung guy. It is indeed a very thoughtfully curated exhibition. The two main sections of traditional and modern art are connected by an overarching comparison between eastern and western art. I left the museum pondering about the differences and similarities of Mark Rothko’s last painting and a Buddhist thanka.
If you are planning to go on a longer trip through Asia, have a look at our review of three not-to-miss museums in Asia. And, if you would like to recommend a museum yourself, feel free to share your advice in the comments section.