Red, yellow, green, blue, white, black — all the colours of Korea were drawn in stripes and at geometric angles on clothes, furnishings and graphic arts.
Even if I had not just visited Seoul, I would have been blown away by the sheer scale and bravado of Korea Now! (until January), an exhibition that has taken over all the display space at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
The visual effect and detailed information blends classic and hyper-modern creations. The pieces on display are so definite in their feeling of belonging to today — and tomorrow. Yet from smooth, moulded vases to the traditional women’s outfits, the origins are historic.
Having seen in Seoul a modest revival of the hanbok, a bright, short, square top with a skirt billowing from a high waist, I was fascinated to study the display of clothes. They included similar shapes by Jin Teok in every shade of white and in many different fabrics. Her play on white from ice to clotted cream, coupled with layers of cloth in a watery transparency, are presented in the museum cases like art works.
But the vivid mixes of colour and pattern from Lie Sangbong, or the bold patterns of figures and letters from menswear designer Jung Wook Jun (Juun.J) are equally dramatic. And by using the key colours, including a gauzy black coat hung flat in the display space, curators Suh Young-Hee and Eric Pujalet-Plaà are able to give harmony to varied designs.
To prove that traditional Korean dress can be a global inspiration, the museum also included hanbok-inspired dresses from Chanel, after Karl Lagerfeld decided to bring Korea’s sartorial culture to the wider world in his 2015 cruise collection, shown in Seoul.
This fashion area might have been less reverential, daring to show more of the cultural mash-ups and plays on gender that I witnessed during Seoul Fashion Week. But it is still a powerful starting point for the three-tier exhibition that is Korea Now!.
The Paris museum is showing 700 works of art from 150 designers, artists and artisans, spanning different categories. Turn right from the museum foyer, up the noble stairway, and there is a focus on the subject that is at the heart of this French museum: decorative arts and craft. The central area has homeware at its most inventive, with chairs shaped like circular toadstools or elongated, angular wooden couches. Not to mention a sprinkle of starry lights entangled overhead. Perhaps the most compelling furniture was by Wonmin Park, who was trained at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and mixes opaque colours with resin.
At the pottery display, I had a fleeting flashback to Korea. I had seen 12th- and 13th-century celadon bowls from the Goryeo Dynasty, beautiful in their perfection of simplicity, shown in the Samsung-owned Leeum museum in Seoul. In Paris, for the display on the Tuileries Gardens side of the building, current Korean designs incorporate moon-shaped porcelain and 2015 celadon bowls, for example by Lee Ga-jin. Other potters, such as Ree Soo-jong, have used traditional skills but introduce a modern urgency, as in fiery brush strokes and spots.
Lacquer, mother-of-pearl inlay and gold-and-silverware for home objects are further developed in the contemporary jewellery section, which includes work in leather, plastic and silicon. A standout was a collar by Park Jeong-hye of what looked like crab tentacles in a scarlet, toothy form.
I was still poring over snowy white porcelain jars and the ceramics of Huh Sang-wook, when I was told that on the top floor of the museum was an essential third part of the collection.
I suppose that this section should be known as K-Graphics — an eye-popping display of 20 artists who have made a visual impact since the end of Korea’s occupation by Japan in 1945 or the Seoul Olympics of 1988. Modernist versions of the Korean alphabet and chaotic or orderly geometric shapes bring a vivid means of communication to these artworks. Once again in this Korean show, the material itself was as important as the message; with handmade Hanoi paper the medium by which these graphic artists showed their work.
In fact, Korea Now! is just part of a wider museum study of the Asian country’s art and artefacts in this France-Korea Year 2015-16. I felt that the work of the K-Pop stars, which apparently resonates with French youth culture, ought to have been given a place in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Bring on the wildly energetic K-Noise! Yet there is a peaceful, untarnished beauty in the blurry white layers of the hanbok dresses and in the eternal elegance of a celadon vase.
Korea Now! is at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, until 3 January 2016 (www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr)