An Orphan Painting: Back In the Open After 26 Years

An Orphan Painting: Back In the Open After 26 Years

Haeryun Kang
Haeryun Kang

It’s incredible how a painting slightly bigger than an A4-sized sheet of paper could aggravate so many people for so long. 

26 years ago, a painting was at the center of one of South Korea’s biggest art scandals. It was part of an ambitious government-sponsored exhibition, held in the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), one of the country’s most prominent public museums. Its copies were distributed in pamphlets and posters, one of which was brought to the attention of the artist who had supposedly created it. 

“Would a mother not recognize her own child?” Chun Kyung-ja, the artist, cried. By 1991, Chun was already a prolific name in South Korean art circles, having produced hundreds of artworks since the `60s. One of her signature paintings was the “Beautiful Woman” series — portraits of women with huge, haunting eyes. The MMCA painting in question was ostensibly a part of this series. But when Chun saw at a public bathhouse the MMCA’s poster of this particular “Beautiful Woman” bearing her signature, she claimed that the painting was in no way hers. 

Over two decades later, the fight over the authenticity of the painting still isn’t over. Chun Kyung-ja left the country a few years after the scandal broke and died in New York in 2015, claiming till the end that the MMCA was lying. Some of her relatives are still carrying on the fight.

From the MMCA’s perspective, the battle is over. Since South Korean prosecutors declared just last year that the painting is really Chun’s, the MMCA has been determined to put the matter to rest. Tomorrow, on Apr. 19, the museum in Gwacheon is even showing the painting to the public for the first time in 26 years.

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The scandal surrounding the “Beautiful Woman” makes for a fascinating tale with a huge cast of colorful characters: a former Minister of Culture, a spy that assassinated a South Korean president, South Korean prosecutors and even a French team of art authenticators whose scientific analysis last year showed the painting was fake — the same team, by the way, that claimed in 2015 to have discovered a hidden portrait beneath the Mona Lisa. And of course, there is Chun Kyung-ja, whose legacy — especially as one of South Korea’s few prominent female artists — has unfortunately been blemished over a painting she doesn’t even claim as her own. 


The tale of the “Beautiful Woman” is not over. An in-depth look at this story is coming soon on Korea Exposé.

Cover Image: Chun Kyung-ja’s “Beautiful Woman” series are famous for haunting portraits of women. Left to right: “Beautiful Woman” (MMCA), and “Page 22 of My Sorrowful Legend” (Seoul Museum of Art). 

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