It usually takes a 12-15 hour flight to get to either New York or Paris from Seoul, but this summer it will only take a subway ride to get a taste of American or French culture. Two of the city's museums are showcasing famous American and French artwork from New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and Paris' Musee d'Orsay.
Both exhibits opened in early June and will run through the end of September.
"The American Art; Masterpieces of Everyday Life from the Whitney Museum of American Art" is being shown at The National Museum of Art in Deoksugung -- an annex of The National Museum of Contemporary Art (NMoCA). While the French art exhibit, entitled "Reve et Realite - Les Chefs d'Oeuvre du Musee d'Orsay in Seoul," or "Dream and Reality - Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay in Seoul," is at the Seoul Arts Center's Hangaram Art Museum.
The Whitney - a top New York contemporary American art museum - collaborated with the Korean museum to introduce 87 American artworks to South Korea for the first time. Although the Whitney's signature Biennial exhibit has been shown previously in Seoul, the new exhibit concentrates on introducing Koreans to influential American artists over the past 100 years.
"Not all Koreans know about American art, but it's significant that it has led the 20th century's art history. Thus, it is essential to understand American art in order to appreciate modern art," says Choe Soleh of the Korean museum.
To many South Koreans, the exhibits are a window through which they can better understand American and French art.
"The only American artist I knew was Andy Warhol," Kim Min-ha, a 30-year-old Korean architect, said before visiting the American exhibit.
Kim Seyong, a 44-year-old engineering manager at Hyundai Motor Group, said that in addition to Warhol, he was only familiar with Roy Lichtenstein.
So in addition to Andy Warhol's silkscreen prints of Campbell Soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art painting of fruit in a bowl, Koreans can get to know Jasper Johns, Man Ray, Claes Oldenburg and Christo. There's also a special display showing influential early 20th century artists such as Edward Hopper, John Sloan and Georgia O'Keeffe.
Kim Min-ha says she enjoyed the 3-D pieces and "if there's another exhibit of American art, I'll go."
Earlier this year, Koreans had already been introduced to American pop-art. In April, artist Jeff Koons, who has one print on display at the Korean museum, sold his "Sacred Heart" sculpture to Shinsegae Department Store for an estimated 30 billion won (US$27 million). The sculpture was installed on Shinsegae store's Trinity Garden rooftop in Myeongdong, central Seoul.
While the American art display focuses on contemporary works, old European masters can be viewed at the Hangaram Museum where French art from Degas, Monet and Renoir are showcased. And for the first time, Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night over the Rhone" is being shown outside of Paris.
Van Gogh is a representative of Impressionist painting, and many of the other artwork exhibited is of the same theme.
Musee d'Orsay director Guy Cogeval said in a press conference during the Hangaram's show opening that many people who don't know much about art can appreciate Impressionist work because the "light and color tones" can give viewers inspiration and good feelings.
Although it's the third time Musee d'Orsay has shown their artwork in Seoul, this is the largest exhibit with 134 pieces on view. Previous exhibits were in 2000 and 2007 where only 44 works were shown.
Koreans have embraced western culture as the country has turned into an economic powerhouse, and for some, this could mean disregarding their own ancient culture and customs.
Will the introduction of Western art have the same effect?
Prof. Jin Whui-yeon of Sungshin Women's University Art History Department says no.
"There has been some inter-mingling between Korea and other cultures since the beginning of the 20th century and there have been international art exhibitions in Korea since the end of the Korean War," says Jin. "Western visual art doesn't distract or determine our culture."
However, Kim Min-ha, an avid museum visitor, says, "Although I like traditional Korean art, I don't like modern Korean art. It's not attractive to me."
Kim Seyong, who enjoys both Eastern and Western art, says, "Normally Koreans like European art because it is well-known. There is little traditional Korean art remaining because of the various wars over the years. But I love Lee U-fan. He's breaking ground for Korean artists."
Ironically, Lee just opened his exhibit of contemporary Korean art at New York's Guggenheim museum in late June. This is only the second time a Korean artist has been featured in the famed New York museum.