• A Story of an Artist

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    The biography
    of Jung
    Seop Lee
    (1916–1956) tells a story of a talented painter who
    lived through a turbulent period of Korean history. In 1910, Korea
    was under the Japanese occupation. The occupation lasted until 1945
    but the instability did not disappear. Korea was under a joint trusteeship
    of the Soviet Union and the United States — the North under the
    former and the South under the latter. Groups of people with divergent
    visions for the future of Korea meant establishing a single government
    was not possible. The country remained divided, each part establishing
    its own temporary government. In 1950 the Korean War broke out as
    the North invaded the South. Records tell us what happened to the
    country yet they do not say what individuals experienced, living
    through the events. Lee's story, therefore, serves as a testimony
    to the horror of war and vicissitudes of fortune.

    Lee was born
    into a wealthy family in Pyongwon, in the northern part of Korea.
    His family owned an extensive area of land in the country. Lee's
    father passed away when he was five therefore Lee's brother, who
    was twelve years older than him, played a paternal role. Lee's brother
    was an entrepreneur who ran the biggest department store at the
    time in Wonsan.
    Businesses must have been prized in the 1930s Korea and the family
    fortune enabled Lee to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. He
    went to Japan in 1936 to attend an art school. Fauvism
    and expressionism
    were influential in shaping his style and works of Georges
    Henri Rouault
    made a profound impression on him. Lee's
    works are found here,
    here
    and here.

    While studying
    in Japan, Lee met a Japanese lady, Masako, who was to become his
    wife. A Korean man falling for a Japanese was frowned upon during
    the Japanese occupation of Korea. When Lee finished his studies,
    he returned to Wonsan and set up a studio to concentrate on painting.
    In April 1945, Masako travelled to Wonsan. The harsh situation at
    the time due to political and social instability meant that the
    ferry, which Masako boarded to cross the sea between Japan and Korea,
    was the last one in many months. The two married in May 1945.

    When the Japanese
    occupation ended after the end of the World War II, the Soviet forces
    entered northern Korea. As the communist regime settled in Wonsan,
    Lee's brother was taken away, imprisoned and probably died soon
    after in a prison (he was officially reported missing). The regime
    also restricted Lee's works as he was closely watched by the officials
    due to the following facts — his brother was a successful entrepreneur,
    his wife was Japanese and himself an artist who expressed his thoughts
    and ideas in paintings.

    In 1950, the
    Korean War started and Lee, with his wife and two children, travelled
    to Busan in the
    southern part of Korea. By this time, the family became desperately
    poor. This reflects the fate of many Korean refugees at the time
    who were cornered in Busan and its vicinity in 1950. The Lees moved
    further south to Jeju
    Island
    , the very southern tip of Korea.

    By 1952 hardships
    took their toll and the whole family was in poor health. Masako
    and the children were allowed to come to a camp for the Japanese
    in Busan and soon, they moved to Japan. Left alone, Lee was destitute
    and became depressed, longing for his family. He corresponded with
    his wife and children and often sent them postcards, on which he
    painted. He also visited them for a few days in Japan. Yet due to
    administrative reasons, he returned to Korea and never saw the family
    again. Toward the end of his life Lee suffered a nervous breakdown
    and a liver disease. He died alone in a hospital at the age of 40
    in 1956.

    Lee is one
    of the most important artists in Korea. Not only are his works significant
    as they reflect the transition of Korean art from traditional to
    modern, but also they portray an individual's hopes in times of
    poverty and desperation. And the story of his life reminds us of
    the devastating effects of war on individuals.

    December
    20, 2006

    Yumi
    Kim [send mail] studied law
    at BPP Law School. She lives in London.

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