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
were influential in shaping his style and works of Georges
Henri Rouault made a profound impression on him. Lee's
works are found here,
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
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.
Kim [send mail] studied law
at BPP Law School. She lives in London.