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