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Lee Jung-seob: a wartime artist taking refuge in Jeju-do

The results of a google image search for Lee Jung-seob
The results of a google image search for Lee Jung-seob

Seogwipo, Jeju-do, Saturday 7 May 2011. Lee Jung-seob (이중섭) (1916-1956) is one of Korea’s best-known post-liberation painters. His work is perhaps appreciated by artists and connoisseurs more than members of the public. His contemporary Park Soo-keun, with his unthreatening and nostalgic rustic scenes, is almost a household name. Lee’s work however is more varied, combining the vibrant colours of fauvism with the energetic brush-strokes of early Picasso, but also charming cartoon-like drawings and similarly child-like etchings on cigarette wrappers – one of the few surfaces which were available cheaply and abundantly.

UNESCO's gallery of images of the Complex of Goguryo Tombs, photos by Geoff Steven
UNESCO’s gallery of images of the Complex of Goguryo Tombs, photos by Geoff Steven (link)

Lee was born near Pyongyang in 1916, and graduated from Osan High School, having set his heart on becoming a painter when he was 15. His initial artistic inspiration was his encounter with the mural paintings in the ancient tombs of the Goguryeo Dynasty – now listed by the DPRK as UNESCO World Heritage.

While he studied at the Art Department of Tokyo Culture School he submitted his work for the “Free Artists Exhibition” in Japan in 1938 where he came into the spotlight. In 1943 he came back to Korea and subsequently married Masako Yamamoto (Korean name Lee Nam Duk) whom he had met in Japan. After liberation, he settled in the Wonsan area to the East of Pyongyang, but was not happy there. Even so early after liberation, Lee’s work was effectively censored, and it was said that he used to refer to the Artists’ League – the Misulga Tongmaeng – as the Dishwater League (Maengmul Tongmaeng), presumably because their minds were closed to bold new ideas.1

They had three sons together, though the first, born in 1946, tragically died of diptheria in his first year. During the Korean War they fled South, ending up first in Busan and finally in Seogwipo, on the south of Jeju Island.

A detail from one of Lee Jung-seob's works using cigarette foil
A detail from one of Lee Jung-seob’s works using cigarette foil – from the home page of the Lee Jung-seob museum

During the war he tried to earn money by drawing, but money was scarce and materials scarcer. It was difficult to find paper and Lee found himself using the paper-backed aluminium foil inside cigarette packets as his canvas. He would engrave in the foil using an awl, then paint on it. The paint would soak into the paper, leaving dark lines in the aluminium where he had scraped it away.

The view from Lee Jung-seob's cottage today
The view from Lee Jung-seob’s cottage today (photo: LKL)

Finding refuge in Seogwipo was the happiest time of his life. He lived in pitiful conditions – one small rented room with a kitchen, the former a mere 4.7 m2 and the latter not much bigger at 6.4m2 . But this was the first time he had been able to live at peace with his wife and two sons, and his artwork of this period shows his happiness, with simple line drawings of smiling fisher-folk and crabs.

Ms Jeon Eun-ja, curator of the Lee Jung-seob museum
Ms Jeon Eun-ja, curator of the Lee Jung-seob museum, shows the tiny cottage where he lived with his family (photo (LKL)

The rented room was in a small cottage. The cottage still survives, in the grounds of the Lee Jung Seop museum.

Poverty meant that he had to send his wife and sons to Japan to live, where they could rely on Masako’s family. His letters to them are decorated with homely cartoons of a family living happily together. He himself wandered around South Korea, picking up casual labour in ports, ending up in Seoul at the end of the Korean War, and held a couple of exhibitions in 1955. He died in 1956, aged 40, and it was not until the 1970s that his worth as an artist was “rediscovered” and the improving wealth of the country meant that his work started selling for a reasonable price. Korea University was early to recognise his work and has a collection.

His flight south, which one might think would be traumatic, is portrayed in a simple drawing entitled A Family on the Road – presumably they are nearing their ultimate destination in Jeju-do as the dove, an emblem of peace, is landing on the hands of one of the sons, while the father seems to be raising his hands to heaven in joyous prayer as he leads his garlanded ox onwards.

White Ox (1954) by Lee Jung Seob
White Ox (1954) by Lee Jung Seob. Oil on wood. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Lee’s work now commands prices on a par with his contemporary Park Soo-keun. A year ago one of his Bull paintings – probably the series for which he is most famous – sold for around $3 million. (Source: Korea Times, 17 May 2010). Because of the rarity and value of his surviving work, there have allegedly been a number of forgeries.

Seogwipo has been keen to honour an artist who was there only briefly. There is a museum dedicated to his work, as well as a street named after him, with engravings of his work set into the pavement – indeed Lee was the first artist in Korea to have a street named after him in March 1996. The museum dedicated to his work opened in 2002.

Note – little is available in English on the life of Lee Jung-seob. Much of the above material is sourced from the English language leaflet of the Lee Jung-seob museum in Seogwipo, which includes commentary by art critic Oh Gwang-su. The museum is at 87 Lee Jung Seob Street, Seogwipo City, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province (532 Seogwi-dong) 697-810 Tel 064 733 3555. Closed Mondays, 1 January, Lunar New Year’s Day, Chuseok. Otherwise, open 9am-6pm (July-Sept: 8pm), last admission half hour before closing.


2011 Travel Diary – index

  1. Frank Hoffmann: Brush, Ink and Props, in Exploring North Korean Arts, Rüdiger Frank (ed), Uneversität Wien, 2011, p 155. []

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