The 100th Anniversary of Korean Modern Master: Lee Jung Seob

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COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, MMCA (COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, MMCA)
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COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, MMCA
COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, MMCA (COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, MMCA)
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COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, MMCA
PRaiSed aS oNe of the greatest Korean artists, Lee Jung-Seob lived during the historically tumultuous years of 1916 to 1956 and created some of his best works between the end of World War II through the Korean War. This vagabond painter, who also went by the Japanese name Agori (and was married to a Japanese woman), traveled extensively in Korea—going from Seoul, Busan, Tongyeong and Jeju. His life and legacy are inextricably tied to the country’s history. For the 100th anniversary of his birth, it is ironic and unfortunate that this artist, who introduced several types of Western styles to Korean art, is now being boxed in as a “Korean artist”. Many of his works transcend nationality, such as his Tinfoil Paintings—paintings that he did on the foil wrappings from cigarette packs when he was not able to afford proper art materials. Looking at them today, the subtle glitters and contrasting scratches accentuate the idea of their age and three pieces owned by the MoMA in New York have found their way back to Seoul for this show. Overall, the exhibition follows a chronological order—starting downstairs with a brief explanation of his background and early works to a room called “Jeongneung, Seoul 1956” that show his illustrations for literary magazines and other final works before his last days. Particularly meaningful are the Postcard Paintings—a series of illustrated postcards that he sent in courtship to his future wife, Yamamoto Masako. Containing no written text and leaving room for interpretation, the images are flirtatious and fantastical with little color at first and later, bolder and more detailed on carbon paper. For someone who is able to read Korean, the room, “Letter Paintings,” is undoubtedly a highlight. Through the artist’s surviving collection of 70 letters (comprised of 150 pages), it follows post-Korean War Lee from 1952 to 1955 as he passionately pours out his heart to his family in Japan in text alongside llustrations. The words, if you are able to understand them, add meaning to the images as it becomes easier to envision what he was thinking. For those of us who cannot understand Korean, it’s quite a disappointment that such a big name museum decided not to translate this particular highlight—not even several of the larger letters that have been blown up and attached to the wall. After all, every day there is a slew of foreign visitors to the museum and Deoksugung Palace, where the museum is located. To be in the room as a non-Korean speaker, the effect is particularly isolating—especially as the Letter Paintings room is located on the second floor after your curiosity has already been piqued about the artist on the first floor. Suffering from mental illness as well as separation from his wife and two sons, Lee Jung-Seob’s life came to an end at the young age of 40, and it’s not uncommon to see many a guest tearing up and overwhelmed by the works. “I wasn’t a good role model, receiving free food for being an artist; I fooled the world with the vision of being a great artist,” one of his untranslated letters reads, as he also laments that he wasn’t able to afford the bicycle he’d promised to buy for his son. In the English text that explains the artist, not one opportunity is missed to refer to Lee Jung-Seob as “a Korean artist” or to talk about the “Korean sentiments” he expressed. Fortunately, the universal themes and aestheticism save this exhibition that is still worth the visit. It’s just a pity that the curation didn’t go one step further. by Hahna Yoon
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