National painter Lee Jung-seop
Painter Lee Jung-seop, one of the favorite artists among Koreans, has been remembered and loved for decades.
His works of oxen and family are very famous for their artistic and historical value. Lee’s art pieces are highly valued because they represent the spirit of Koreans and were created during the nation’s turbulent history, from Japan’s colonial rule of Korea and liberation to the tragic Korean War. The paintings also epitomize the artist’s strong yearnings for his family and his passionate artistic spirit.
Unlike other painters, Lee led a life that can be considered an art form of its own. Despite the artist’s impoverished conditions throughout his life, he created paintings that gave comfort to people. Let’s get a glimpse of the life of the artistic genius Lee Jung-seop.
Lee inspired by mural paintings of Goguryeo ancient tombs
On April 10, 1916, Lee Jung-seop was born to a wealthy farmer in Pyeongwon County, South Pyeongan Province. During his stay at his grandparents of his mother’s side, he focused on his studies. But his artistic calling was suddenly awakened when he first encountered the mural paintings of ancient tombs from Goguryeo Dynasty.
He was mesmerized by the ancient murals that were so lively and dynamic. From that point, he began to show an interest in art. It was at Osan School when he began to take art lessons in earnest under the teachings of a new teacher named Im Yong-ryeon(임용련) who returned from his studies in the United States. In 1935, he moved to Japan and attended Tokyo Teikoku Art School (current Musashino Art University) and Bunka Academy. There, he developed and established his own art style marked by his powerful line drawing.
He received critical acclaim for his impressive paintings, winning the Sun Award from the Japan Art Association in 1937. What’s more, he met his future wife, and life-long companion, Yamamoto Masako, Korean name Lee Nam-deok(이남덕). But Lee’s happiness ends here.
The days of tribulations
In 1944, Lee Jung-seop returned to Korea after his graduation in Japan. In the following year he tied the knot with Masako, who had followed him to Korea. Unfortunately, their first baby died of diphtheria soon after birth.
Lee, who had been absorbed in his paintings without a steady job, was in shock over his first baby’s sudden death. Unable to find solace for his shattered heart in any way other than art, he immersed himself in his painting titled “A Child Flies with a White Star,” with a chief motif of sorrow. It was submitted for the special exhibition held in 1947 to mark Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonial rule.
But the Korean War broke out three years later and threw his life again into utter confusion. Lee Jung-seop who had to constantly move from Busan, Seogwipo, to Tongyeong during the war couldn’t help but send his wife and his two sons to Japan in 1952 because of extreme financial difficulties. In the following year, after a mere five-day family reunion in Tokyo, he was separated with his family for good. The wrenching pain of separation resulted in his renewed dedication to his paintings.
Lee wrapped up in the sea
“Lee Jung-seop, whom I met at Gwangbok-dong, was wrapped up in the sea. Expecting his wife from Tokyo, he was fading away into a color darker than the ocean.” As described in Kim Chun-su(김춘수)’s poem “Lee Jung-seop I Met,” Lee always dreamed of a family reunion. During the financially strapped days when he couldn’t even afford to buy papers to draw on, he worked on sketches with an awl on a piece of silver-colored paper secured from cigarette packets. In the sketches, he drew a picture of himself pulling an oxcart with his wife and children riding in it as they headed to a warm southern country. As such, he portrayed his heartrending yearning for his family through drawings.
Meanwhile, during the painting of the “Ox” series, including “White Ox” in which a fuming animal seems poised to jump out of the painting at any moment, he portrayed the nation’s spirit and powerful energy. With commanding brush strokes, he tried to give consolation to the people who bared the hardships of the war and also tried to pluck up his own courage.
Although he created exceptional art pieces even during the war and the period of separation with his family, his financial difficulties didn’t improve. Particularly in 1955, he held his last exhibition in hopes of meeting his family in Japan. Despite great success, many collectors of his paintings didn’t pay him properly, leaving him cash-strapped. So, he couldn’t realize his dream to go to Japan where his family lived.
Lee Jung-seop’s art works
Lee Jung-seop in deep frustration over his thwarted hope died in the following year at the age of 40. He suffered from various illnesses such as nervous breakdowns, malnutrition, and hepatocirrhosis. But with his posthumous exhibition in 1957, his art works finally began to draw public attention. Thanks to Arthur J. McTaggart, the director of the U.S. Culture Center in Daegu back then, Lee became the first Korean to have an art piece represented in a permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Because his drawings and sketches are priced over one hundred million won, they are often entangled in forgery scandals.
Despite his extreme poverty, Lee Jung-seop held on to his paint brushes and unleashed his artistic spirit. His art works and his life continue to garner passionate admiration from the people of modern Korea.