Lee Jung-seop is one of Korea’s most celebrated artists. He is most famous for his painting of a fierce-looking bull. In the eyes of the bull the deep sadness and stoic nature of the Korean people is reflected- being an extremely poor nation, having experienced such difficult times as the Japanese colonial years of 1910-1945, and the Korean War, which broke out in 1950. Lee, who was born in North Korea, was deeply affected by the spirit of the era, and the painting of the bull, created in 1953, symbolizes this national and personal turmoil.
On Jan. 4, 1951, he escaped North Korea with his Japanese wife and two small sons, in a mass exodus to South Korea. Given the nature of the times, his union with a Japanese woman was not approved of, especially by her wealthy and powerful family. He and his family moved briefly to Busan, but sought a warmer climate as depicted in his painting A Family on the Road. It shows a wagon with a mother and two sons led by their father, all tossing flowers and searching for Utopia. They found the warm, pleasant climate they hoped for in Seogwipo. The family lived there together for a year before Lee decided to send his wife and children back to Japan, feeling that she was suffering too much due to the hardships they were experiencing in Korea.
Lee Joong-seop remained in Seogwipo alone and isolated from his family. During the last 5 years of his life he created most of his famous works while there, heavily influenced by the conflict around him and the sense of deprivation he felt at having been unable to get a visa to accompany his family. During this time he sent regular postcards to his wife and many of his most famous paintings were created on these postcards. He also painted many larger works when he could afford materials.
This period of isolation also led him to create many drawings etched with a nail onto the silver paper that came in the cigarette boxes of the time; he was too poor to afford proper artist materials. These small, silver drawings generally depict the family he desperately missed, happily playing with crabs, fish, and flowers. This is his most famous type of work, with three of these pieces housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Three others are on display in the Seogwipo gallery.
After five years of hard labor and a poor diet, he died in 1956, of liver failure, alone in hospital at age 40. A close friend of Lee had his body cremated, and sent some of the ashes to his wife in Japan. Lee left behind a large body of artistic work, mostly in silver cigarette paper drawings, hand-painted postcards, and some large paintings.
A beautiful piece called Illusion of Seogwipo, of which a reproduction is on display in Jeju’s Lee Joong-seop museum, shows birds and people living in harmony on a warm day, while Korean peaches hang heavy and sweet in the treetops above. Clearly, he adored the home he found in Seogwipo, and it is a fitting place for a gallery, which opened in 2002, to honor his artistic achievements.
The museum grounds begin at the bottom of the hill with a pathway surrounded by lush vines and flowers. This leads to the thatched roof house, a collection of apartments with small doors, and small rooms, one of which Lee and his family lived in after arriving in Seogwipo. A tour guide will gladly tell you all about the Lee Joong-seop house, in Korean- foreign residents are encouraged to bring a Korean friend to translate if possible. Visitors can enter the room the Lee family lived in, and from there, take a path through a large vegetable garden, which leads to the museum.
The gallery holds 11 original works by Lee, and many of the letters he wrote to his wife. Due to his popularity in recent years, the price of his work has skyrocketed, leaving it difficult for the small museum to increase its collection. They have included a whole floor of reproductions of his work to enhance the collection of originals. This second floor occasionally holds shows by modern artists.
The museum is located in Seogwipo near the Seogwipo Cross Province Bus Terminal. There are signs in English leading the way to the gallery. It costs 1000W to enter. The gallery is open 9am-6pm, every day except Mondays and holidays.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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