Stroke of Genius － Lee In-sung Painted EmotionsA Retrospective of an Artist Whose Work Was Mired in Controversy
Lee In-sung was a natural painter, as evidenced by his confident brushstrokes and enigmatic personality. He was an eccentric, and though this aspect of his character contributed to his tragic death at the age of 39, it makes his story all the more compelling. Tracing the artist's dramatic life, Hoam Art Museum is holding a retrospective entitled "Lee In-sung: A Korean Early Modern Master," displaying such works as "A Valley in Kyungju" and "On an Autumn Day."
Born in Taegu during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), Lee's family was too poor to give him a proper education. Instead, the young man who would become such a force in the Korean art work worked at the Taegu Art Company, a print and design shop run by a local artist, Seo Dong-jin.
Lee studied under Seo for a number of years and eventually won the Chosun Art Exhibition Award. His works were exhibited in galleries and continued to garner awards until his accidental shooting in 1950. Lee was killed after an argument with a policeman. As a famous artist, Lee was not immune to the pitfalls of fame, and his braggadocio led him to exclaim to the policeman, "How on Earth do you not know the artist Lee In-sung?" The quote was later used to portray Lee as a colorful and somewhat reckless character.
Lee's bold, deliberate brushstrokes reflect his unique character. In his painting "Landscape," mountains and plateaus are so grandiose and picturesque that they seem to be based more on the artist's imagination than on real life. Lee Jun, the exhibit's curator, said the artist not only "drew what he saw, but reinterpreted what he was painting by rearranging the scene on the canvas." Even with still life, Lee paid a great deal of attention to composition. He used vivid, contrasting colors to make the paintings seem more alive. At times, his paintings seem more concerned with conveying mood than merely presenting a realistic depiction.
In "Interior," a painting of a ornate room with antique furnishings and a pyung-pung (folding screen), the artist displays another facet of his personality - he was a great romanticist.
"Art historians argue that the room is a fictional space that the artist simply imagined," said Lee Jun. "In that case it's ironic, because he grew up in a very poor family. And the work is almost bourgeois." However, some experts believe the painting is an actual view of the artist's studio. After winning the Chosun Art Award, Lee studied oil painting in Japan. There he married Kim Ok-sun, whose father owned a hospital in Taegu. After his marriage, Lee's career proceeded much more smoothly. Kim's father set Lee up in a western-styled studio, where he later taught.
The artist's sensitive landscapes perhaps best reflect the depth of his perception. Before painting a scene, Lee would carry out extensive research, taking photographs and making many preliminary sketches. He was particularly interested in his home city, Taegu, where both modern buildings and traditional houses mingled in the cityscape. These were reflected in his later paintings, which showed newly built roads and power poles amid Gothic cathedrals.
On the other hand, he also painted works filled with tension and literary references like "On an Autumn Day." The painting opened a new chapter in "Western painting" in Korea. Mainly painted with oils, Western-style paintings were often derided in conservative Korean art circles as unauthentic. But Lee rejected such criticisms and used the medium to depict uniquely Korean subjects.
"The artist was often criticized for imitating the styles of Western painters such as Cezanne or Gauguin, which was a trend in Japanese galleries of the time," said Lee Jun. "But the important thing is that he took the styles and interpreted them in his own way."
Perhaps Lee's finest work, "Valley in Kyungju," best illustrates 1930s Korea. A young girl with a baby on her back looks towards roads in the distance. On the ground are fragments of objects, which some believe are roof tiles. On the right of the canvass, a restless figure, staring into space, sits on a wooden bench. Though the figures' faces are obscured, it is not difficult to see they are both anxiously waiting for someone to come. The allegorical figures and earthy colors depict Koreans' emotions and feelings of futility under the Japanese occupation.
From the 1930s until his death, Lee turned his brushes exclusively on portraits. His models were the people close at hand, such as his students at Ehwa Girls' High School and family members. Using people close to him helped Lee capture the essence of a person's character. A contemporary of Lee, the artist Nam Kwan wrote that "Lee was interested in capturing the internal description rather than the surface of his subjects." "Portrait of a Lady," a painting of his late wife on a blue background, provides an example of his eye for what lies below the surface and reflects the artist's complex emotions.
As the exhibition commemorates the 50th anniversary of the artist's death, Lee's body of work, including photographs and sketchbooks, is on display on the second floor of the Hoam Museum.
The show depicts the struggle of an artist caught between tradition and modernization.
English tours are available every Saturday at 3p.m. Japanese are given every Sunday at 3p.m. For information, telephone 02-750-7838.
by Park Soo-mee