Widow of Exiled Artist Keeps His Work, Spirit Alive

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Widow of Exiled Artist Keeps His Work, Spirit Alive

Korea's turbulent political past claimed many victims. One of them was Lee Ung-no (1904-1989), a man once hailed as the best Asian artist in the world, who spent much of his life in exile. Works by the artist, known by his pseudonym, Go-am, are now the subject of an exhibition in Pyongchang-dong, northern Seoul. The museum where the exhibit is being held is also dedicated to the artist, and took his 75-year-old widow, Park In-kyung, three years to establish. It has been 40 years since the artist's works were exhibited in Korea.

Go-am was born in Hongseong, South Chungchong Province, and studied under Kim "Haegang" Gyu-jin. His first work to be exhibited, "Chungjook," was shown at the Chosun Art Exhibition in 1924.

But Go-am eventually tired of conforming to traditional Korean landscape painting strictures. In 1958 he left for Paris. He toured with his work through Germany the following year before settling in Paris. He gave the Facchetti Museum the exclusive rights to display his works, making his Paris debut in 1961. He later taught painting and calligraphy at an academy he established at the Cernuschi Museum. Meanwhile, Go-am continued to develop a painting style called "Letter Abstract," which incorporated the Korean alphabet into abstract paintings that assimilated Eastern and modern Western styles.

Beginning in 1961, South Korea came under the tight grip of the military regime headed by Park Chung Hee. In 1967, over 200 artists, musicians, professors and students studying overseas were summoned to return to South Korea and charged with aiding the communist North. In what became known as the "East Berlin Incident," many allege that they were tortured. Go-am was among those to return to the South, fearing for his family's safety if he did not. He was greeted with a three-year jail term.

While in prison, Go-am continued to create art in innovative ways, stretching his imagination to its limits by using the materials available. He worked with sticky rice and toilet paper.

After his release, Go-am returned to France where he obtained French citizenship. He was never to return to Korea. He died prior to a final attempt to visit his homeland for an exhibition in 1989. Go-am was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris alongside other artists.

Sixty-one of Go-am's works are featured in the retrospective, "Lee Ung-no, 40 Years Later." They include "Haejeo," characterized by strong abstract lines, and "Saengmaek," composed of soft tones and abstract dots. The museum hopes to acquire some 4,000 works by Go-am currently housed in a Go-am memorial in Paris. "We hope we will succeed in realizing the permanent return of Go-am's works," said his widow, Mrs. Park. "But we are now engaged in a legal dispute with France because of French laws that forbid works by deceased artists from leaving the country."

The exhibition runs through Dec. 29. For more information visit www.ungnolee-museum.org or contact 02-3217-5672.


by Cho Hyun-wook

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