[ON STAGE]Anguish and Art: A Brief Life

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[ON STAGE]Anguish and Art: A Brief Life

"The Flight of Lee Joong-sub" charts the tragic life of the genius Korean painter who poignantly depicted in his paintings of raging bulls the anger of Koreans suffering under colonial oppression. Like many other artists from that period whose lives were marred by poverty, madness and early deaths, Lee lived a life dragged down by great misfortunes, and died at the age of 41.

During the Korean War he was persecuted by the Russian forces in Korea for refusing to draw portraits of Stalin. Later, when political censorship was thick in the air, his drawings of naked children playing on the grass were banned by the Korean government as pornographic. He was usually poor, so poor that many of his extensive productions were drawn on the silver foils that he got from cigarette packs. All these idiosyncrasies let to his being misdiagnosed as mentally ill.

Written by Kim Eui-kyeong and organized by the Seoul Metropolitan Theater Company, the story of Lee Joong-sub is being staged again in Seoul. The play was featured last month during the Beseto Theater Festival in Japan.

The play is compelling both for audiences familiar with Lee's artworks and those who aren't. Slides of Lee's paintings are projected on the set's backdrop, matching works done by Lee with the time and place the actors are performing onstage, to help put the artist's works in context. Also, to better convey the psychological states of the artist, between each act chanting will be performed by the famed pansori artist Park Yun-cho and dancers will act out themes from the play.

The play's original title in Korean, "The Family on the Road for a Journey" (Gil Tteonaneun Gajok), comes from the title of a painting Lee did for his Japanese wife, Masako Yamamoto, and their two sons, who fled back to Japan to their grandmother's house when their poverty became too much to bear. The painting depicts Lee's family leaving for a joyful journey on a cart led by both a bull and the artist himself. The remarkable image is transformed into a three-dimensional scene to celebrate the play's final moments, after Lee dies alone in his hospital bed.

What probably makes Lee's story so intriguing is his identity as an artist. Lee was unlike other Korean martyrs, who fought with guns and swords. Instead, he lived and he died through his paintings.

by Park Soo-mee

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