A painter of farmers gets belated accoladeShortly after the National Museum of Contemporary Art named Lee Jong-gu as its artist of the year, an article in a local art magazine by an emerging critic questioned Lee’s artistic achievements in the minjung, or people’s, art movement in Korea.
Ban I-jeong, the independent critic of Art In Culture, in the article titled “The Holy Brand of Minjung Art,” accused Lee of using his history as a minjung artist in the 1980s strategically to sell his paintings to public art museums in Korea. The article stated with a tinge of a sneer, “The works might not decorate the living room walls of Tower Palace, but they have no flaws as museum collections.”
The artist, a vocal critic of the devastating reality of Korean peasants, wrote back to Ban. Lee said, “When I first started painting the faces of farmers under the military regime, I didn’t imagine in my dreams that my works would be collectible by state-run museums.”
For the 51-year old artist, the incident was an outrage.
“It’s nonsense that I risked my career hoping my works would be distributed to museums one day,” Lee said in his studio in Incheon, where he is a regional head of the National Artists League. “Minjung artists were being tortured for their work during that time. So many of my artist friends had stopped painting, because they were so afraid. If I had wanted to sell my works, there were other ways to do that.
“In the commercial art scene, landscape paintings sold so well that artists put on exhibits in galleries and they would sell all the works hung in the gallery in less than a week and put up a second round the following week,” he added.
The award by the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which is given to veteran Korean artists who have made major contributions to the Korean art scene, was an unexpected treat from a state-run museum. Indeed, it was one of the first official recognitions by the national museum of a minjung artist for his artistic achievements, an irony considering that the same institution was governed by the country’s military regime 20 years ago, which was the essential subject of criticism in minjung art.
Lee is known as a peasant artist. His earlier paintings on large straw bags of rice contained prints of government stamps, a typical sign that suggested the grain was fed to working class citizens at a lower cost. In his works he juxtaposed the faces of local peasants with cardboard boxes of imported food brands. There is a poignant image of Lee’s peasant father, whose chest becomes a land of sprouting buds. Lee used the picture as a poster for his current exhibit at the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
Others portray images of an airplane flying over resting farmers, a picture of a cabbage about the size of a standing man and a portrait of farmers from the artist's hometown in Jecheon perched in front of a wall covered with the election posters of presidential candidates in 1989. Years later, the artist presented a sketch of Korean society through the election posters of the presidential campaign in 2002, which is partially overlaid with the banners of nightclubs featuring Korean celebrities.
His works, which often depict the harsh reality in many farming villages in Korea, question the meaning of globalization, commenting directly on issues of labor, alienation and longing. In style, Lee’s paintings marked the start of realism in the local art world. Almost all of the figures that appear in his paintings are life size.
Despite various achievements by minjung art, Lee admits there is still a subtle tension between the “hardliners” who were more actively involved in the labor movement by producing banners and fliers for anti-government protests and moderates like Lee, who quietly worked in their studios.
But Lee was a high school art teacher at the time he began his peasants series in the early 1980s. That, he says, put him in a different position to view society from his college classmates in fine arts departments who went out on the streets with their banners to protest. “In the end it was hard for all of us,” he says. “A few might have had their own political agenda. But most of us worked with profound sincerity.”
In his studio, there is a picture of President Roh Moo-hyun standing next to the artist at an exhibit. The picture was taken more than 10 years ago, when Mr. Roh lost his first regional election. When he won the presidency in 2002, the artist sent a copy of this photograph with a congratutory message.
“I have to say my work is simply getting the treatment it deserves from the changing chapters of Korean history,” he says.
by Park Soo-mee
The Lee Jong-gu retrospective will continue through Thursday. For more information, call 02-2188-6000.