Varlen Pen’s bold strokes return: Korean-Russian artist is best known for his evocative portraits

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Varlen Pen’s bold strokes return: Korean-Russian artist is best known for his evocative portraits


Paintings and drawings by Varlen Pen (1916-1990) on display at the Hakgojae Gallery in central Seoul. Pen was a successful Korean-Russian painter in Russia but had been unknown in South Korea for a long time due to the Cold War, until a 2016 retrospective at MMCA Deoksu Palace. The third retrospective of Pen started on Wednesday at the gallery. [MOON SO-YOUNG]

Varlen Pen (1916-1990), a rare successful Korean-Russian who had been unknown in South Korea due to the Cold War, sent shock waves through the local art world, when his first retrospective in Korea was held at the Deoksu Palace branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in central Seoul in 2016. It was soon followed by an solo exhibition on Jeju Island.

Pen’s third retrospective in Korea started on Wednesday at the Hakgojae Gallery, one of Korea’s top commercial galleries, in central Seoul. It consists of 189 of the artist’s paintings, etchings, lithographs and drawings on loan from the artist’s family.

About 80 pieces among them have never been unveiled before in Korea, while the others include some paintings that impressed viewers during the 2016 retrospective, such as the portraits of the legendary Korean dancer Choi Seunghee who went to North Korea after the 1945 liberation; Russian writer Boris Pasternak, best known for the novel “Doctor Zhivago”; and Pen’s own mother in hanbok, or traditional Korean clothes.

Pen was most famous for his portrait paintings, according to the art critic Moon Young-dae, who curated the retrospective. His paintings are based in the tradition of portraits by Russian realist masters such as Ivan Kramskoi and Ilya Repin, which are said to show a realist approach not only in regard to the appearance but also to the inner side of the model. At the same time, Pen’s paintings show distinctly bold strokes.

The exhibition is part of efforts to promote “the painter, who was purged by North Korea and neglected by South Korea, although he made his way to become a professor at the prestigious Ilya Repin Leningrad Institute [now called the Russian Academy of Arts] with his excellent ability despite racial discrimination, and he never forgot his Korean roots,” said Moon, who has devoted himself to researching Pen since he came across one of the artist’s paintings while studying in Russia in 1994.

Among the works on view are the paintings and drawings of North Korean landscapes and ordinary people as well as of important figures in North Korean art and culture in the early 1950s created by Pen during or after his stay in Pyongyang.

He was dispatched to the North Korean capital in 1953 to help the North re-establish its university of fine art and teach styles and techniques of Russian academicism and socialist realism.

“He stayed there for 15 months and could never visit North Korea again after the stay,” Moon said. “Pyongyang classified him as a purgee after he rejected the North’s abrupt demand that he should be naturalized as a North Korean citizen.” It is said that the cooled relations between the North and the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin also affected the situation.

“Pen was greatly disappointed to learn that he could never visit North Korea again and missed the peninsula throughout his life,” Moon said. He helped many ethnic Korean artists in Russia and sometimes wrote in Korean on his paintings, he added.


The exhibition runs through May 19. Admission is 5,000 won ($4.40) for adults. The gallery is closed on Mondays. Go to Anguk Station, line No. 3, exit 2, and walk 10 minutes.

For details, visit or call (02) 720-1524.
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