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Exploring Park Soo-keun's oeuvre in new light beyond limiting labels

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Park Soo-keun's iconic piece, ″Tree and Two Women″ (1962) / Courtesy of MMCA
Park Soo-keun's iconic piece, ″Tree and Two Women″ (1962) / Courtesy of MMCA

By Park Han-sol

Korea's modern art master Park Soo-keun / Korea Times file
Korea's modern art master Park Soo-keun / Korea Times file
In 1926, then a 12-year-old boy, Park Soo-keun's fateful encounter with Jean-Francois Millet's iconic painting of "The Angelus" awakened his artistic passion.

His dream to become a painter was certainly an ambitious ― even reckless ― one, as his family's loss of fortune made any formal art education after elementary school an unthinkable luxury.

Like Millet, Park (1914-1965) began to paint rural landscapes and the life of farmers on his own, forging his distinct style of art that eventually earned him a place at the Joseon Art Exhibition ― an annual art competition that served as a crucial platform for aspiring Korean painters during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial era.

But it wasn't until after the 1950-53 Korean War, during which he escaped his North Korean home and crossed the border, with great difficulty, that Park's oeuvre began to gradually gain recognition in South Korean art circles.

His signature style ― gritty, rugged texture achieved by applying as many as 22 coats of paint on canvas, restrained use of bright color and simple compositions ― gave life to several hundred paintings that captured, without pretense, the lives of Korean people surviving in a war-torn land.

"Park was a painter who documented the state of the post-war nation in his own way ― an artist who visualized the value of ordinariness in the 1950s and '60s Korea," Kim Ye-jin, curator of the first-ever retrospective of Park held at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Deoksugung, said at a recent press conference.

Titled "Park Soo Keun: The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring," in reference to one of the most prominent features throughout his pieces ― bare trees stripped of all their leaves, the exhibition presents 174 oil and watercolor paintings, illustrations and sketches, as well as more than 100 archival materials.

It is the artist's largest retrospective to date, including over 30 pieces from the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee's donated art trove.

Installation view of the exhibition,
Installation view of the exhibition, "Park Soo Keun: The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring," at the MMCA Deoksugung / Courtesy of MMCA

Although the show is quite notable for its size alone, curator Kim is aware that the oeuvre of Park, who is famously referred to as "an artist beloved among Koreans," has already been visited numerous times in past exhibitions, following his posthumous fame.

For a point of differentiation, "Park Soo Keun: The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring" strives to shed the simplistic modifiers that have long defined Park and his works ― such as his "unfortunate" life in poverty as a painter marginalized by the cliquish art world.

Instead of reaffirming these stereotypes, it turns to contextualizing the artist's body of work within the perspectives of various social groups of his time ― his colleagues, art critics and collectors ― who have either directly interacted or shared similar aesthetic sensibilities with him, to reveal new ways to look at his pieces.

One interesting theme explored in the exhibition is the connection made between three creators in disparate fields ― painter Park, renowned novelist Park Wan-suh (1931-2011) and photographer Han Young-soo (1933-1999).

"None of these three figures had a chance to receive a formal education in regards to their genres," Kim explained. "Born in North Korea, these self-taught artists came to the South and forged their own style based on the lives and struggles of the ordinary people in postwar Seoul."

The two Parks knew each other when they worked together in the U.S. 8th Army PX at the Donghwa Department Store in Myeong-dong, central Seoul, in 1952. The novelist was responsible for hawking portrait drawing services to American soldiers on the street, while the painter was in charge of completing the portraits of their loved ones.

Years later, Park Soo-keun's iconic painting, "Two Women and a Tree," (1962) inspired Park Wan-suh's debut novel, "The Naked Tree" (1970) ― based on her own interaction with the painter of a gentle yet passionate nature.

"[During the war,] everyone was filled with depression and anxiety. None of the artists in Daegu, Busan, Jeju, or wherever could endure it without going crazy, or blurring their minds with strong alcohol," she writes in the epilogue of her novel.

"That's why I felt compelled to testify how [Park] had lived in Seoul, this deserted city on the frontlines, without going crazy, without losing his mind, without getting drunk, without abandoning painting or giving up on supporting his family."

Han Young-soo's photos like
Han Young-soo's photos like "Seoul" captured street scenes of the 1950s and '60s Korea after the war. Courtesy of MMCA

Although Han was never known to be Park's acquaintance, his photos taken on the streets of Seoul during the 1950s and '60s bring the audience the everyday scenes that the painter must have encountered during his commute between Myeong-dong and Changsin-dong, his home.

Han's photographic works and Park's paintings also share common sentiments in that they captured characters of warmth, beauty and resilience within the ordinary subjects instead of turning them into the wretched symbols of misery and war.

"Through these three artists, we aimed to show the portraits of the common people who survived and withstood what could be seen as the most deprived era in modern Korean history," Kim said.

Another popular image of Park that the show reexamines is that of a poverty-stricken artist. Although it is true he was never a well-off painter until his death, that didn't mean his works were rarely sold or appreciated by collectors.

In fact, in Bando Art Gallery ― Korea's first commercial gallery established in 1956 in the lobby of the Bando Hotel, which catered to diplomats, businesspeople and tourists ― Park was one of the most in-demand artists among the foreign patrons.

The exhibition introduces collectors like Margaret Miller, who was a great admirer of the artist's works and helped him sell nearly 70 paintings in the U.S. Also, John H. Ricks, who served as the head of the Korean office of an American trade company, brought oil paint and canvas back from his regular trips to Japan for Park in return for his paintings.

Primary colors are subtly placed in between the numerous coats of paint in some of Park's pieces, like
Primary colors are subtly placed in between the numerous coats of paint in some of Park's pieces, like "Shanty Houses" (late 1950s), which depicts the rows of houses near his own in Changsin-dong. Courtesy of MMCA

As the audience is offered a chance to view the artist in a new light, curator Kim noted that it is equally important to focus on his pieces themselves beyond popular descriptions like plain compositions and "dull," gray tones.

"In a number of his works, the daring, dynamic composition achieved by particular arrangement of the branches of the leafless trees is remarkable," she said.

"And although all of them appear gray or beige, if you look at some of the pieces closely, you can witness the colors like red, green and yellow subtly placed in between the numerous coats of paint."

The exhibition, "Park Soo Keun: The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring," runs through March 1, 2022, at the MMCA Deoksugung.

박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr

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