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Late Samsung chairman's collection highlights painter Lee Jung-seop as family man

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Lee Jung-seop's pocket-sized tinfoil painting,
Lee Jung-seop's pocket-sized tinfoil painting, "Artist Drawing His Family" (1950s) / Courtesy of the MMCA

'MMCA Lee Kun-hee Collection: Lee Jung Seop' on view until next April

By Park Han-sol

While touted as one of the most iconic modern artists of Korea, whose paintings of bulls letting out spirited cries came to symbolize Korean national identity, Lee Jung-seop (1916-56) was, ultimately, a family man.

The painter's desperate yearning for a reunion with his wife and two sons, who had crossed the sea to Japan in 1952, after leading a life of destitution in war-torn Korea, is reflected in a rather unusual yet somehow fitting material of the time: crumpled aluminum foil pulled from cigarettes packets found in his pocket or trash cans dotting the street.

In his pocket-sized tinfoil painting, "Artist Drawing His Family," the mustached painter with a long chin at the bottom ― a facial feature that earned him the nickname, "agori," ("chin Lee") during his university years in Japan ― is conjuring up a drawing of himself happily embracing his family members once again.

It's a dream that went unrealized in the end. The artist met an untimely death at the age of 40, just four years after seeing his family depart, alone in a hospital bed in Seoul, as he suffered from hepatitis and malnutrition.

The crab and fish appearing in Lee's imagined scene of reunion may seem random, but they are in fact, visual icons representing the last time the wandering, impoverished family was truly happy together in Seogwipo, Jeju Island, amid their refuge-seeking journey during the war.

Installation view of the section displaying Lee Jung-seop's tinfoil painting series at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea in central Seoul / Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol
Installation view of the section displaying Lee Jung-seop's tinfoil painting series at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea in central Seoul / Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol

Twenty-seven such delicate tinfoil paintings have been made the stars of the show at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea's (MMCA) newest exhibition of art from the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee's donated collection, "MMCA Lee Kun-hee Collection: Lee Jung Seop," in central Seoul.

Because of their small sizes, which can make it difficult for viewers to spot fine details and iconography in person, the pieces have also been blown up on an adjacent 15-meter-wide digital screen.

Lee Jung-seop's
Lee Jung-seop's "Chicken and Chicks" (1950s) is one of two paintings that have been unveiled to the public for the first time at the exhibition, "MMCA Lee Kun-hee Collection: Lee Jung Seop." Courtesy of the MMCA

Lee Jung-seop's
Lee Jung-seop's "Family and the First Snow" (1950s) / Courtesy of the MMCA

In addition to tinfoil works, the show also boasts a large number of Lee's postcard, oil and letter paintings as well as pencil drawings ― 70 in total, to be exact ― from the 1940s to '50s, including "Chicken and Chicks" and "Children Playing in the Water," which are being unveiled to the public for the first time.

"Lee's works were influenced by and represented significant moments from his life story," exhibition curator Woo Hyun-jung said during a press preview at the museum, Wednesday.

"This show is about presenting where the artist Lee Jung-seop meets the human Lee Jung-seop."

As a result, the exhibition distances itself from Lee's much more well-known icons of bulls ― a symbol of perseverance for the Korean people ― and instead fills the gallery with his distinct portrayal of familial love.

Lee Jung-seop's
Lee Jung-seop's "A Letter to My Wife" (1954) / Courtesy of the MMCA

Some of the notable works include "Hyunhaetan Sea," which captures his long-desired boat trip to reunite with his family in Japan; "A Letter to My Wife," a heartfelt message filled with endearing words of hope and drawings; and "Dancing Family," depicting an overjoyed couple and their two children in a style reminiscent of Henri Matisse's "Dance."

But if one were to pick another highlight of the show, it would have to be his series of 37 postcard paintings, all sent to his girlfriend-turned-wife Yamamoto Masako (whose Korean name is Lee Nam-duk) between 1940 and 1943 as visual love letters before the couple tied the knot in Korea two years later.

They offer a glimpse into his earlier forays into different artistic styles: abstract and surrealist tendencies explored by the Free Artists Association, a movement he was part of along with Kim Whanki and Yoo Young-kuk, geometric expressions, traditional Korean aesthetics and techniques, as well as experimentation with a variety of materials, such as watercolor, crayon and "meok" (traditional Korean calligraphy ink.)

Lee Jung-seop's
Lee Jung-seop's "Imaginary Animals and People" (1940) / Courtesy of the MMCA

The pieces are an important surviving testament to the period of his creative development, curator Woo noted, as the North Korean-born artist was forced to leave behind a large number of paintings in the northern city of Wonsan when he fled to the South following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

"Lee's spectacular works produced in his prime years of the 1950s could only come because of such artistic experimentations made in the 1940s," she said.

"Lee Jung Seop" runs through April 23, 2023, at the MMCA Seoul.


Park Han-sol hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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