Lee Joong-seop (1916-1956), a very prominent figure in Korean art, is associated with Jeju Island because he brought his family to Seogwipo during the Korean War.
Though on the island less than a year, he created some of his greatest works here, and his Seogwipo home is now a protected site. Not to mention there’s an art museum dedicated to his work and road in Seogwipo now named after him.
Not unlike exiled Joseon artist Chusa Kim Jeong-hui (추사 김정희) and photographer Kim Young-gap (김영갑), Lee was not a Jeju native, but he is certainly associated with the island and the work he did here is cherished by the Jeju people.
His time in Seogwipo may have been short, but his name and reputation live on.
One could say his experiences on Jeju were certainly pivotal, his life absolutely tragic. In fact many consider Lee, who is also known by the penname Daehyang (대향), to be the Korean Vincent Van Gogh, a brilliant artist whose talent went unrecognized while he was alive.
Lee was born in 1916 in a province in what is now North Korea. He lost his father at the age of 5. He began learning about art from a Western-style painter who had trained in the U.S. and Europe and in 1932 Lee moved to Tokyo to study Western painting.
His initial artistic tendencies were strong, free, and Fauvist in nature, a style of painting with “vivid expressionistic and a non-naturalistic use of color.” Fauvism flourished in Paris in the early 20th Century and Henri Matisse was one of the group’s leaders.
Lee graduated from a prominent art school in 1944, and married a Japanese woman named Yamamoto Masako. They moved back to Korea, and he joined the Joseon New Artists’ Association, a group of young, patriotic artists keen on honing what was described as a nationalist aesthetic.
Just around the corner, though, was the Korean War, which prompted him to move his wife and his two young sons to Busan, but as the war progressed, they fled the fighting by moving to Seogwipo in 1951.
However, as he was still a relatively unknown artist, poverty and deprivation forced him to send his family back to Japan, where his wife’s family were relatively well off.
Amazingly, he was never able to join them again.
Opinions as to why conflict to a degree — whether it was a visa issue (Japan keeping a tight lid on accepting refugees from the Korean War) or a problem with money to pay for such a journey. But it is well known that his wife’s family didn’t approve of the marriage, and thus didn’t help him in any way to rejoin them.
In the end, Lee last saw his family during a brief five-day trip to Tokyo in 1953. Just three years later, he died alone in a Seoul hospital, at age 40. Hepatitis caused by a poor diet and very heavy drinking was the end of him.
Loneliness, it seems, had pushed him over the edge.
Many of his works in these last years were paintings and line drawings on postcards to his wife in Japan, as well as on foil wrappers you find in packs of cigarettes, three of which are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
And as for how these personal tragedies affected his art, certainly his earlier period which was youthful and idealistic, clearly saw a transition in style due to his separation from his family in 1952.
He began painting in an expressionistic style and themes of love, family and loneliness crept into his pictures. When you look at his depiction of his family, for example, what is striking is just how joyous and active they are, despite the actual pain he was experiencing being away from them.
In these masterpieces they dance. They go on trips together. In the images family absolutely fills the canvas, almost as if there is no room, or need, for anyone else.
Technically, his simple, bold lines put his bull images at the forefront of his unique technique. Some say the expression of the bulls in his paintings are reflections of the sad and stoic nature of the Korean people during the chaos of post Japanese occupation, World War 2, and Korean War.
And as for Jeju, which did have an influence on his work, one piece stands out — the “Illusion of Seogwipo,” which depicts a harmonious relationship between people and birds with sweet, ripe peaches hanging from nearby treetops.
This is obviously a fond memory for him.
As for his legacy, we have Lee Joong-seop Street and an art museum on a pleasant little street which was renamed in 1996. It has displays of art, as well as galleries, cafes, that sort of thing. Artistic-related events and festivals are held there occasionally as well.
The Lee Joong-seop Art Museum opened in 2002, located at the bottom of the hill near the site where he once lived. The museum’s Web site has a gallery with 69 examples of his work.
This a reworked article, written by the author, which first appeared on KCTV English News. — Ed.