PARK Soo-Keun 리스트보기 슬라이드보기

  • 골목안
  • 노상
  • Two Women
  • Laundry Site
  • Three Women
  • Woman Pounding Grain
  • The Oil Peddler
  • A Tree and Two Women
  • Way Back Home
  • Woman Pounding Grain
  • Roadside Vendors
  • Children on the Yard(遊童)

Park Soo Keun: Beloved Artist of Korea Hong-June You Art Critic / Professor of Art History, MyongJi University 1. Modern Korean art remains as a relatively unknown territory to the international art world. Although there are widely recognized artists, such as Nam June Paik and several others who have represented the country at various art fairs and biennales, not much has been introduced to the international community about the journey that Korean art has taken over the past century. The biggest difference between art and sports is that unlike sports, art is not defined by a single decisive moment that determines the outcome of a game. Instead, it can be revisited by the audience almost indefinitely, resonating a renewed meaning each time. Even if a particular piece of artwork may not have garnered much attention when it was first released to the public, there are numerous cases when that same work came to be acclaimed as a masterpiece long after its initial debut. Such was the case with works done by Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh. The Korean artist Park Soo Keun (1914-1965) is also a similar case. Park was a struggling artist who came from a poor family, and due to financial difficulties, he never had the chance to receive any formal art training. Due to his impoverished life, it was difficult for Park to even get a hold of any art supplies, such as canvases or oil paint. However, this did not deter Park from pursuing his dream as an artist. Instead of using canvases, Park portrayed his artistic spirit and creative mind through little drawings he made on tiny pieces of paper. Although the artist did not receive much recognition during his time, his works have come to receive increasingly favorable posthumous attention over the years. Today his work is valued by Koreans as a long-lost gem that has finally been brought to light, as can be seen by how Park is now referred to as “our leading artist” or the “most beloved artist of Korea.” 2. Park Soo Keun, in truth, had somewhat of a humble background as an artist. Throughout his artistic career, until he passed away at the age of 51, not once did Park have a solo exhibition to showcase his works. Park was born in 1914 in a small town in Yanggu County, Gangwon Province, which is a high mountainous region situated in the middle of the Korean peninsula. Park had shown potential as an artist early on when he was in elementary school, but as he could not afford the school tuition, he had no choice but to resort to studying art by himself. At the age of 18, Park entered the Joseon Art Exhibition, the annual national art competition and was accepted with his watercolor painting Spring Has Come. This was the event that, in essence, launched his career as an artist. However, in the three years following, Park failed to win any prizes at the Joseon Art Exhibition until finally in 1936, at the age of 22, he was awarded for his painting titled Working Woman. From then onwards every year until 1943, when the contest came to a close, Park was awarded a prize for his artwork at the annually held contest, and this recognition effectively served as verification of Park’s artistic prowess. When he reached the age of 25, Park married and moved to work in Pyongyang, the current capital of North Korea. It was there that he settled down with his family, which included his newly born daughter and son. During his stay in Pyongyang, he occasionally showcased his work, along with other artists at group exhibitions. However, this stable lifestyle soon came to an end three years later. At the time, Korea had been under Japanese colonial rule. When the Pacific War was instigated by Imperial Japan in 1941, this provided Korea with the opportunity to free itself. However, even after gaining independence in 1945, Korea then had to undergo a tumultuous three-year period owing to the breakout of the Korean War in 1950. This eventually led to the division of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korea. During this period, Park moved to South Korea and settled in a small house situated in the outskirts of Seoul. While living there, Park would travel to rural areas and earn his living as a dockworker and by drawing portraits on handkerchiefs at the US military base Post Exchange (PX) for the American soldiers. This period in Park’s life was actually depicted by the well-known Korean author Wan-Seo Park in her novel, The Naked Tree. After the Korean War, Park had difficulty finding work. He was just one of the city’s many poor and needy. His only source of income was the few pieces of artwork he was able to sell at the Bando Art Gallery located in the Bando Hotel. At the time his work was priced around 30 dollars a piece, while Korea’s per capita GNI in those days was assessed to be around 70 dollars. Although art dealing was not that active at the time, Park’s work is said to have been quite popular among foreigners who would occasionally buy some of his pieces. The attraction lay in that Park’s works were conveniently small in size, relatively cheap, and most importantly, they had a strong Korean feel to them. Among the foreigners who admired Park’s work, Margaret Miller, the wife of a US diplomat stationed in Korea, was an especially avid fan of his. She purchased dozens of Park’s paintings and also arranged tours for other foreign diplomats’ wives to visit Park’s studio in his humble, rundown house. Even after she returned to her home country, Miller continued to purchase Park’s paintings. Whenever she sought to purchase his work, Park would ask that she send him art supplies such as paint in lieu of payment. Just by looking at one of the many letters sent by Miller, which are on display at the Park Soo Keun Museum in Park’s hometown Yanggu, one can see how staunch of a supporter she had been of his work. In 1953, Park entered the national art competition, which had begun again after the Korean War. With his work A Cottage near the Well winning the Special Prize, and Street Scene receiving an award as well, Park started to be recognized as a talented artist. In the following year, he was awarded again at the competition for his painting titled Woman Pounding Grain, and in the subsequent year, he further solidified his position as a gifted artist by being awarded for his work, Two Seated Women, with the National Assembly’s Culture and Tourism Committee Chairman Award. However, when Park, at the age of 43, failed to receive any awards in the 1957 competition for an ambitious large-scale painting (162 x 130cm), he fell into great despair. It is said that it was around this time that the artist began to drink heavily. From the current standpoint, it may be hard to grasp why Park fell into such serious despair after this event, but it comes to make more sense if one understands what the situation was like for artists in those days. At the time, the making or breaking of an artist’s career mostly depended on his or her success at the national art competition. However, despite the discouraging results, Park resolved to not give up and decided to immerse himself in painting for the sake of painting itself, rather than for the sake of competition. Thanks to such efforts, Park was later on able to regain his reputation as a respected artist in the art world, as can be seen by how he was nominated as a recommended artist in 1960 and appointed as a judge at the national art competition in 1962. 3. Park enjoyed painting women at work, as evident in his choice of subjects, such as woman with a basket, washerwomen by the stream, women at the marketplace, and woman pounding grain. The sight of innocent children was also a favorite subject of his, as reflected in his paintings, such as A Girl Tending to an Infant and A Reader, in which he depicted a young girl reading. However, whenever he depicted the male subjects, they were usually taking a passive role, engaging in a conversation or resting. Such images, perhaps, were a common sight he regularly came upon in his daily life in postwar Korea. Park had a unique way of portraying the everyday life of common people, transcending the categorization of Realism, Romanticism, Impressionism, or Expressionism. Park refused to have his subjects changed in any way from their natural state. He wished to portray them in their true form in his paintings. This was his way of acknowledging their existence, and it symbolized the affection he felt for the common people. Park established thick layers of paint to give his painting a rough texture. His subjects are delineated in black lines on top of this thick textural material, giving it an appearance of a work carved out in stone. In 1965, Margaret Miller, who had remained an enthusiastic supporter of the artist, wrote an article on the works of Park, which was published in a magazine upon her return to her home country. Entitled “Pak Soo Keun: Artist in the Land of the Morning Calm,” the article shared with readers what Miller had heard from the artist himself about the technique behind his thick-layered matière in his paintings: "My method of painting is with either brush or knife. The first layer on the canvas is white and yellow-ochre that is mixed with much oil. I let this dry. Next the process is of building layer upon layer letting each layer dry in between. For the top layers I use very little oil mixed with color and in this way it will not crack or chip. Then I sketch in the subject matter with bold strokes using black outlines." His signature style was an unprecedented one that could not be found in the works of other artists. Through this unique technique, the resulting effect of his technique resembled the granite carvings of Buddha that can be easily sighted on the cliffs along the mountainside and riverside in Korea. Just like the carvings of Buddha, Park intends to preserve the subject matter, forever untouched and untarnished. The only difference is that in Park’s work, the subject matter is not the image of a Buddha but instead a simple and honest lifestyle of the common people. One of the other frequently revisited subjects of Park’s is the leafless winter tree. Similar to his other subject matters, his trees were not in any way extraordinary or an eye-catcher. They were the strictly ordinary ones that could be commonly sighted at the mountainside of Korea. If personification were allowed, these trees could be easily referred to as “the common tree” as they eagerly await the arrival of Spring in their stripped bare tree trunks—a theme that consistently manifests his paintings of other subjects as well. In sum, Park’s trees talk about the enduring hope and perseverance in the face of dire circumstances and challenges of everyday life. 4. It was around one century ago that Western art was first introduced in Korea. Following the footsteps of the other East Asian countries, Korea began to take the road to modernization by adopting the Western ways. There were some who reinterpreted the traditional Oriental ink painting into a modernized form of art, whereas, some diligently learned the techniques and theories behind European art, which later became the foundation for Korean avant-garde art. After a period of familiarization to Western art, artists also began to reexamine the language of abstract art, and nowadays Korean artists of the current generation remain up-to-date with the contemporary trend in art and contribute to the global art community. However, this does not mean that the Korean artists have been blindly pursuing the techniques and spirit of Western art for the past century. There is quite a number of Korean artists who have built an artistic expression with unprecedented creativity upon the acquired techniques, Park Soo Keun being one of them. To many Koreans, Park’s creative endeavor proudly represents the country’s modern art. Before we attempt to categorize his work into a particular style and movement of Western art, we should remember that Park was an artist who was not keen on the trends that were in vogue, but a solitary artist who pursued his own artistic vocabulary with an indefatigable passion. It was through such efforts that Park is now recognized as an artist of originality and the painter to best capture the Korean spirit. In this context, the art of Park Soo Keun befits most perfectly to the famous saying by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “The most ethnic of all may become the most universally accepted.”

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