Although Park Soo Keun is well-known to us, how much do we really know about him? So much of the Park Soo Keun that we know comes from the ideas and interpretations of art critics and historians of the past.
By following in Park Soo Keun's footsteps and taking a fresh look at his works, this exhibition aims to re-introduce this artist who we thought we knew so well. Forget the worn modifiers of "Korea's favorite painter" or "national painter of Korea," and prepare to newly encounter Park Soo Keun, as if for the first time.
The exhibition features an incredible array of Park Soo Keun's works and personal materials, from watercolors that he painted as a teenager to oil paintings produced just before his death at the age of fifty-one. The exhibition is arranged in four galleries, presenting the artist respectively through the eyes of his wife Kim Boksun, writer Park Wansuh, his son Park Sungnam, and the collectors and critics who recognized his genius from early on. The exhibition also takes visitors from Park Soo Keun's home and studio in Changsin-dong (Seoul) to the neighborhoods of Myeong-dong and Eulji-ro, where he worked and frequently wandered.
Borrowed from Park Wansuh's novel, the "naked tree" in the exhibition title symbolizes the people who lived through Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War, enduring unthinkable poverty and devastation with pride and determination, and especially Park Soo Keun himself, who overcame difficult times before blossoming anew with his brilliant and beautiful art. Walking through the exhibition, we hope you can begin to imagine the society of Korea, the landscape of Seoul, and the daily lives of people in the 1950s and 1960s, when Park Soo Keun lived and worked.
1. The Boy Who Loved Millet
"Lord, please help me grow up to be a great painter like Millet."
Park Soo Keun dreamed of becoming an artist from the age of twelve, when he was inspired by the paintings of Jean-François Millet. But after his father's business failed, Park's family lost its fortune and he lost any hope of a formal art education. Thus, the young Park taught himself to paint, receiving encouragement from his elementary school teacher Oh Deukyeong. Park was only eighteen when he was first accepted to participate in the Joseon Art Exhibition.
Like Millet, Park Soo Keun started out painting rural landscapes and scenes of farming life. He showed his works almost every year at the Joseon Art Exhibition, moving closer to his dream of becoming a painter. Paying careful attention to the lives of ordinary people, he painted the same subjects over and over again, trying to find his true vision and expression as an artist. The earnestness and sincerity of Park Soo Keun’s dream to become a painter are evident from the many drawings and studies that he practiced, along with the reference materials that he studied to learn about painting.
2. US Army and Exhibitions
"I'm very much in favor of you organizing an exhibition of my works. I’ll have to make more paintings from now on."
Park Soo Keun first began making a name for himself in 1953, when he was awarded a Special Selection at the National Art Exhibition of Korea. His works were presented alongside those of renowned artists at major events like the National Art Exhibition of Korea, the Contemporary Artists Exhibition(sponsored by the Chosun Ilbo), and the Exhibition of the Daehan Artists Association. Although he had not gone to art school and did not follow the popular trends of the time, critics recognized Park for finding a worthy subject matter and a unique painting style that suited it.
But with the city of Seoul in ruins from the Korean War, it was almost impossible to make a living solely from painting. To support his family, Park Soo Keun worked as a portrait artist at the US Army PX, which then allowed him to exhibit and sell his paintings at the US Army base in Yongsan. At the PX, he worked with Park Wansuh, the future novelist, who later documented how Park Soo Keun had endured the horrific conditions of postwar Seoul with serenity and persistence. After being invited to hold a solo exhibition in the United States, Park worked diligently to prepare new works. But this dream was never realized due to his sudden death from illness.
3. People of Changsin-dong
"I have a very ordinary view that art should portray human goodness and sincerity."
During the Korean War, Park Soo Keun fled south the Seoul, where he later settled in Changsin-dong, Jongno-gu. With its proximity to downtown and Dongdaemun Market, Changsin-dong had long been clustered with poor residents, who were now joined by many refugees from the war, such as Park and his family. Even so, the ten years that Park lived in Changsin-dong would become the high point of his career as an artist.
Lined with makeshift shanty houses, the narrow alleys of Changsin-dong were dirty and noisy, but the people who lived there were proud and dignified. Park Soo Keun’s paintings are suffused with his deep love and respect for his neighbors, who resiliently struggled to survive amidst the devastation of the war. Living the same type of ordinary, day-to-day existence, Park Soo Keun produced paintings that embody the postwar society of Korea and the lives of ordinary people of the time.
4. The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring
"But as I leap over winter with thoughts of spring, the sun of May is already burning in my heart."
Park Soo Keun's career coincided with the rise of abstract art in Korea. Even though he studied the new trends of abstract art coming from the West, Park firmly adhered to his own style when painting. His paintings are characterized by their simplified forms, spare colors, and thick layers of paint creating a rough texture.
Significantly, these paintings echo various elements of traditional Korean culture, such as earthen walls, buncheong ware, rough window paper, and Buddhist stone sculptures. Thus, many critics praised Park for using Western art materials to express a Korean sensibility, and his works were very popular among international patrons of Bando Art Gallery. Unfortunately, however, Park Soo Keun did not achieve significant fame or success as an artist until after his death in 1965. It was only in the late 1970s, with the development of the Korean economy, that his works began to be fervently bought and sold in Korea, attaining the immense popularity that they now enjoy.