The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA, Director Youn Bummo)
presents Park Soo Keun: The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring at MMCA Deoksugung from 11
November 2021 to 1 March 2022. Co-organized by the Park Soo Keun Museum in Yanggu-gun, this
large-scale retrospective presents new explorations of the artist’s body of work.
Painter Park Soo Keun (1914–1965) was self-taught, possessing only an elementary school education,
and made his painting debut through Korean state-sponsored exhibitions such as the Joseon Art
Exhibition and National Art Exhibition. At the time, the predominant artistic form in Korea was Western
abstract art, which had arrived in force over the period from Korea’s liberation from Japan through the
Korean War. But Park consistently produced paintings that rendered the lives of ordinary people in
simple compositions with coarse textures. In his works, he mainly captured street scenes and images
of his neighbors glimpsed while traveling back and forth between his home in Seoul’s Changsin-dong and the US Army’s post exchange (PX) in Myeong-dong or Euljiro’s Bando Art Gallery. At the same
time, he maintained an interest in contemporary Western art trends, refining pictorial elements such
as space, shapes, textures, and colors as he forged his own modern painting style and methods that
allowed him to best express his themes. With their rough surfaces and simplified forms rendered in
concise straight lines against empty backgrounds, Park’s paintings exemplify a Korean folk aesthetic
that recalls the ceramics of the Joseon era and the traditions of changhoji window paper, the earthen
walls of thatched-roof homes, and the stone sculptures found at Buddhist temples. His work is
discussed in 20 different art textbooks in Korea today, making him a familiar figure whose paintings
are recognizable to any Korean with a compulsory education.
Park Soo Keun: The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring offers a new perspective on the work of an artist has
been previously only known through the keywords “beloved among Koreans,” “love for his neighbors,”
“good-hearted,” and “sincere.” First, the exhibition focuses on the postwar period during which Park
lived, spotlighting his achievements and resisting preconceived notions of Park as an “unfortunate”
artist suffering from economic hardship and the poor treatment of the cliquish art world. His lesserknown activities are emphasized through the addition of new archival materials and research findings
that emerged from a project supervised by the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS) between 2016
and 2018 for the publication of a catalogue raisonné of his artwork.
Before the Korean War, Park worked as a provincial office secretary and art teacher. After the war, he
began painting cheap portraits at the PX on a US military base, where he met writer Park Wansuh. At
the base, Park had to endure consistent humiliation and was forced to cast aside his dignity as an
artist, but the experience also allowed him to meet supporters who valued his work. He first gained
attention from the overseas art scene at Bando Art Gallery, Korea’s first commercial gallery in the postliberation period. In other countries, his works were presented alongside those of prominent Korean
artists in such exhibitions as Art in Asia and the West (San Francisco Museum of Art, 1957) and
Contemporary Korean Paintings (World House Galleries, New York, 1958). Park straightforwardly
represented the difficult lives of his neighbors without ignoring the harshness of the times, and his
artwork offers insight into life in Korea during the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s.
As a lens to examine the different eras of Park’s career, the exhibition adopts four main themes: “self-education,” “postwar Korean art,” “ordinary people,” and “Korean aesthetics.” It is presented in four
parts: The Boy Who Loved Millet, US Army and Exhibitions, People of Changsin-dong, and The
Naked Tree Awaiting Spring.
Part 1: The Boy Who Loved Millet allows visitors to watch the young Park Soo Keun, who aspired to
become a great artist like Jean-François Millet, grow into an artist. This section features work from
Park’s early period, from watercolors produced during his teenage years to his oil paintings of the
1950s. Also included are art books and magazines, picture postcards, and other archival materials that
Park referred to in his painting studies, offering a glimpse at the various artistic resources that he
explored while perfecting his own painting style and his sources of inspiration.
Part 2: US Army and Exhibitions presents artwork Park showed at major exhibitions, including work
that won awarded a Special Selection at the 2nd National Art Exhibition after the event’s post-Korean
War revival. Also on display are that the artist produced at the US military PX and work from his 1962
solo exhibition at the library of Seoul Area Command (SAC) in Yongsan. In particular, Part 2 offers
Park Wansuh’s novel The Naked Tree as a lens for understanding this dismal era and gaining
a new sense of appreciation for Park’s masterwork Tree and Two Women, which appears in
Part 3: People of Changsin-dong focuses on Park Soo Keun’s Seoul neighborhood of Changsin-
3 / 9
dong through artwork that renders the daily scenes of the families, neighbors, and market vendors he
encountered there. This section includes two oil paintings that were researched as a part of the recent
project to develop a catalogue raisonné of Park’s body of work. On display alongside Park’s paintings
are photographs by Han Youngsoo from the same era of the 1950s and 1960s, offering viewers a
chance to discover the greatness of an artist who portrayed Koreans with a modern sensibility
and warm perspective even as they lived through the poorest time in their history.
Part 4: The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring explores the beauty Park achieved. Throughout his life,
women and trees were among his favorite subjects. The women performing difficult labor and the bare
trees stripped of all their leaves in his paintings may indicate a kind of self-portrait limned by a
generation of Koreans who had withstood one of the coldest eras of history. This section introduces
Bando Art Gallery, where Park’s paintings gained popularity, along with some of the overseas collectors
who acquired his work. In the process, it examines the forms of beauty viewers and collectors
discovered in Park’s paintings and how he was able to appeal broadly across borders and eras.
For this exhibition, educational materials tentatively titled Artist Box have been developed as a teaching
aid to introduce Park from a new perspective. The materials will be made available to middle schools
across Korea upon the exhibition’s conclusion on 1 March 2022, and are designed for use not only in
art departments but also in interdisciplinary courses linked to other departments.
Youn Bummo, the director of the MMCA, notes, “This large-scale exhibition was developed as a
collaboration between the MMCA and the Park Soo Keun Museum in Yanggu-gun with the cooperation
of researchers, collectors, various institutions, and Park’s family. We look forward to offering a new
perspective through which viewers can reinterpret the historical environment and the art scene during
Park Soo Keun’s time.”