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 JoongSeop Lee  (1916 - 1956)

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Lived/Active: South Korea/North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)      Known for: tortured-seeming figure and animal painting

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Ad Code: 2
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Lee Jungseop--art and man--has been a standard bearer of Korean post-colonialism for fifty years. Dead at forty after acute personal struggles, he is the stuff of legend, but his art has stood the test of time, communing with a poignant past as a modern spirit.

Fighting or fuming bulls are Lee's metaphor for resolve in the face of obstacle. He is said to have been inspired by the animated wall paintings of swirling dragons and beasts in the Goguryeo royal tombs of the mid-sixth century. He was a great admirer of the work of Georges Rouault, which he encountered at art school in Japan in the 1930s. In one of his paintings, the bulls are facing off so furiously they appear as one mass of energy emitting pink sparks from a pulsating blur of black, pink and white strokes.

After ten years in Japan, Lee returned to Korea in 1944, soon to be joined by Yamamoto Masako, whom he married the next year against the reservations of both families. His plan to study in France was curtailed by his elder brother, now head of the family and a successful businessman in Wonson, north Korea, who disapproved. The couple settled in Wonson, where Lee started as an art instructor, resigning because it interfered with his painting. Their first child died of diphtheria just after birth. With his Japanese wife, bourgeois brother (later imprisoned and reported "officially missing") and suspect career as an artist, Lee was closely watched by the Soviet-backed authorities.

The turmoil of the Korean War pushed the Lee family, like most of the nation, into circumstances requiring immense sacrifice and fortitude. Internal refugees, they first settled in Busan, then on Jeju Island off the southern coast. Without a steady job and earning nothing from his art, Lee was desperate to provide for his wife and two sons. Because of their poor health, Lee was eventually able to convince Masako to move with the children to a camp for Japanese in Busan, from which they sailed for Japan soon afterward.

Lee persisted with his painting, on sheets of paper or board, when he could afford them, or on the silver squares lining boxes of cigarettes. His letters and postcards to his family that he embellished with charming drawings do not betray the melancholy that was beginning to engulf him away from them. He managed a five-day reunion with his family in Tokyo in 1953 but was denied further visas. The Bulls series dates to that period, when he lived as a boarder in a thatched-roof house that is now on the grounds of the Lee Jung Seop Museum in Seogwipo city on Jeju.

Lee attempted to raise money by means of an exhibition he mounted in 1955. Though his work was well received, paying collectors were scarce. Depressions gave way to longer breakdowns compounded by malnutrition and cirrhosis of the liver.

Lee Jungseop died alone in the Red Cross Hospital in 1956. His friend the poet Lee Chunsu describes the artist in those lonely but productive years as darker than the ocean, yearning for his family across the sea.
Christie's Auction Records

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