Lee Ungno, the man of the crowds
Wednesday September 20, 2017: Lee Ungno, the man of the crowds, conference visit by Maël Bellec, curator at the Cernuschi museum.
Lee Ungno is considered today as one of the great masters of traditional 20 ink paintingst s. He was well known in the 1970s and 1980s but has been somewhat forgotten since. The purpose of the exhibition, now that his rehabilitation has been done in Korea, is to collect the memories he left in France. The Cernuschi Museum, which has always been close to the family (works by his wife Park-In-kyung and his son Lee Young-Sé are exhibited in parallel at the museum), has XNUMX works by Lee Ungno (the fund most important outside Korea).
Lee Ungno was born in 1904 in Korea, began his career in the 1920 years and had his first success in 1924 when he won a prize at the Seonjeon Salon and others after in the thirties.
The “Desolate Landscape” was painted in 1942 while he was living in Japan to modernize his style. The cavalier perspective view and the meticulous treatment of the vegetation are very much influenced by what was done in Japan at the time, with an echo of Impressionist art.
After Korea's liberation in 1945, the question for Korean artists is to find a way that is truly Korean and no longer subservient to Japan.
The works of Lee Ungno, in the 1950 years, represent the Korean daily life and, abandoning the muted colors, he paints with bright colors and nervous features. The popular verve that emanates from his painting sometimes takes a caricatural turn as in the Old man and bird »Or« Monkey party ". Little by little his works will evolve towards almost abstract forms; the subject will practically disappear behind nervous and powerful features as in " Hyangwon Pavilion From 1956. Considering that he had gone as far as possible in his art, he decided to come to the West and managed to come to Germany in 1958 and exhibited in Kassel in 1959. " Composition ", From 1962, testifies to its evolution towards abstraction.
The discovery of the reliefs and materials of Western paintings that he knew only through photography led him to experiment with new techniques. Printed, scraped, crumpled, partially torn or stuck papers, as in " A man "From 1959, refer to the work of Dubuffet which he will remain a fervent admirer.
At the end of 1959, he decides to come to Paris and settle there. The teaching habit (he taught in Korea) and the interest generated by the demonstrations he made in Germany led him to create, in 1964, the Academy of Oriental painting that meets the expectations of the public but also Western artistic circles which are inspired by calligraphy (Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) and lyrical abstraction, etc.). The patronage committee of the Academy brings together personalities such as Hans Hartung (1904-1989), Pierre Soulages (born in 1919), the art critic Jacques Lassaigne (1911-1983), Vadime Elisseeff (1918-2002) who is then director of the Cernuschi museum, but also oriental painters like Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Fujita Tsuguharu (1886-1968), Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013 and Zhou Lin (1915-1970). Academy was perpetuated by his wife and son and, from 1971, some courses will be regularly given at the Cernuschi museum.
The majority of the exhibited works were made at the museum as part of the Academy and given in 1982. If the subjects are traditional (plants, fish, birds, monkeys, etc.) the style is personal. Throughout his teaching, Lee Ungno insists on the mastery of the brush, the ink, the paper, the line, the composition and the way of occupying the space that disperses the subjects. He encourages his students to draw inspiration from the physical world but also to interpret it.
Lee Ungno has never broken with the tradition of calligraphy and throughout his career he maintains and develops a style of his own, including abstraction. An example of this research is a 1959 calligraphy on the sign "to give birth" or "to produce" whose upper part is transformed into a character. He also works on archaic characters that can be found on turtle shells or on bronzes and uses and transforms them to create abstract works. These calligraphies give the illusion of signs or characters but are totally illegible. Certain calligraphies produced during his imprisonment in South Korea (1967-1969) present political slogans for the reunification of the two Koreas but are very difficult to decipher. He masters Chinese characters perfectly but will distort and paste them to obtain an aesthetic effect, so that, in the calligraphy of a Chinese poem (1977), he rewrites the text on the left in a legible way.
Bamboo painting is part of the repertoire of traditional literary painting and Lee Ungno will paint it throughout his life but his style will evolve with the years. During the first ten years of his career he will paint mainly bamboos and it is a bamboo painting that earned him his first prize in 1924. Bamboo, in Chinese painting, is charged with a very strong symbolism signifying the integrity and humility of the scholar and his ability to resist the arbitrariness of power. The incarceration of the artist will reactivate his interest in bamboo painting.
In the 'Ccomposition " made in the 1960 years, the echo of archaic calligraphy is still present and a work by 1966 even evokes the shape of the turtle shell. The signs stand out in reserve on a dark background as in stamping stelae. To achieve this effect, the artist first painted the characters with diluted fish glue, which became transparent as it dried. He then painted the surface with ink or color. The fish glue protected the paper that remained white and the characters appeared in reserve on the bottom.
In the 1970 years, the work of Lee Ungno is a continuation of the previous decade because we still find the calligraphy but interpreted in a different way. It uses tinted Korean papers and patterns are outlined in black or white.
Some works evoke the characters of Korean writing but even more schematically and he uses the technique of crumpling and collage to obtain relief effects. He could slip vegetable fibers between two sheets of paper to give a material effect. All his work is based on the observation of nature and the ripples of water are punctuated by collages and the use of colors in " Water " (1973). Very interested in the art of Latin America he will also use bright colors as in " Waves " (1973).
However, he will not stop painting landscapes according to traditional techniques and a return to the sources seems to take place in the 1980 years with many works executed in ink, playing with solid colors and ink, without contours. , to evoke landscapes of literate inspiration but in a minimalist mode, almost abstract.
In 1980, an uprising in the city of Gwangju causing a lot of deaths is going to be the trigger of the series of crowds and it will be for him a way to participate in the peace movement. Human figures animated by various gestures are dynamically arranged in the compositions in order to give an impression of movement to the figurative crowd. It can be a dance dynamic like in " Crowd ” (1983) where the characters seem to dance holding hands to form a long procession vertically arranged or, as in " Crowd ” (1988), where horizontally grouped silhouettes perform different steps as frenzy seizures. All this work on crowds accompanies the process of democratization of South Korea and finally an exhibition of his works is organized in January 1989 in Seoul a few days before his death. While his works had not been visible for a very long time in Korea, he became the symbol of the democratization of the country and his family focused on spreading his works there. He is now completely rehabilitated and recognized as one of the major artists of 20st s. and one of the founders of Korean contemporary art.
Parallel to his work as a painter, Lee Ungno explores other areas such as sculpture or collaborates with Baccarat, Sèvres, the manufactures of Beauvais and La Savonnerie. The Monnaie de Paris produces medals and round bumps from models in plaster or wood.
In the years 1970-1980, Lee Ungno had almost an official artist status in France. It is all this work with institutions and dialogue with other European artists that has been somewhat forgotten. The exhibition at the Cernuschi Museum wishes to recall the importance of this artist in French and Korean art.