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[Lee Kyong-hee] An artist’s life -- checkered and forgotten

The nation is at war. The war is raging on two major fronts. One is against the invisible coronavirus. The other, much older and deep-seated, divides the country, so accustomed to politicizing and ideologizing along unclear lines of right and left, or conservatives and progressives.

In a situation like this, it must seem insensitive, or even like a luxury, to discuss art or an artist’s life. However, I was attracted to one particular art exhibition devoted to Pai Un-soung. Pai occupies a significant position in modern Korean art history as the first Korean art student in Europe. But in the South, he also carries the double stigma of “pro-Japanese collaborator” and “defector to North Korea.” Ironically, the North ended up ostracizing him as well.

The artist was largely forgotten outside of art circles until 1999, when Jeon Chang-gon, a doctorate candidate and part-time art collector in Paris, discovered and purchased 48 Pai paintings through local art dealers. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art introduced the paintings to South Koreans in 2001 and all but one, which was undergoing preservation work, appeared at Woong Gallery in Seoul last month in an exhibition titled “The Modern Era Opens.”

The mostly oil paintings along with a handful of woodprints and drawings transport viewers almost a century back to Berlin, Paris and Prague. There are portraits of Westerners and Japanese, but the majority of the pieces explore Korean themes and motifs. Uniquely, some paintings are unfinished, with partial coloring and rough sketches exposed.

Pai fled Paris in June 1940, just days before German troops marched into the city, leaving behind his German wife, their little daughter and 167 paintings. Several weeks later, he boarded a Japanese ocean liner alone in Bordeaux and headed to Japan, from where he traveled on to Korea. Thus he returned home to Seoul, 18 years after he left for Germany to continue his studies in economics.

Back in the 1920s, studying in Europe wasn’t anything that an average young Korean man could dream of, not to mention the son of a bankrupt craft shop owner who had died years before. Instead, many sons, and a handful of daughters, of rich families went to Japan to study. That was how Pai first went to Tokyo to study economics at Waseda University, and then to Berlin. On both trips he accompanied a son of his patron as an older friend and caretaker. Through his secondary school years, he had lived in the wealthy man’s household as a butler.

On their way to Berlin, the two young men landed in Marseille. There, Pai visited an art museum, which changed the course of his life forever. He recalled later, “The atmosphere of the small museum stimulated the quest for arts lying dormant in me, arousing my ambition or instinct for arts, or whatever it was, for the first time. I can never forget that day in Marseille.”

In Berlin, he studied under Hugo Mieth, a German genre painter who had learned his craft in Paris. In 1925, after training at a small private art school, Pai enrolled at the Unified State Schools for Free and Applied Arts as a student of Ferdinand Spiegel. Around that time, his patron’s son became sick and returned to Korea. Pai remained in Berlin alone, studying and getting by on his own.

It was the “Golden Twenties, the boom years of German modernism,” as San Francisco-based Korean studies scholar Frank Hoffmann wrote in “Berlin Koreans and Pictured Koreans,” the first volume of the three-part work “Koreans and Central Europeans: Informal Contacts up to 1950” (Vienna: Praesens Verlag, 2015). “Some of his old German and Korean friends described Pai as a polite, charming, somewhat self-centered but charismatic man. Yet he was someone without political ambition or interest in any ideologies whatsoever, who was simply struggling to muddle through.”

The 1930s saw Pai acquire fame in the European art communities by having his works accepted in major exhibitions and winning awards in international competitions. He held solo exhibitions in prestigious venues like the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery in Berlin, the Palm House in Vienna and Galerie Charpentier in Paris. His two exhibitions in Czechoslovakia, one in Prague and the other in Brno, received media attention, though his effort to harmonize the artistic traditions of Asia and Europe won few accolades. Nevertheless, Pai’s high profile attracted the support of Japanese embassies and friendship associations.

Back in Korea, Pai joined a wartime art organization serving Japan’s Pacific War propaganda and worked as an illustrator and theater stage designer. After Korea’s liberation in 1945, he became the first dean of the fine arts department of Hongik University and worked at the vanguard of the nation’s fledgling art education. In the meantime, he remarried a Korean who was a communist supporter.

During the Korean War, as North Korean troops retreated from Seoul in September 1950, Pai left for the North with his wife and two children. He probably had no other choice, considering his wife’s political activities and his collaboration with the pro-communist Korean Art Alliance. Little is known about his life in the North, except that he taught at Pyongyang University of Fine Arts. He was supposedly banished to Sinuiju, on the Korea-China border, in the early 1960s, due to his contact with foreigners, and lived there until his death in 1978.

What did he think looking back on his life in the border city far from Pyongyang? This is a haunting question that lingers.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts, published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.