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[Lee Kyong-hee] Tracking the dreams of modern writers and artists

Abject poverty shrouded Korea in the 1930s and ’40s, but writers and artists persevered. Their dreams never succumbed to colonial oppression and destitution. In fact, they thrived, assisted by friends and colleagues. Vibrant communication and creation overcame manifold obstacles.

This is the core message of “Encounters between Korean Art and Literature in the Modern Age,” currently underway at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Deoksu Palace. The message obviously resonates. A steady stream of visitors has been flocking to the exhibition, despite inconveniences due to social distancing.

Indeed, as the exhibition has meticulously brought to light, the ostensibly dark era gleamed with ardent pursuits of art and literature. The paintings, photographs, magazines, books and newspaper pages on display transport visitors to those gloomy days when writers and artists shared their thoughts and talents as if such interactions gave them sustenance.

The modern art scene of Seoul also embraced overseas trends in its own dynamic way -- especially those from Paris, albeit via Tokyo. Jean Cocteau and Rene Clair were adored as icons of modernism. But traveling to Europe was a mere dream for most Koreans at the time; writers and artists were no exception.

Since they could hardly earn a livelihood from their creative activities, they supported themselves and their families as editors and illustrators at newspapers and magazines. There they interacted vigorously, collaborating and encouraging one another.

Newspapers published novels in the form of daily serials, each segment spiced up with an impressive illustration. Magazines ran poems and anecdotal essays along with drawings, and magazine and book covers were often memorable works by famous artists. Behind such couplings were specific writer-artist duos.

The exhibition highlights several notable duos. Among them are poet and novelist Yi Sang (1910-1937) and painter Ku Bon-ung (1906-1953); novelist Yi Tae-jun (1904-1960s?) and painter and art critic Kim Yong-jun (1904-1967); and poet Paek Seok (1912-1996) and painter Chong Hyon-ung (1910-1976).

Yi Sang and Ku Bon-ung are probably the best known today for their friendship. Yi initially was an architect and briefly worked for the Japanese government-general. But he originally wanted to be a painter and had enough skills to illustrate his own novels and those of his friends, including Park Tae-won’s autobiographical novelette, “A Day in the Life of Novelist Gubo,” when it was serialized in the Joseon Jungang Ilbo.

Yi opened the teahouse “Jebi” (Swallow) in Jongno in 1933. There he hung paintings by his childhood friend Ku Bon-ung, who absorbed Fauvism while studying in Tokyo, and played classical Western music. The teahouse was a favorite hangout of writers and artists, but financial woes forced it to shut down in 1935. Two years later Yi died of tuberculosis, at the age of 27.

The social turmoil and ideological division after national liberation in 1945 produced many unlikely casualties in the art and literary circles. They became vulnerable as soon as they decided not to avoid politics. All of the other four aforementioned writers and artists ended up in North Korea, three of them by crossing the 38th parallel during the turbulent years between liberation and the Korean War.

Yi Tae-jun and Kim Yong-jun, who were of the same age and close friends since their student days in Tokyo, met a tragic fate in the North as they failed to adapt to its system.

When Yi and his family unexpectedly left their home in Seongbuk-dong, then in the northeastern outskirts of Seoul, and crossed over to the North in the summer of 1946, many wondered why. Yi had clearly distanced himself from the proletarian literary movement during the colonial period and then from the post-liberation ideological conflict as well. Orphaned at a young age after his parents went into exile in Vladivostok, he never involved himself in pro-Japanese activities, either.

A recognized literary stylist and master of the short story, nicknamed the “Maupassant of Korea,” the self-made writer was distinguished for his simple yet elegant prose style with its vaguely melancholic atmosphere. His contemplative style was seen to suggest his inner maturity attained by withstanding a life of many constraints.

At the time, like many others who risked their lives to cross the border, Yi would not have known that his decision would lead to irreversible events. How could he foresee that there would be a bloody civil war and his homeland would remain divided seven decades thereafter? How could he know that his name would be erased from history in the South, his works banned and forgotten, until the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, and that he would lose favor with North Korean rulers and be exiled so quickly, his works equally unpublished on the other side of the border, and he would have to give up writing permanently?

In 1950, during the first phase of the Korean War, Yi returned to the South as the North’s war correspondent. Kim Yong-jun and Park Tae-won, both his friends and his neighbors, followed Yi back to the North as the war shifted in the South’s favor.

Yi presumably worked at a printing shop and spent his last years in a mining town. His final whereabouts and date of death remain unknown. Kim Yong-jun is rumored to have committed suicide in 1967, when he faced persecution for mishandling a newspaper carrying a photograph of Kim Il-sung while selling recyclables. Park Tae-jun was purged and prohibited from writing in 1956, but was reinstated in 1960 to write mostly historical novels until his death in 1986.

In hindsight, one wishes that these men had made different choices and remained in the South so they would not put themselves and their families in danger and dishonor, let alone waste their professional expertise. But, looking back, they shared the vision of a new world with many artists and intellectuals at home and abroad who harbored hopes in socialist ideals. It’s only that their dreams didn’t come true.

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.