Painter who Expressed Simple, Modest Beauty of Common Folks
A painting portrays six women sitting beside a stream. Among them, one wears a white towel around her head and another woman is in black rubber shoes. Sitting together in a cluster or alone, the women are washing by the side of a stream. It is always heartwarming to see this painting, entitled “The Washing Place,” drawn by Park Su-geun, an artist of Western-style paintings. This work of art is currently the most expensive in Korea. The simple and unpretentious beauty of ordinary people is well expressed in the works of this painter, who represents Korean modern art. Let’s trace this artist’s life.
Park’s paintings are quite expensive now. But when he alive, he was very poor, as is often the case with artists. Park Su-geun was born in Yanggu, Gangwon Province in February 1914. He was a third-generation only son in a wealthy family. But his family became worse off when he was seven years old, as his father failed in a mining business. He entered elementary school but he couldn’t go to junior high school because his family continued to suffer financial difficulties. The boy, who was fond of drawing pictures, had dreamed of going to an art school in Japan after attending junior high school. But he had to give up on his dream.
In 1932, when he was 18 years old, Park won a prize with his painting for the first time. It was a watercolor painting titled, “Spring has Come.” His father didn’t like his son’s habit of drawing pictures, but the prize melted his heart. Park continued painting pictures even while doing physical labor on construction sites. Afterwards, he received prizes in art contests every year.
Gaining Recognition Outside the Country
Park married Kim Bok-soon in February 1939 after many years of dating. He was still poor, but he was able to continue to pursue art, thanks to his wife’s support and consideration.
When the nation was in a state of war in the early 1950s, he found it difficult to sell his pictures. Fortunately, an artist who was acquainted with Park helped him work at a portrait stall on a U.S. army base. By drawing portraits, Park was able to earn money to buy a house.
But as an artist, his emotional distress only deepened. He was frustrated with the reality where he couldn’t draw what he believed to be true paintings. Park used a living room of his new house as a studio and concentrated on drawing pictures there. His works of art began to attract the attention of foreigners, including American soldiers.
His painting won a prize at the National Art Exhibition in May 1956 and he also exhibited his works at a new gallery in Bando hotel. The following year, he submitted one of his masterworks “Three Women” to the National Art Exhibition. Unfortunately, it was not accepted. Park got the attention of foreign art lovers and gained recognition as an excellent painter, but he failed to get a foothold in the domestic art community.
In fact, Park’s works were not given due recognition in Korea during his lifetime. Some wealthy Western people purchased his paintings as they recognized him as the most Korean-style artist. That’s why most of his works produced around the 1960s belong to foreigners now.
Park submitted his work to an art exhibition in San Francisco in the U.S. in 1958. That year, he stayed away from the National Art Exhibition in Korea. This embarrassed the officials of the exhibition, and they later selected Park as a recommended artist. Several years later, they belatedly appointed him as a member of the screening committee.
Portraying Lives of Korean People with Originality
Park’s paintings merit attention because of their great originality. Park didn’t take any regular art course in Japan or Europe. He didn’t learn from any senior artists, either. This is believed to have greatly influenced his breathtaking originality. Unfortunately, he died of liver cirrhosis at the age of 51. If he had continued engaging in art activities, he would have created another new world of art. Indeed, many lamented over the early death of the great artist.
While other painters his age served as judges of the National Art Exhibition based on their experiences studying abroad, they judged and eventually rejected Park’s work. But today, his works are valued far more highly than those of the artists who once judged him.
Park drew attention outside Korea first, rather than in his home country. As one of the most beloved Korean artists, Park fully expressed the lives of common folks in his works. His life gives hope to many other artists who are devoting themselves to art activities even in difficult conditions at this very moment.