Discover the Masterpieces of Lee Ungno

Explore major artworks by Lee Ungno by period

By Lee Ungno Museum

Creating artwork in the early 1960s by pasting rice paper to a canvas that had been painted with a calligraphic abstract artwork and applying India ink or other materials commonly used in Eastern paintings (1960s)Lee Ungno Museum

Born in 1904 in Korea, Goam Lee Ungno (1904–1989) is a prominent figure in contemporary art history. He is largely known for his modern, abstract paintings, created using the traditional tools (brush, India ink) of Eastern painting. After moving to France in 1958, Lee Ungno developed a highly original painting style that transcended the boundaries between Eastern and Western art, as evidenced by his Abstract Letter and People series. Lee Ungno is particularly well known for establishing his own unique artistic world while living in Paris in the 1960s, a time during which the Art Informel Movement was at its peak. (Art Informel: a post-war version of abstract art that emphasized the materialistic expression of the painting tools used and the artist’s gestural techniques; prevalent in the European art community in the 1960s). Through his art, Lee constantly tried to demonstrate the infinite possibilities of the different, creative worlds that could be imagined by humankind. Learn more about Lee Ungno’s journey of artistic discovery through a chronological view of his works!

Full of life (1950s) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

1950s

In 1937, Lee Ungno went to Tokyo to study. At that time, he first witnessed the realistic expression of Western painting and started to paint landscapes in such a manner, gradually breaking away from the ideals of literati painting: Ungno employed Western shading and perspective in his painting, while still using traditional ink and brush. His landscape paintings, particularly those made after Korea’s independence from Japan, showed a distinctive style that emphasized the essence of the object by drastically leaving out details. Such a tendency was eventually developed into a semi-abstract, then abstract style, until he moved to France in 1958. 

This painting is an early example that captures Lee Ungno’s major step into abstract art.

Although it is still suggestive of specific forms such as tree branches and leaves, the painting shows the artist’s inclination to a rather subjective interpretation of natural forms, which signalled the succeeding phase of his career in which he represented the feelings aroused by an object.

In this work, Ungno abbreviated forms with his dynamic brushstrokes while infusing it with the expressive as well as illusionistic quality of an ink painting; all that characterized his semi-abstract canvas, which was the mid-point to abstract painting.

This piece abstracted the rhythmic interaction between entwined branches as cursive scripts, showing a great similarity to his late abstract paintings; however, the seal on the lower left puts this work still within the category of East Asian painting.

Pulse by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This abstract portrait of a wisteria wine was first shown at the exhibition 'Goam, Lee Ungno: before going to Paris' in 1958 in Seoul.

The improvisational brushstrokes of the painting are based on the aesthetic of cursive scripts.

The relatively descriptive form seen in the lower left indicates the subject of this painting is a wisteria wine. However, the whole canvas covered with the free movement of abstract lines.

Composition (1961) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

1960s: Lee Ungno in Paris

In 1960’s Lee Ungno settled down in Paris. In 1962, he had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Paul Facchetti, where most of the artists in Paris at that time wanted to be presented, and made an exclusive contract with the Galerie. The Galerie was one of the most significant avant-garde galleries in Paris, which introduced Art Informel and Lyrical Abstract artists and their works. In 1967, while establishing his reputation as an artist internationally, Ungno was incarcerated for getting involved in the so-called ‘East Berlin Affair’. However, he continued his practice in prison and made over 300 works of art there. The scarcity of painting materials in jail forced him to explore new medium: he drew on toilet paper with soy sauce and made models using paper and rice paste. 

Composition (1962) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This painting well presents the characteristics of the abstract paintings that Lee Ungno made during the 1960s.

In this period, he often used the colours that remind of hemp clothes dyed in natural pigments: pale and stained brown or yellow, aged purple or black. Using dark blue and pale white as its main colours, this painting creates an impression of retaining the past.

Irregular strokes, marks and dots are scattered all over the canvas while being connected to one another in an organic way.

His works made during this period tend to be suggestive of parts of natural forms, although they were not descriptive. Despite the abstract quality of this painting, the impression given of an aged gravestone covered in blue moss originates in its pale and stained colors.

Composition (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This ink painting is a relatively large example of the Abstract Letter works that Ungno made in prison. Although Goam’s main focus in the 1960s was on collage and colours, this work was painted in ink alone because of the scarcity of mediums in prison. A political prisoner, he wasn’t free to speak or write and in such a condition, art was probably his mental escape, and in particular his Abstract Letters. In fact, some parts of this work are vaguely connotative of certain situations or people; and thus, the whole canvas seems to be packed with certain stories as if Goam were writing them in his own vocabulary.

Composition (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Made in prison, the ink forms of this painting seem to originate in his Abstract Letter works otherwise the painting is extremely abstract and two-dimensional.

Korean mark : At the Daejeon Correctional Institution. November 1968.

Red, yellow and blue are applied all over the canvas as greatly softened tones, over which thin ink strokes are scattered.

The strokes do not construct any specific form, but are drawn like letters. While other Abstract Letter paintings show thick letter-like forms, this painting seems to contain complicated stories written in small letters, like an inscription on a gravestone.

Self-portrait (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This ink drawing is from the works that Ungno made while imprisoned at the An-yang Prison for his involvement in the East Berlin Affair, and ‘A cold and the hardest day at the An-yang Prison’ is inscribed in the lower right.

Self-portrait (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

It is a self-portrait, but there is no actual description of his face; it is rather an abstracted portrait of his prison life.

Self-portrait (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

The form is the result of the smudging effect of ink on hanji and thus, the unlimited gray area defines the final contours of the form.

Self-portrait (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

In the middle of the huge form is a small blank, whose boundary is also defined by the irregular trace of the ink.

Self-portrait (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Appearing to embody a light amidst a great darkness, this drawing quietly reveals the state of his mind at a moment of great trouble.

Composition (1970) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

1970s: Abstract letter

Since the mid 1960s, Goam developed a new form of abstract art using letters in a new series called ‘Abstract Letter’. He found a new potential for Eastern abstract painting in the Chinese characters and calligraphy he had learned and practiced since childhood. Lee Ungno focused on the abstract patterns of ‘hangul’ and ‘hanja’, combined the patterns to create numerous variations. 

Lee Ungno started collage with the intention of developing a European application for hanji, which was his most familiar medium.

He then included other mediums such as newspapers and cotton wool, all of which can easily be found in daily life: he tore up such materials, reassembled the fragments, divided them by color or painted them, and glued them onto his canvas.

For this work, Ungno pasted cotton wool on hanji and painted it to suggest a new meaning and medium application to the European concept of collage.

By employing elements that were alien to the conventional art medium or composition, he intended to let the medium evenly cover his canvas to create an aesthetically harmonious unity, in contrast to Western collage's intended stylistic divisions within the canvas.

Composition (1972) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This tapestry bearing a calligraphic abstract painting produced by Lee Ungno in 1972 was made in 2008 by Mobilier National, a French national service agency under the supervision of the French Ministry of Culture, at the commission of the Metropolitan Government of Daejeon.

This tapestry is widely regarded as a fine piece of art that perfectly combines the artistic excellence of Lee Ungno with the top-quality weaving technique of the French agency.

Composition (1971) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

In the 1970s, Lee Ungno experimented with various ways to collage mediums of different natures. This work shows cotton wool cut into various forms and collaged onto a fabric. Unlike paper collage, the cotton wool pieces make a low relief-like impression, creating a great physicality on a two-dimensional plane.

Here, Lee Ungno attached white cotton wool pieces to a white background; the shapes of the cotton wool pieces are revealed through their thickness, rather than through any colour contrast. This gives a new dimension to collage, in style as well as meaning, which Ungno developed while practicing the European concept of collage, which had been actively explored since the 1910s.

Composition (1972) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

A great example of the constructive Abstract Letter works that Lee Ungno made in the 1970s, this painting represents the Chinese character 壽 (soo), meaning ‘life’.

The solid construction of the letter strokes is different to the distinctive gestural brushstrokes of his calligraphic Abstract Letter paintings. Ungno cut paper with different textures into the shapes of the letter strokes, glued them onto hanji and drew the outlines of the shapes with ink.

In Western art practice, collage was intended to portray reality and therefore, in any mediums, from posters to newspapers, it creates a great tension between its different functions as an indication of reality and as an aesthetic component of an artwork;

whereas whatever the medium, Ungno’s collage functions as a sheer artistic element.

In this work, even the thick strands from the edge of the background paper and the coarse particles seen in the letterform contribute to the artistic construction of the work.

Composition (1978) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Lee Ungno produced a lot of print works that were connected with his Abstract Letter or People series in content, while showing diverse textural expressions.

This work among those stands out with its round shape full of different angular figures, calling up Mesopotamian cuneiform. They are mostly geometric forms but if we look at them closely, we see they are also human or bird-like figures: the repetition of such forms conjures up prehistoric rock engravings while the repetition of lines reminds us of the hexagrams of the I Ching.

This work, whose canvas is constructed with forms seemingly developed from multiple origins, employs Western print making technique; but on the other hand, it is linked to traditional seal carving. The image of this woodcut was used for his solo exhibition poster at the Galerie Koryo in Paris in 1978.

People (1989) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

1980s: People series 

At the heart of Goam’s art, there are people: before his flight to Paris, people appeared in his realistic landscape paintings; in the 1960s’ abstract paintings, human figures were in a semi-abstract form; in the '70s, people were expressed like letters. His affection towards people remained constantly. His People series started in the late 1970s and continued until his death. His early People works tended to be more geometrically simplified and decorative, and had developed from the schematic style of the late Abstract Letter work. On the other hand, later People works featured countless human figures rendered in his brush strokes as if Goam was writing letters on paper, covering its entire surface. The salient feature of the People series is the repetition of a single brush stroke, which represents a man. The power of Goam’s unworldly brush strokes gives breath to the human figures. In this sense, his People series can be regarded as the climax of the art of Goam, in which his perspective on art and life are greatly reflected.

People (1988) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

A large group of people are heading somewhere, loosely zigzagging in the painting.

The vertically long canvas creates a perspective, in which the lower one looks, the closer the distance is to the viewers: such a perspective is emphasized by the way Ungno renders human figures as larger in the lower portion than those in the upper.

The painting uses traditional mediums such as ink and hanji, and gives a bird’s eye-view, a perspective commonly used in East Asian paintings, while showing its modernity in the way it represents a wide view only with simplified human forms.

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