The Life and Work of Lee Ungno - While in prison

Get to Know the artist Lee Ungno when he was in prision

By Lee Ungno Museum

During The East Berlin Affair in 1967 (1967)Lee Ungno Museum

In 1967, while establishing his reputation as an international artist, Lee was incarcerated for his involvement in the so-called “East Berlin Affair.”

Composition (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

For an artist, especially Lee Ungno, nothing is more frustrating than being denied the opportunity to engage in artistic activity. After becoming accustomed to the prison environment, Lee sought materials with which he could create works of art. For example, he used soy sauce and toilet paper to make drawings and cooked rice for molding. Even during his imprisonment, Lee remained active and created over 300 pieces of artwork while behind bars.

Composition (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Even during his imprisonment, Lee remained active and created over 300 pieces of artwork while behind bars.

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.

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

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.

In the middle of the huge form is a small blank, whose boundary is also defined by the irregular trace of the ink. 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 (1967) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Of 300 paintings created in prision, those produced in 1967, the year he was imprisoned, feature disorderly, fragmented, and entangled lines and forms, as if reflecting the confusion the artist faced at the time, in sharp contrast with his earlier works of calligraphic abstraction marked by delightful harmony and order. Whereas the later phase of his prison life was comparatively comfortable, with prison officers who, knowing that Lee was an internationally renowned artist, provided him with the materials he needed to continue engaging in artistic creation, his early days in prison were days of hardship. Despite his horrible situation, Lee Ungno strived to express his artistic inspiration with whatever materials he could find around him. In this painting, the artist applied white pigment to yellow paper to create forms by painting the space outside the forms he wanted to reveal to the viewer. The wildly rough lines filling the entire space and unidentifiable and confusing forms seem to express the difficult situation into which the artist was thrust at the time the artwork was produced.

In this painting, the artist applied white pigment to yellow paper to create forms by painting the space outside the forms he wanted to reveal to the viewer. The wildly rough lines filling the entire space and unidentifiable and confusing forms seem to express the difficult situation into which the artist was thrust at the time the artwork was produced.

Composition (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This work of calligraphic abstraction was created using ink, mulberry paper, and soy sauce, which Lee applied around the abstract calligraphic script.

Unlike ink, which is black, soy sauce creates a brown color on paper, and as it is much thinner than ink, it must be applied repeatedly.

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.

‘At the Daejeon Prison’

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