The Life and Work of Lee Ungno in Paris

Get to Know the artist Lee Ungno's days in Europe

By Lee Ungno Museum

At a solo exhibition held in 1958 at the Central Public Relations Office in Seoul to celebrate Lee’s move to Paris (1958)Lee Ungno Museum

In 1957, the World House Gallery in New York included two of Lee’s paintings—Sailing and Mountains—in its Korean Contemporary Art exhibition. Soon after, the two paintings were donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York through the Rockefeller Foundation. This greatly encouraged Lee to venture into the international art scene.

Ellen P. Conant and some Korean artists visiting the World House Gallery (New York) in 1957 to decide which artworks to feature in a contemporary Korean art exhibition (1957)Lee Ungno Museum

In 1958, Jacques Lassaigne, who served as the head of the French branch of the International Association of Art Critics at that time, invited Lee (who was 54 years old) to Paris.

During Lee’s Paris period (December 1958) (1958)Lee Ungno Museum

His flight to Paris to participate in an exhibition in the heart of the Western art world made the headlines of most daily newspapers in Korea.

Solo exhibition held at the Central Public Relations Office (Seoul) to celebrate Lee’s move to Paris, 1958, 1958, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Solo exhibition, 1959, 1959, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Lee Ungno and wife In-kyung Park at their joint exhibition at Seoul Museum of Art, 1959, 1959, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Solo exhibition at Musenhof Clubhouse, 1959 (1959)Lee Ungno Museum

Many artists wrote about the exhibition, Goam, Lee Ungno: Flight to France, at the public information office in Seoul for the newspapers day after day.

Lee Ungno-In-kyung Park exhibition at Seoul Museum of Art, 1959, 1959, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Dr. Richard Otto Hertz, the West German Ambassador to Korea and the man who arranged the 1959 exhibitionLee Ungno Museum

At the recommendation of Dr. Hertz, who was the West German ambassador to Korea at the time, Lee headed to Germany only a week after he arrived in Paris.

Lee at the solo exhibition held at Galerie Boisserée (Köln), 1959 (1959)Lee Ungno Museum

Many local papers reported his exhibition in the main section as the first Korean modern art exhibition in West Germany.

The Main in Frankfurt, 1959 (1959)Lee Ungno Museum

Over the next year, he traveled to three German cities - Frankfurt, Cologne, and Bonn - and held four exhibitions before once again returning to Paris.

Lee Ungno, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Lee Ungno and wife In-kyung Park in 1960 in the early stage of their sojourn in Paris, 1960, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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In Paris with Shin Moon in the 1960s (1960s)Lee Ungno Museum

In Paris with Shin Moon in the 1960s

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

1960s: Lee Ungno in Paris

After a year stay in West Germany, 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. 

Lee at a solo exhibition at Galerie Paul Facchetti, 1962 (1962)Lee Ungno Museum

First solo exhibition at Galerie Paul Facchetti (Paris), 1962

At his first solo exhibition, Lee presented collage works that he had made by hand (instead of with ink and a paintbrush) and gained great attention from the French art community and press.

Lee Ungno (third from right) at Galerie Paul Facchetti, 1962. To Lee’s left is Jacques Lassaigne, a French art historian and criticand the person who invited Lee to Paris. (1962)Lee Ungno Museum

In contrast to European collages, which were typically made by pasting geometric paper shapes on canvas, Ungno tore pages from magazines, divided them by color, and glued them together to create layers.

Lee’s first solo exhibition at Galerie Paul Facchetti (Paris), 1962 (1962)Lee Ungno Museum

After creating these layers, he then scratched them with a knife to give his work a sense of texture. Local artists praised the originality of his collages and viewed them as Asian abstract art corresponding to Art Informel in the West.

From left to right) Lee Ungno, Park In-kyeong(Lee's wife, artist), Bang Hye-ja(Korean artist), Lee Young-sé (Lee's son, artist)

Composition, Lee Ungno, 1962, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Cover of the catalogue for a private exhibition held in 1963 at Friedrich and Dahlem Gallery (Munich, Germany), 1963, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Pages from the catalogue for a private exhibition held in 1963 at Friedrich and Dahlem Gallery (Munich, Germany), 1963, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Teaching students at the Academy of Oriental Painting in Paris, 1970s (1970s)Lee Ungno Museum

1970s: Abstract letter and Académie de Peinture Orientale de Paris

After the mid-1960s, Lee developed a new form of abstract art using letters; he titled this new series 'Abstract Letters'.

Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

He opened new doors for Eastern abstract painting by incorporating the Chinese characters and calligraphy he had learned and practiced since childhood into his paintings.

Lee Ungno by Lee Young-séLee Ungno Museum

The sounds and meanings of Chinese characters which are, in essence, pictographs and abstractions of natural forms, are expressed in the form of strokes and dots.

Lee at work, 1974 (1974)Lee Ungno Museum

In the early phase of his Abstract Letter series, Lee reinterpreted modern abstract painting with a calligraphic style, combining hieroglyphic-like characters written on a planar surface with the unintentional effect of smudged ink on hanji (traditional Korean paper). In his later work, he increasingly disassembled, transformed, and reassembled the geometrical forms of the letters.

Preparing for a solo exhibition in Paris, 1972 (1972)Lee Ungno Museum

Lee focused on the abstract patterns of hangeul (the Korean alphabet) and hanja (Chinese characters), combining patterns to create numerous variations.

Composition, Lee Ungno, 1962, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Composition, Lee Ungno, 1964, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Composition, Lee Ungno, 1964, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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An Academy of Oriental Painting group photo taken in 1971 at Musée Cernuschi (1971)Lee Ungno Museum

In 1964, Lee founded the Académie de Peinture Orientale de Paris at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris, and taught local people traditional Korean painting and calligraphy.

Académie de Peinture Orientale de Paris by Lee Young-séLee Ungno Museum

V. Elisseeff, the director of Musée Cernuschi, helped Lee establish the Académie, with the support of many artists including H. Hartung, P. Soulages, Fujita, and Zao Wou-Ki.

Académie de Peinture Orientale de Paris by Lee Young-séLee Ungno Museum

As the only institute of East-Asian art in Europe, the Académie was a bridgehead for Korean art into Europe, where there was little understanding of Korean culture.

Solo exhibition at Galerie Paul Facchetti in 1971 (Collage and Painting), 1971, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Invitation for a solo exhibition at Galerie Paul Facchetti in 1971 (Collage and Painting), 1971, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Lee Ungno, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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With Ji-ho OhLee Ungno Museum

With painter Ji-ho Oh

With painter Gi-chang Kim and Kim’s wifeLee Ungno Museum

With painter Gi-chang Kim and Kim’s wife

This seemingly ordinary photo of Lee and his wife, artist Park Inkyung, contains a hidden secret.

The design on Park’s white dress is itself a work of art by Lee Ungno!
Lee used almost any everyday object available, including pots, bookshelves, and plates, as materials for his art. This dress worn by Lee’s wife is no exception! Isn’t art fascinating?

Lee Ungno, 1976 (1976)Lee Ungno Museum

In 1976, Lee opened the Goryeo Gallery as a regular venue to present the works of students of the Académie de Peinture Orientale de Paris. After Lee’s death, his widow, Park In-kyung, and their son, painter Lee Young-sé, continued to spread his teachings. To date, about 3,000 students have graduated from the Académie. In 2014, Lee’s widow and son founded the Goam Academy in Vaux-sur-Seine, on the outskirts of Paris, in a building designed by Swiss architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte.

Lee teaching his students at the Academy of Oriental Painting how to make bamboo paintings, 1980s (1980s)Lee Ungno Museum

Teaching students at the Academy of Oriental Painting, 1988. Almost all the pictures in Academy were taken by his son.(Artist Lee Young-sé)

A brush in Lee’s studio, 1980s (1980s)Lee Ungno Museum

Teaching students at the Academy of Oriental Painting, 1988 (1988)Lee Ungno Museum

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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