5 Things to Know about Lee Ungno

Lee Ungno by Lee Young-séLee Ungno Museum

Lee Ungno was one of the Korean modern masters and his commitment to his work was unstoppable. He continued to make work right up into his eighties developing his own unique world of art, no matter what challenges he faced, including finding ways to create art in prison out of any material he could get his hands on.

Bamboo (1978) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

1. Embraced the East and West, and tradition and modernity

Most people know Lee Ungno for his abstract paintings. However, he started his career as a calligrapher painting Sagunja or the Four Gracious Plants (Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum and Bamboo). He was even called ‘Jooksa’ which means calligrapher for Bamboo. Studying traditional calligraphy and paintings inspired him to adopt contemporary art in his unique style. 

Composition (1972) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

2. Transcended boundaries between different genres

He was an artist who wasn’t insistent on a single genre, but rather he freely went between various genres.  He always sought something new and continued artistic experiments. We called him ‘a magician of various genre’ or ‘multidisciplinary artist’.

Composition (1980) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

3. To him, everything in the world was materials for art

To Lee Ungno, Hanji(Korean traditional paper), fabric, cotton wool, newspaper, ceramic, rotten wood, stone and etc. were all sources of art. He used everything he could get in his hands. He drew a picture even in heels of shoes and created sculpture using closets or tables.

People (1986) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

4. Age was just a number to Lee Ungno

Most of his representative works were created after 1959 or when he was 54 years old living in Europe. ‘Abstract letter’ was created in his 50s and 60s and the ‘People’ series was created in his 70s and 80s.

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

5. Art was his whole life

He was an artist full of passion. Art was his whole life. Ever since he started learning painting in his teens, he devoted his life to art. He didn’t stop working on art even when he was in prison  for two and a half years for getting embroiled in a political scandal. He developed his world of art using things he could get such as soy sauce and rice pastes and produced a number of works. It is told that even prison officers were impressed by him and gave him papers.

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

He didn’t give into what was given to him, but he rather strived for a better life. He was born in a wealthless family but he continued to submit his works to the Joseon Art Fair, while working at a sign shop to make ends meet over many years. During his 30s when he was in Japan, he managed to continue his work by delivering newspapers. He went through an ordeal getting embroiled in a political scandal in his 60s and 70s, but he never gave up and expressed it in art. The course of life never did run smoothly just as it is for most people, but Lee Ungno never stopped fighting challenges. 

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