The Life and Work of Lee Ungno - His Early Years

Get to Know the artist Lee Ungno's early days

Lee Ungno in his 20s (1924/1933)Lee Ungno Museum

Born in 1904 in Hongseong, Korea, Lee Ungno liked to paint ever since he was a child. He dreamed of becoming a painter and received traditional instruction in Chinese and calligraphy at Seodang. In 1933, Lee adopted the nom-de-plume of “Goam” (顧菴), which replaced his former nickname of “Juk-sa” (竹史) given to him by his mentor, Haegang (Kim Gyu-jin). In 1923, when Lee was 19 years old, he moved to Seoul with the dream of becoming a skilled calligraphist and painter.

Lee’s teacher, Kyu-jin KimLee Ungno Museum

He practiced literary painting under the instruction of Kim Gyu-jin, a master of traditional bamboo painting. “Literary painting” is an inclusive term that refers to all paintings that depict the spirit of the traditional Korean scholar-literati (who did not create paintings as a means of earning a living) and their advanced level of learning. In terms of technique, literary paintings begin with a simple sketch in India ink, followed by a very light-handed application of colored paint. These paintings typically depict the inner world of the artist, instead of focusing on the detailed representation of actual objects.

Lee Ungno in his 20s (Lee Ungno in his 20s)Lee Ungno Museum

In 1924, Lee’s bamboo painting, Cheong-juk, was selected for the 3rd Chosun Art Exposition. This event marked Lee’s official debut in the art world. In the years that followed, Lee began to focus on developing his own painting style. In 1931, another of Lee’s bamboo paintings of the same name (Cheong-juk) won the grand prize at the 10th Chosun Art Exposition, further establishing Lee’s name in the art world.

Bamboo (1978) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Bamboo remained one of Lee Ungno's most familiar subject matters throughout his entire career—from his first steps as a painter to his development of his own style and his explorations of Western abstract art in Paris. Bamboo was like one of Lee Ungno’s lifelong friends and became a symbol of his art.

Lee Ungno in the 1930s (1930s)Lee Ungno Museum

In 1935, Lee went to Tokyo to study. Having first learned traditional painting at the Kawabata Art School and Western painting at Hon-go Painting Institute, he was accepted as a pupil of Matsubayasi Keigetsu, master of the Japanese Southern School of Painting.

Lee Ungno in his 30s (Lee Ungno in his 30s)Lee Ungno Museum

In Tokyo, Lee was exposed to the realistic expression of Western painting for the first time, and he started to paint landscapes in a similar manner, gradually breaking away from the ideals of literati painting.

Lee Ungno in his 40s (circa 1945) (1945)Lee Ungno Museum

As part of his new painting style, Lee employed Western shading and perspective, while still using traditional ink and brushes. His landscape paintings, particularly those made after Korea regained its independence from Japan, showed a distinctive style that emphasized the essence of the object by boldly leaving out details. He eventually developed this style into a semi-abstract, and then abstract style, until he moved to France in 1958. In 1945, Lee established the Dan-gu Art Academy together with artists Jang-woo, Bae-ryum, and Kim Young-ki, who had returned to Seoul from Japan in pursuit of traditional Korean painting, breaking away from Japanese influences. Lee also opened the Goam Art Studio in Namsan, Seoul, and began to teach young students there. Between 1948 and 1950, he was a professor of the fine arts department at Hong-ik University.

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