The Life and Work of Lee Ungno

Get to Know the artist Lee Ungno

By Lee Ungno Museum

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

1904-1957: His early years 

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 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.

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

1958-1959: Flight to Paris

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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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.” However, 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

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, Lee Ungno, 1968, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Composition, Lee Ungno, 1968, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Composition (1968) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

This painting shows one example of the Abstract Letter paintings that he made in prison using ink on hanji and then painting over the canvas with soy sauce as if testifying to his imprisonment. Unlike ink, soy sauce is not a proper pigment and thus, its colour is brownish rather than black when it is put on paper; as it is not rich enough to make a long spread, the canvas shows several marks where he had to resume the application of the soy sauce at each moment.

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.

People (1986) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

1980s: People series

People stand at the heart of Lee’s artworks; before Lee’s flight to Paris, people appeared in his realistic landscape paintings; in his abstract paintings from the 1960s, human figures appeared in semi-abstract forms; in the 1970s, Lee expressed people as letters. Despite these changes in style, Lee remained constant in his love for people. 

People (1988) by Lee UngnoLee Ungno Museum

Lee Ungno began his People series in the late 1970s and continued it up until his death.

His earlier works in the People series were more geometrically simplified and decorative, and had developed from the schematic style of his later Abstract Letter paintings.

Lee at work, 1981 (1981)Lee Ungno Museum

His later works in the 'People' series feature countless human figures rendered using brushstrokes; the figures seem as if they were created by Lee writing letters on a piece of paper, covering the entire page.

Lee Ungno (1980s)Lee Ungno Museum

The most salient feature of Lee’s People series is the repetition of a single brushstroke, which represents a man.

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

The power of Lee’s otherworldly brushstrokes gives breath to his human figures.

At work, 1984 (1984)Lee Ungno Museum

In this sense, Lee’s People series can be regarded as the pinnacle of his artwork, in which his perspective on art and life are greatly reflected.

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)

Catalogue for the 14th Peopleexhibition held at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, 1986, 1986, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Teaching students at the Academy of Oriental Painting, 1988, 1988, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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In front of his studio in Pré Saint-Gervais (France), late 1980s, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Tomb of Lee Ungno in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (a cemetery that houses the tombs of various world-renowned artists)Lee Ungno Museum

1989 and after: Lee Ungno laid to rest in Paris  

Lee Ungno died in Paris in 1989. In the same year, the Hoam Museum hosted a large-scale exhibition of his art. His body is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, alongside numerous great artists. After his death, a number of galleries, including the Musée Cernuschi in Paris, Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan, and the Asahi Gallery in Tokyo, held exhibitions to honor his life and work.

Lee’s studio in Pré Saint-Gervais, 1980s: The wall still bears the traces of a wall painting done by Lee (1980s)Lee Ungno Museum

Lee’s works are internationally collected by a great number of galleries in France, Italy, the U.K, Switzerland, Denmark, Thailand, Japan, and the U.S.A, including MoMA in New York and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Paris.

Catalogue for a commemorative exhibition held for Lee Ungno in 1989 at Musée Cernuschi (1989)Lee Ungno Museum

And after...

In 1992, a traditional Korean house, Goam Seo-bang, was established in Vaux-sur-Seine. Lee Ungno Museum was opened in Seoul in 2000 and the museum was opened in Daejeon in 2007. The Daejeon Goam Art and Culture Foundation was inaugurated in 2012. Lee Ungno Museum and Cernuschi Museum in Paris was signed MOU in 2013. Lee Ungno Atelier was opened in 2014 and the new Lee Ungno Collection storage facility was established in 2016. 

Goam Seobang, a traditional Korean tile-roofed house located on the outskirts of Paris, surrounded by pine trees, From the collection of: Lee Ungno Museum
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Lee Ungno and wife In-kyung ParkLee Ungno Museum

“I like to name all my paintings ‘peace’...

... Look at them. Aren’t they showing people dancing and living together and holding hands with each other? Such lives are the lives of ordinary people. These ordinary people represent a public voice and heart. I’ve recently been making such paintings over and over again. I thought about the theme long ago, before I was imprisoned. The imprisonment helped me understand how to visualize the theme.” - Lee Ungno, Sunday Newspaper, October 23rd, 1988. Interview by Shim Jaehyun. 

Lee Ungno by Lee Young-séLee Ungno Museum

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