“I cover the raw surface of canvas with white and roman ocher paints mixed with sufficient oil. And I wait until it completely dries out. Then I add multiple layers, repeating the same process. For the final layer, I mix a very little amount of oil on purpose to prevent any possible cracks. Only when the surface is ready, I start sketching people and landscapes, employing bold black outlines.”
– Park Soo-Keun
Featured at Christie’s Hong Kong Evening sale for the first time, Park Soo-Keun is one of the most highly recognised pioneers in the history of Korean modern art. Born in 1914 in Yang-Gu, South Korea, Park became a master painter who established an archetype of Korean modern aesthetics, overcoming many tragic obstacles due to his family’s extreme poverty during the Korean war in the early 1950s. He faced a painful time when his family came apart and he could not get a formal art education.
Unlike other contemporary artists in his time who departed Korea for study abroad, Park never left his homeland. It was mainly because he needed to support his siblings beginning from his teenage years when his mother passed away from breast cancer and his father deserted the entire family after her death. The warm yet strong connection to the earth imbued in Park’s paintings comes not only from his technical dexterity but more importantly it is rooted in his maternal experience of taking care of young siblings.
Throughout his life long career, Park profoundly cherished everything about his hometown and his homeland. It was very natural for him to get his artistic influence from ordinary Korean people and everyday Korean landscapes. They have been the core source of inspiration in Park’s art. He ceaselessly practiced self-taught sketches of them. After becoming confident with his subjects and having rendered repeated sketches, Park painted them on a canvas or paper with oil paints. He continued to embody the sensitivity of ordinary Korean people of his time and produced affectionate landscapes of his homeland in his work. As a result, Park created the archetypes of them with a mesmerizing variation, ultimately establishing a profound and unique language of Korean modernism.
Ah So-Yeon, a curator who organised Park’s retrospective exhibition in 1999 stated about his modern Korean aesthetics, “There are many reasons that most Korean critics highly recognize Park Soo-Keun as one of the most important artists in the history of Korean modern art. On a canvas of barely the size of two hands, Park never failed to capture all virtues of painting should have. Most of all, his work delivers a poignant narrative. It reflects his time, which further hints sensitivity unique to Korean culture in modern era. (…) Besides, Park’s painting achieves perfect balance between content and form, acquiring formativeness pursued by the modern artists.”
Untitled (Lot 22) featured here is one of the masterpieces from Park’s later years, which displays multiple characteristics of his remarkable artistic development. First, the work exemplifies Park’s typical palette and brushstrokes, which evoke images of the earth or granite, the most common rock that can be found everywhere in Korea. Primarily because of its colour shades and unique texture, Park’s painting radiates a familiar warmth to the viewer. Park successfully delivers a narrative with simplified lines and shapes of a tree, house, and people. His imagery evokes an intimate conversation between a woman and a little girl, probably a mother and a daughter, rushing back home before it gets too dark.
In his childhood, Park admired Jean-François Millet since having seen a copy of his painting by chance. Millet is a French painter and one of the founders of the Barbizon school that described rural France and the frugal life of peasant farmers in his art. What Park highly appreciated from Millet’s work is neither the realistic style nor his technical dexterity. It was rather a sympathetic attitude and deep affection towards ordinary people that was imbued throughout Millet’s oeuvre. To Park, who never had a chance of a regular art education, Millet may be the spiritual mentor who guided him to capture the truth of life.
Untitled shows the fruition of his intense endeavour and implacable devotion to overcome his weakness as a self-taught artist. Furthermore, not only did Park come to substantiate himself as an artist, he became a true master of his medium. The warmness of this painting from Park’s later years evokes in viewers their own family and hometown, prompting them to remember their own childhood. It is a physically small painting but an emotionally big one with a poignant story and poem, manifesting Park’s natural talent, strong will, acute insight and sincerity towards art.