Park Sookeun's paintings are unique. Modest in scale, somber, and roughly textured, they are at first glance unassuming and unpretentious. But it is these very qualities, combined with the abstract, simplified rendering of his idyllic subject matter--country scenes of everyday life--that give his works their power and poetry. Here, a mother is absorbed in nursing her baby. The seated figure creates a stable, triangular form and her arms enclose the child in a comforting circle echoed by the curve of the child's upraised arm, a composition that is pleasingly simple and harmonious. The woman wears a traditional short white jacket (chogori) and gray skirt (chima).
Park painted all his life. Born in Yanggu in Kwangwon Province, now part of North Korea, he graduated from high school in 1932, during the period of the Japanese occupation, but moved South to Kunsan in 1951 at the start of the Korean War, taking a job as a day laborer. The next year he moved to Seoul and was reunited with his family, who had fled to the south separately, In 1953 he began painting portraits of military personnel at the U.S base in Seoul.
Although influenced by French artists such as Millet, the Pointillists, and perhaps even Dubuffet, Sookeun expresses the spirit of post-war Korea--an anxiety about the future combined with undaunted courage and determination. He conveys the poverty of Korea in the 1950s when many moved to the countryside and Seoul was left all but empty. Today his images evoke nostalgia for a bleak period of hardship.
The singular, mosaic-like surface of his paintings is created by mixing dry oil with a dry material like rice chaff and applying them to canvas or fiber board with brush and spatula. Sookeun's palette is principally beige, gray, and white, accented here by the pink and aqua of the baby's costume, and a soft green mixed with beige in the background. The coarse texture and subtle, almost monochromatic color scheme call to mind the rugged granite cliffs that dominate the Korean landscape.
Sookeun's work was widely appreciated by Americans stationed in Seoul after the Korean war. The Bando Gallery in the Choson Hotel in Seoul began exhibiting his paintings in 1956, selling them for a nominal sum to clients who were predominantly Americans. "Mother and Child" has been in the collection of the University of Alaska Museum since 1962.
The artist's career was cut short by his premature death at the age of fifty-one in 1965. During the last seven years, since Christie's, New York began selling his work, he has become the most sought-after modern Korean master.
Eight paintings by Park Sookeun have been sold at Christie's: Farmers, April 27, 1993, lot 45; Dancers, November 17, 1993, lot 121; Women beneath a tree, April 27, 1994, lot 101; Country village, October 25, 1994, lot 78; Three women and child, April 26, 1995, lot 77; Farmhouses, March 26, 1996, Lot 67; Men smoking, October 31, 1996, lot 110; Jobless, March 23, 1999, lot 311.