Three women in traditional Korean clothing are seated in the marketplace with their fruit and vegetables displayed in baskets. Monochromatic colors and a stable geometry of forms enhance the quiet dignity of these women, contributing to an underlying sense of melancholy. A touch of bright color is used only to highlight the vegetables. The gray color and rough texture, achieved by mixing dry oil with dry material like rice chaff, resemble the granite found everywhere in the Korean countryside. The effect has a soothing, comfortable quality familiar to Koreans. Sookeun's paintings are unassuming and unpretentious, but it is these very qualities, combined with the abstract, simplified rendering of hardworking common folk that give Sookeun's works their timeless power and poetry. His subject matter resonates today with nostalgia for a lost era of Korean history.
Sookeun fled Pyongyang in North Korea in 1953 with his wife and children and settled in a poor neighborhood of Seoul outside the East Gate. It was a time of severe hardship and poverty for the Korean people, but his work was widely appreciated by Americans stationed in Seoul. He earned a living doing portraits of US soldiers on the military base. The Bando Gallery at the Choson Hotel began exhibiting his paintings in 1956, selling them for a nominal sum to clients who were predominantly Americans. The painting offered here was purchased from the artist at his home.
Sookeun's body of work is thought to be quite small, perhaps no more than 400 paintings. His career was cut short by his premature death from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of fifty-one in 1965. During the past ten years since Christie's New York began selling his work, he has become the most sought-after modern Korean master.
Fourteen paintings by Park Sookeun have been sold at Christie's, New York: Farmers, 27 April, 1993, lot 45; Dancers, 17 November, 1993, lot 121; Woman beneath a tree, 27 April, 1994, lot 101; Country village, 25 October, 1994, lot 78; Three women and child, 26 April, 1995, lot 77; Farm houses, 26 March, 1996, lot 67; Men smoking, 31 October, 1996, lot 110; The jobless, 23 March, 1999, lot 311 and 15 October, 2001, lot 333; Mother and child, 15 September, 1999, lot 384; Four women and child, 23 March, 2000, lot 379; Mother and child walking under trees, 19 September, 2000, lot 410; Winter, 22 March 2002, lot 223; Woman pounding grain, 18 September, 2002, lot 432; Han il (Leisure time), 24 March 2003, lot 326.