The Scent of an ArtistA journey into the Soul of Chun Kyun-ja
Park Hey-ine  |
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승인 2009.04.28  22:04:54
트위터 페이스북 구글 카카오스토리

WHERE DO famous artists get their inspiration from? Believe it or not, many of them have gloomy memories that inspire the motifs of their works. The famous painter Van Gogh underwent hard times such as the painful experience of shamefully being turned down by the woman he truly loved. His short married life with a prostitute also ended up in failure. Did these hardships inspire Van Gogh’s artwork? We many never know; yet, overcoming difficulties is part of growing up. Chun Kyun-ja is a Korean artist whose internal sufferings greatly influenced her artistic career.







Distinguished style of art

   Born in 1924, Chun Kyung-ja is a well-known Korean painter as well as writer. In 1998, she donated 93 artworks from throughout her career to the Seoul Museum of Art. 34 of these masterpieces have been on display since 2002, under the title The Soul of Chun Kyung-ja. The exhibition has five different sections: “Lavender Intimacy and Remorse;” “Eternal Portrait;” “Endless Journey;” “Fragrance of Literature;” and “Designs and Drawings.” Despite the distinct characteristics of each section, the paintings share her vibrant artistic world sensitively expressed through lyricism, as if we were reading a beautifully “painted” poem. 

   Chun is differentiated from other painters by her exceptional use of primary colors in traditional Korean paintings. “By using bright colors and clear forms, Chun broke the Korean art cliche that paintings should be in black and white, with natural curves. She created her own unique style of painting named after her,” comments Oh Hyun-mee (Associate Curator, Seoul Museum of Art). Due to such peculiarity, people can immediately recognize Chun’s paintings, which also serve as her trademark.

Self-deliberation aesthetically reborn

  Art is a means of communication for artists; they express themselves and alleviate their repressed side of life through their works. Chun’s art also reveals the tough life she has lived. Her sorrow is reflected in her paintings displayed in “Lavender Intimacy and Remorse” and “Eternal Portrait.” Her first marriage ended as a failure and her younger sister died because the family couldn’t afford medication. Along with the autobiographic drift and depressive atmosphere, motifs of “woman,” “flowers,” and “snakes” repeatedly appear in Chun’s works, serving as her trademark.

   One of the most autobiographic painting, The 22 pages of my sad legend, displayed in “Eternal Portrait,” seems like a figure painting but has more meaning in it. The illustrated woman is the alter ego; the “other-self” reflecting her inner world from which her life was built. Painted in her fifties reminiscing of her twenties, the piece has a dreamy atmosphere but shows remorse, emptiness, and solitude. These emotions are felt in the woman’s hollow yet lively eyes.

   Another painting that expresses the diverse adversities is Life Form, which is on display in “Lavender Intimacy and Remorse.” The painting has numerous snakes intermingled with each ther, which shows “The artist’s strong will to overcome the multiple ordeals,” as Oh says. In reference to this work, Chun also claimed, “I could not bear it all anymore without drawing a pile of snakes.” Snakes symbolize rebirth since they shed skin. Among the snakes in the piece, one represents Chun and others symbolize the hardships of her life. By exposing herself through means of art, the artist is was able to reveal her pain with time.

 How she saw the world

   Chun has spent approximately 30 years travelling abroad, visiting numerous countries such as Kenya, Mexico, Peru, India, Italy and even the Amazon in Brazil. The realistic landscape paintings of these places are exhibited in “Endless Journey.” In these pictures, she reflected her inner self though the diverse cultural events she experienced. One of the representative artworks in this section, *Thai dancers*, does not merely depict what is seen but also what is felt by the dancers. Indeed the dancers are in fancy clothing, posing various gestures. However, their facial expressions are not cheerful at all. “These dancers are obliged to dance according to the spectators’ wish regardless of their feelings. In the dance, Chun reveals the misfortunate fate a woman bears, and sympathizes with them,” comments Kim Hye-jung (Docent, Seoul Museum of Art).

   Not only did she paint her exotic outings during the numerous trips around the world, she also visited houses of famous authors in order to reminisce about their scents. A section was dedicated to show a glimpse of Chun’s life as a writer, called “Fragrance of Literature,” which exhibited her books as well. Another section, “Designs and Drawings,” displays her works as a student at Tokyo Women’s University of Arts.

*           *           *

   What makes an artist immortal is his or her artwork. The numerous works may not always exactly fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, but they do tell a story. As if gathering the missing pieces of a puzzle, Chun threw herself into a lonesome quest of self-identity and sensitively expressed it in her paintings. Moreover, what the artist calls han (Sino-Korean word meaning a mix of feelings such as sadness, grudge, and sorrow) is dissipated through her artworks which have helped Chun let go of her han. Chun’s works touch the bottom of our hearts for she externalized her inner state and even her internal scars through her art, unlike others who try to hide them. We may not be able to heal our scars through art, but wouldn’t it be worthwhile to at least attempt to do so in our own ways?

 Interview with Oh Hyun-mee (Associate Curator, Seoul Museum of Art)

 Q. What can college students learn from Chun Kyung-ja’s artworks? 

   I believe that the young generation will have the opportunity to reflect over their life and existence through this exhibition. Furthermore, there is a lot to learn about Chun’s spirit and mindset. Through her life and paintings, she constantly fought against the social conventions and customs, breaking the mold the society tried to lock her in. Her struggle still exists with the young generation today.

 If you are interested in Chun’s art works, here are some books about her life and her world of art written by the artist herself:


The 49 Pages of my sad Legend


The More you Love, the More you Suffer From Solitude


Title:  The Soul of Chun Kyung-ja

Date: Standing Exhibition

Place: Seoul Museum of Art

Price: ₩300 (age 13 to 19), ₩700 (over age 19)

*Docent: Tuesday to Friday at 3:00 p.m.


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