Par Seo-Bo, 88 years old, still working at his studio in Yonhee-Dong, Seoul in 2019
|Revised Romanization||Bak Seo-bo|
Park Seo-bo (also known as Korean: 박서보, Park Seo-Bo or Seo-Bo Park) is a Korean painter, part of the first generation of modern artists in South Korea. He has been a prolific painter well known for his 'French: Ecriture' paintings, and has been one of the most influential figures in modern Korean art history. He is now widely considered the godfather of Dansaekhwa originated in South Korea in 1970s.
Seo-bo was born as the third son of 8 children in Yecheon County of North Gyeongsang, Chōsen in Japanese-occupied South Korea on 15 November 1931. He was originally named Jae Hong Park. The name Seo-bo has been used since 1955 as a pseudonym to avoid forced conscription. Around 1940, his family moved from Yecheon to Anseong in Gyeonggi Province where his father Jae Hoon Park started to work as a local solicitor at his own house. They lived comfortably in a big house. From childhood, Seo-bo loved drawing. He spent his time copying great pieces of oriental painting by the great living Korean artists. Although his father wanted him to study law, Seo-bo insisted on his pursuing art. In spite of his father's opposition, he entered Hongik University to study oriental painting under the lead of Yi Eungro.
However, his happy freshman year was interrupted by the outburst of Korean War. He narrowly survived the war time chaos, experiencing his father's abrupt death, drafts both by North Korean and South Korean forces and long winter evacuating on foot from his hometown Anseong to Masan. Seo-bo barely managed to go back to school in 1952. Hongik University temporarily moved to Busan during the war time. He enrolled for the second year and changed his major to western painting because his professors of oriental painting were all gone. He learned painting from scratch under the lead of Whanki Kim for 3 more years and graduated in 1955. Although the ceasefire was announced in 1953, the whole country were suffering from poverty and immorality. There was competition between refugees, widows and orphans for food and money. Seo-bo was not different from them. He earned his school expenses by selling portraits to US soldiers on streets and restaurants. He slept in an empty classroom of the school and missed meals until someone was willing to buy one from him. He did paintings or drawings with the last drops of oil paint tubes and little pieces of charcoal that his classmates discarded and sometimes even with soy sauce he stole from a restaurant. He thought there was nobody to rely on in the world. He worked harder and harder for future success.
Art group activities
However, he became a fugitive. Although he completed his military service at Corps of Military Staff Clerks during the last semester, the government of Syngman Rhee broke its promise to let the Korean Army conscript the male graduates at the graduation ceremony. Informed by his friends at other universities, Seo-bo did not go to the ceremony and ran away immediately. He went to his friend with great knowledge about Chinese classics to ask to make up a new name for him. From that time on, Seo-bo pretended to be in his late 30s, wearing a fedora with a mustache and was called by the pseudonym. He even brought his best friend Kim Tschang-yeul as a bodyguard on his honeymoon trip along with his bride because he was a policeman.
He received a prize at the Korean National Art Exhibition in 1954 as a student and again in 1955. However, the National Art Exhibition had been never free of troubles since it was established in 1949. Seo-bo declared objection to the National Art Exhibition with three of his school friends and opened their own group exhibition in 1956. That caught public attention and the newspapers spotlighted the young artists' defiance. From 1957 to 1960, Seo-bo participated in group exhibitions of Hyun-Dai Artists Association where he became close with Kim Tschang-yeul. The Hyun-Dae Artists Association is well known for initiating Informel for the first time in Korea.
Marriage and Job
He got married in 1958 and became a father to his first son Seung-jo in 1959. He did not get a proper job because he was a wanted draft evader. It was the time when modern paintings did not sell. His wife and child were suffering in poverty. Seo-bo needed a break-through in his life. So he left for Paris without hesitance when he was selected as a national representative young artist for the Young Painters of the World in Paris in 1961. It was a residency program organized by the French National Committee of International Association of Art with support of UNESCO. When he came back from Paris to Seoul, he started teaching at Hongik University, Seoul. However, he became a scapegoat in dynamics between professors and the private school foundation, which led to his resignation. Out of work, he stayed at home and happened to discover his life-long topic of resignation and self-discipline while observing his 3-year-old second son, Seung-ho. Since 1967, Seo-bo made an attempt on his first work of his signature style "Ecriture." In 1970, he was called back to professorship at Hongik University and served for education until he retired in 1997. He was the dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, Hongik University from 1985 to 1986 and the dean of College of Fine Arts from 1986 to 1990. He received an honorary doctorate from the same university in 2000.
Birth of Ecriture and Contemporary Art Movement
In addition to his commitment to education, he also worked hard for the Federation of Artistic & Cultural Organization of Korea for 10 years in 1970s and held the post of chairman from 1977 to 1980. He organized new forms of exhibition such as "Ecole de Séoul" (1975–1999) and "Indépendants"(1973~1980) and Contemporary Art Festivals at each local cities. When he failed the election for a second term in office, he completely concentrated himself on painting in his new studio in Anseong he built in 1981. There he came across to the Korean paper "Hanji" and his "Ecriture" transformed. Art historians agree to divide his Eciture series into three phases of initial stage, middle stage, and last stage. "Ecriture" with Hanji appear both at the middle stage and the last stage. More than 150 pieces of "Ecriture" on canvas were burned in an accidental fire of his Anseong studio in 1996. This was such a shock to Seo-bo as to stop visiting the studio until his wife sold it in 2006. He had a new studio with a living space built in Sungsan-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul in 1997 and moved his home to that building in 1999. He was near to death because of myocardial infarction in 1994, and again luckily survived a sudden attack of cerebral infarction in 2009.
He founded the Seo-bo Art and Cultural Foundation, Seoul in 1994 and had remained its president until his first son took the position in 2014. He had his second retrospective exhibition at National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul in 2019. He lives at his new house in Yeonhui-dong, Seoul with his wife and the family of his second son and is still working on paintings to be active against his aging and chronic diseases. He has two sons and one daughter with three grandchildren.
Park's visual language begins with the Korean Civil War in 1950. He had only just entered Hong-Ik University to study art, but instead the interruption of war brought about what one might call a "crash-course". He said many times:
"Just imagine, I had to do all the things that Dada did, plus what the post-war abstraction artists did - there are some things you cannot do anything about in life - but I guess it was just my fate."
In a similar vein to Paul Klee's famous words, "The more horrifying this world becomes (as it is these days) the more art becomes abstract", Park turned toward abstraction in the 1950s. None of his works from the early days of his career were preserved, and only a photograph of his work, Sunny Spot (1955) remains. The artwork was part of an infamous exhibition titled Four Artists' Show in May 1956, which was a group exhibition composed of Park, Kim Young Whan, Kim Choong Sun and Moon Woo Shik. The show was a resistance against the old art order in Korea that had its roots since the Japanese colonial days.
Park and his tutelage of artist friends founded Hyundae-Mihyup in 1957. Bang Geun Tack, who will later become a well-known art critic in Korea, recognized Hyundae-Mihyup's art as Informel.
Cheon Seung-Bok, a journalist for the Korean Republic, describes Park's artistic style as such:
"In a grammatical sense, I must say that it is hard to call his work painting, for he is a conscious action painter who tackles curious metal and chemical material and not much real paint, which is too dear for him to use. But to say that action painting like his is recondite, and therefore it is not painting, is like saying that advanced mathematics like differential calculus is not in the field of mathematics.
Seo-Bo never buys normal canvases. Instead, he goes out to a scrap shop in an odd corner of the East Gate second-hand market where he picks up a large patch of used tent canvas. This canvas material is usually full of dust and holes but the price is very reasonable for this artist who can hardly sell even one painting a year.
How does he paint a picture? A maggot in his head bites while he rasps dust off the home-made canvas. Then he needles some pieces of used hemp cloth onto the canvas, cements them, pastes copper or bronze powder, burns the surface with a torch lamp, and then corrodes parts of it with chemicals. The result is a complex of material in greyish black, white and on some spots, shimmering red, and this bears an air of mystery that conveys something like the undecipherable signature of a shaman. People complain that paintings like his are hardly understandable.
A painting is silent, but a good painting has compelling voices of silence. With these voices, an action painter must communicate the continuous dichotomy between the desire to give direct expression to a feeling and the desire to create pure harmony, which is a conflict inherent to the development of modern art."
Park went to Paris in 1961 with the intention of staying for a short while, but due to unforeseen circumstances, he ended up living in Paris for over a year. During his time in Paris, his artistic tendency and outlook changed significantly, which ultimately resulted in his exiting the Art Informel scene toward his own artistic formulation, the Primordialis series in 1962. Park's comments on the Parisian art scene was as such:
"At the moment, the Parisian art scene is saturated with the Art Informel that was initiated by Michel Tapié. This change is viewed by some artists as the signalling of a re-emergence of figuration, and others even say that the reversion to the figurative art is a due course set in the history of art. I think that they are ridiculing its value. It was a lazy way of acknowledging its value. Yes, it is true that Art Informel has pervaded the art scenery. Supposing that you look at it as a crisis, then this "crisis" stems from the contradiction within the abstractive art, and not from the reappearance of the figurative art. And another indirect reason for the current symptom in the art scene is that many people indiscriminately picked up abstraction."
Toward the end of the 1960s, Park began experimenting in new forms, the Hereditarius series. Oh Kwang Soo, art critic, described his works as such:
"At the 13th Contemporary Art Exhibition of Chosun Daily Newspaper, there are several artworks which are difficult to understand at a single glance. ... In Park Seo-bo's work, there is a taxidermic form without the actual human body in casual posture and the image of a emptied human figure on the canvas. The suggestion of these two situations means to convey a condensed happening at a single moment. The gap between the painting on the wall and the posing empty taxidermy signifies the distances (between home and office) and therefore time."
Then in June 1973 at Tokyo Gallery, Park began his ongoing journey through the Ecriture series. This is what Park said at the time:
"I painted nothing, my work had no form, no emphasis, and no ins-and-outs, except for the pure vibration coming out of not doing anything – an action through non-action.[...] Anyone can draw lines, but my lines are the endemic phenomenon which takes place only in me. I feel and reciprocate the resistance of the bouncy canvas,then I feel replete with an impulsive sensation. In this way I keep being gravitated into the canvas. It is similar to cultivating the religious spirit[...]. I started from where there was no form, or no image – where it was impossible to express."
Recent Solo Exhibitions
Recent Group Exhibitions
Special Exhibition Celebrating the 130th Anniversary of Korea-France Diplomatic Ties "Part II. Exchange Exhibition of Korean Resident Artists in France", Youngeun Museum, Gwangju, Korea.
- Seungsook Park, <An Untiring Great Worker: Park Seo-Bo's Art and Life>, Seoul: Personnidea, 2019. ISBN 978-89-5906-532-5(Korean)
- Lim, Kate. "Park Seo-Bo: From Avant-garde to Ecriture" (2013).
- Cheon, Seung-Bok. Korean Republic, 26 November 1960.
- Park,Seo-Bo. Kyung-hyang Shinmun, 3 December 1961.
- Oh, Kwang-Soo. Daehan Ilbo, 10 July 1969
- Park, Seo-bo. Artist statement of solo exhibition at Tokyo Gallery, June 1973.