Pioneering female Korean painter Chun Kyung-ja, best known for her vividly colored paintings of female figures and flowers, died from a chronic illness in New York. She was 91 years old. Though her death was publicly announced just this week, it was revealed by the artist’s eldest daughter that Chun had in fact passed away few months prior on August 6.
Though lesser known in the Western art world, Chun was highly regarded in Korea as one of the most seminal figures of its domestic art scene. Her achievements in the arts had won her numerous national awards, including a Eun-gwan (Silver Crown) Order of Cultural Merit from the Korean government in 1983.Born in 1924 in Goheung, a small town in the southern part of Korea, Chun studied art at the Private Women’s School of Fine Arts in Tokyo, Japan. After having her first solo show in 1946, two years after graduation, she quietly developed her painting skills during the 1950s, while her country underwent the turmoil of the Korean War. In the 1960s and ’70s, Chun created paintings that explored the concept of beauty within sorrow, a subject that came to define her oeuvre. Her canvases from these eras feature lone, female figures with solemn yet soulful eyes, accompanied by vibrant flowers, butterflies and birds.
From the late 1970s onwards, Chun produced and exhibited a variety of paintings and drawings depicting foreign landscapes and portraits of people she encountered while traveling the world. She frequently flew abroad—to the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa—in search of exotic inspirations for her work, creating paintings of such subjects as a jazz band in New Orleans and Hawaiian dancers. Another major series of work that was cultivated at this time was her portraits of beautiful women, whose models included the artist’s childhood idol, as well as famous figures such as Greta Garbo and Madonna, among others. In these paintings, Chun always adorned her sitters with flowers, which eventually earned her the nickname “Artist of Flower and Soul” in Korea.
Chun retired from painting in 1991, when one of her works became embroiled in a forgery scandal. She claimed that a painting entitled Beautiful Woman (1977), which had been on display at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, was a fake, though the institution and experts assessed the piece as being genuine. Following several years of silence, in 1998, Chun donated 93 of her paintings to the Seoul Museum of Art, which has been showing 34 of these works as part of a permanent display since 2002.After becoming bed-ridden from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2003, Chun moved to New York to live with her daughter. Though removed from her native country, her works continued to be shown in Korea, most recently in a group show at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul (2010). Chun’s paintings have also sold at local auctions, including at Korea Premier Auction, where a work entitled After the Finale (1989)—portraying two female Pacific Islanders in tropical garb—sold for USD 774,600 this year.
Hanae Ko is web and reviews editor at ArtAsiaPacific.