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Expressive, soulful Byeon Wol-ryong, 'forgotten' diaspora artist

All News 16:55 April 12, 2016

By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, April 12 (Yonhap) -- Few Koreans may have heard of him or saw his paintings.

Born in Russia's Primorsky Krai, or the Maritime Province in Vladivostok, near the country's border with China, painter Byeon Wol-ryong, or Pen Varlen, lived with multiple identities -- Russian, Korean and Goryeoin, which refers to Korean diaspora in Russia and Central Asia.

Much surrounded by mystique, the artist still remains largely unknown to the general public as the vestige of the "Iron Curtain," still heavily hanging on the Korean peninsula since the 1950-1953 Korean War, put him in a blind spot.

Now, his motherland has started studying the curious and historically-charged life of this great artist who never forgot his primal identity of being Korean and expressed it on canvas.

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea has chosen Byeon (1916-1990), along with Lee Jung-seob (1916-1956) and Yoo Young-kuk (1916-2002), as one of the three Korean modern art masters. Starting with Byeon, the museum runs a retrospective of each artist to commemorate their centennial birth and throw light on their influence on the art scenes of the twentieth century and beyond.

Byeon studied art in "Ilya Repin Reningrad Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture," one of the most prestigious art schools in the Soviet Union, and later taught at the school. There, he mastered Socialist realism, an art genre used mainly to instill the revolutionary spirit in the people and beautify the Soviet leaders and socialist workers. His paintings during that period, though they might look a politically-charged propaganda poster, shows his excellent skills for depicting a subject in great detail and unequaled expressiveness based on the artist's sincerity.

In July 1953, he was dispatched to Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, on the request by the Soviet's cultural department, to re-establish Pyongyang University of Fine Arts that was destroyed during the Korean war and to disseminate Socialist realism.

For the 15-month-stay in the country, he actively connected with North Korean artists and was believed to exercise a great influence on them. After returning to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), however, he was never allowed to visit North Korea again for some obscure political reasons.

But the stint gave him a sense of connection to his motherland and inspired him to paint nature and the people who were disconnected from their countrymen living south of the border.

Byeon's personal life was restrained by an uncontrollable historic chain of events, like being a descendant of migrants who fled their native country that had lost its sovereignty to Japan, and living as a minority in the country that he called home which never fully accepted him.

But his professional life as an artist couldn't be richer. He lived through and witnessed many of the key events of the twentieth century, such as the Second World War, the cold war, and Perestroika, a political movement for reformation within the Soviet Union's communist party. All those life-turning events worked as a catalyst for his artistic expression.

His soulful portrayals of people -- ranging from his loved ones to peer artists to social influencers -- demonstrates his sharp ability to observe and capture the soul of his subject while not losing track of personal connection and affection towards them.

The exhibit, currently on display at the museum's Deoksugung branch, runs until May 8.


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