To Understand an Artist: The Washing Place by Yi Kyoung-Ja

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.5 Autumn 2009
  • byYi Soo-hyung
The Washing Place

Park Su-geun's oil painting, “The Washing Place,” gained a lot of attention in 2007 when it sold for a record 4.5 billion won at a Korean art auction. Shortly thereafter, while undergoing intense attacks as to its authenticity, it the painting once again became a hot topic of conversation. Although Yi Kyoung-Ja's novel The Washing Place, based on the life of artist Park Su-geun (1914-1965), does begin from the time when the forgery controversy about the painting first emerged, it does little in the way of creating a puzzle to satisfy the curiosity of gossips. Rather, in a quiet voice, this novel follows the traces of Park Su-geun's life which has become so removed from the public eye because of those disturbing scandals.

Lauded as the most Korean artist after his death, Park Su-geun is known for representing the simple, untainted lives of ordinary people` in extremely simplified forms and lines, and through granite-like texture and hues, to capture the goodness and sin-cerity of humankind. In the novel, Park Su-geun is portrayed as a painter who was too poor to receive a formal education but never gave up studying art on his own, and who, despite failing to receive recognition from his contemporary art critics, painted ceaselessly, without an easel, on canvases spread across the floor of his home. On the other hand, he is also depicted as a good husband who loved and cared for his wife a great deal, helping her around the house whenever he could, and as a good father who often shared stories with his children.

Of course Park Su-geun's life could not have been this untroubled. In the novel, the twists and turns of his life appear in the form of discord in his relationship with his son. To his son he was merely an untalented artist that painted only paupers whose features were hard to make out and who did not even seem beautiful in any way; and because of his lack of talent, he failed to sell his paintings and therefore, failed to keep his wife and family from going hungry. However, this son, once so disapproving of his father and hopeful only for financial success, came to understand that his father valued warmth from within over outward splendor, and thus followed in his father's footsteps in the pursuit of painting. Through the son's confession of his struggle to accept his father, readers are also able to embrace Park Su-geun, both artist and man. This process of understanding and reconciliation may also serve as an opportunity for meaningful change for the author Yi Kyoung-Ja, whose previous novels have focused on the violence of patriarchy and the resultant wounds. 

Author's Profile

Yi Kyoung-Ja (b.1948) made her literary debut in 1973 when she won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Contest with the short story “Confirmation.” Lee sensationalized contemporary society by addressing women’s issues in her short story collection Failure of the Half. Her writings contemplate woman as independent individuals. Her preeminent works are the short story collections Failure of the Half and Hunchback’s Love, along with the novels Suni and The Third House. She is a Han Moo-sook Literary Award recipient.