Hakgojae Gallery proudly presents the works of Byun Wol-ryong (Pen Varlen, 1916-1990, Primorsky Krai, Russia) in his solo exhibition, The Reclaimed Genius Artist, Byun Wol-ryong (Pen Varlen) from April 17th (Wed) to May 19th (Sun), 2019. Byun was a Goryeoin (ethnic Koreans in Russia and Central Asia) artist with a Russian nationality, who was active after the Korean War. He had distinct identity and pride as a Korean, and especially took on a significant role for the advancement of North Korean Art. Despite him being a principal artist who would bridge the gap of Korean modern and contemporary art history, he has not been adequately recognized nor researched on up to now; because he was ostracized by North Korea because he refused to be naturalized as a North Korean citizen, and was not well known in South Korea until recently. Byun was first introduced to the South Korean audience with his large-scale retrospective exhibitions held at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung (Seoul) and Jeju Museum of Art (Jeju, Korea) in 2016 as a momentum. At the time, former head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, Yu Hong-june highly praised him by saying, “The fact that there was a magnificent overseas Korean artist in the 20th-century Korean modern art’s blind spot is truly a bliss.” Poet, Ko Un also commented, “Tears were shed automatically.”
Recently, the interest in North Korean art has grown immensely. There are also voices of anticipation that the research on North Korean art will contribute to strengthening the context of Korean modern and contemporary art history. The discovery and research of significant artists, overcoming political and social limitations, is an attribute for the endeavor for Korean art to establish a firm position internationally. This exhibition is Byun’s first solo exhibition held at a commercial gallery. The exhibition’s purpose is to extensively promulgate the artist’s oeuvres to both international and domestic art market. Approximately 160 works of the artist, consisting of paintings, etchings, lithographs, dessins, etc., is presented in both Space 1 and Space 2. This is a chance to comprehensively view the artist’s oeuvres. Art critic, Moon Young Dai, who has been devoting himself to researching Byun for the past 25 years curates the exhibition and writes its preface. Moon has been emphasizing that Byun “will be the artist who will serve as a link that connects South and North Korea in the reunited Korean art history.”
Byun Wol-ryong (Pen Varlen) was born in Primorsky Krai, Russia in 1916 and studied at the Sverdlovsk Art College. In 1940, he entered The Russian Academy of Fine Arts (currently Ilya Repin St. Petersburg State Academic Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture) and graduated first in his class in 1947. In 1951, he received his Ph.D. degree in Russian Art at the same school. In the same year, he was appointed as an assistant professor of the Drawing Department and started his life as a professor in earnest. In 1953, simultaneous to his promotion as an associate professor, he was accredited to the Ministry of Education of North Korea by the Ministry of Culture of the USSR as an advisor. As he worked as the dean and advisor of the Pyongyang College of Arts, he redressed the education system, and advised and promoted students and other professors. In the following year, he returned to Russia and was reinstated to the Academy. He yearned to return to his motherland all his life, but was not able to fulfill his wish. In 1977, he was promoted as a full-time professor at the Ilya Repin St. Petersburg State Academic Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and in 1985, he ended his 35 year-long life as an educator and retired. He passed away at age 74, in 1990. After his passing, his works were exhibited in Golden Bridge (1990) at the Hibel Museum of Art (Palm Beach, Florida, U.S.), which is recorded as his first exhibition held in the West. In 2016, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung (Seoul) and Jeju Museum of Art (Jeju, Korea) held his retrospective exhibitions consecutively, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. The retrospectives introduced Byun’s works in South Korea for the first time, and arose great sensation in the art world. His works are a part of multiple collections such as The State Russian Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia), National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Gwacheon, Korea), along with others.