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Family Rift Clouds Death of Top South Korean Artist

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A woman looking at a painting by the late South Korean artist Chun Kyung-Ja at the Seoul Museum of Art in Seoul. AFP / Yonhap

SEOUL (AFP) – The mysterious death of one of South Korea’s most renowned artists has laid bare a family feud that left two of her children unaware she had even passed away until months after the event.
The rift has also opened a debate about how best to belatedly mark the death and legacy of a seminal painter on the national contemporary art scene – a discussion complicated by uncertainty about the location of her remains.

Born in 1924 in a small town in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, Chun Kyung-Ja was best known for her paintings of female figures and flowers using vivid primary colors that broke with traditional South Korean styles.

From the late 1970s onwards, she focused on foreign landscapes and portraits of people she encountered on her travels to the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa. 

Her works have recently sold at auction for between $700,000 and $1 million. Ms. Chun retired from painting in 1991, when one of her works on display at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art became embroiled in a forgery row. 

In an unusual turn of events, it was Ms. Chun who insisted the painting was a fake, while the museum and other experts assessed it to be genuine. “Parents can recognize their children. That is not my painting,” she said at the time. Relations with her actual children lie at the heart of the mystery surrounding her death. 

After retirement, Ms. Chun went to live with her eldest daughter Lee Hye-Sun in New York.

She reportedly suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 2003 that left her bed-ridden, and there were various rumors over the years about her deteriorating health. Ms. Chun died on August 6, but it seems Ms. Lee kept the fact secret from everyone – including her family.

“I learned on October 19 about my mother’s passing from a staff member of a Korean bank, who called to ask for the approval required to close my mother’s bank account,” the third of Ms. Chun’s four children, Sumita Kim, told a press conference in Seoul this week.

“My sister didn’t notify us about mother’s death, nor tell us where her remains are,” said Ms. Kim, who was joined at the press briefing by Ms. Chun’s only surviving son, Lee Nam-Hun.

Ms. Kim and her brother denied speculation that there was any conflict over ownership of Ms. Chun’s valuable works, saying their only concern was that her death be accorded all due respect.

“What breaks our heart most is that nobody – the people that loved my mother and the Korean society that loved her – is given a chance to mourn her death,” Ms. Kim said.

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