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Byun Wol-ryong (Pen Varlen)

Byun Wol-ryong (Pen Varlen, 1916-1990, Primorsky Krai, Russia) 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)1 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.



1916                Born on September 29th, as the youngest son in the village of Korean refugees in Primorsky Krai, Russia, with 2 older sisters. His father, Byun Chang-ho, who was a farmer at the time, left his family even before he was born. His father’s fate is still unknown.

1922 (age 6)      His grandfather requested a senior Chinese calligrapher living near the village of Korean refugees to teach him. Calligraphy was the only education he received at the time, but he had to quit after his grandfather passed away. However, the Chinese calligraphy he learned at that time was the foundation for him becoming an artist in the future. 

1926 (age 10)     Entered a ‘4-year-course Korean school’ located in Shinhanchon (New Korean Village) in Vladivostok, Russia. Considering that the usual enrollment age was 7, he was about 3 years behind.

1928 (age 12)     Following the reform of the school system (changing into 10-year-course) at the time, he transferred to the ‘8th Vladivostok Model 10-Year-Course School.’ This school was established by Goryeoin (ethnic Koreans in Russia and Central Asia) and was only attended by their children. It was the most prestigious Korean school at the time. He started to reveal his innate talent in art while attending this school.

1932 (age 16)     He started to paint illustrations professionally for a children’s book publisher starting from the 7th grade, even though he never received formal art education. He painted all of the illustrations in the text books used by all grades for all subjects, for all of the Korean schools in the Primorsky Krai area. He also helped his family financially by painting posters and signs for theatres.

1936 (age 20)     Graduated from middle and high school with outstanding grades despite his situation; making a living and studying concurrently. He continued to do part-time painting jobs.

1937 (age 21)     Entered Sverdlovsk (currently Yekaterinburg, Russia) Art College located near the Ural Mountains. As the enforced deportation was abruptly initiated by Stalin, the Koreans living in Primorsky Krai were deported to Central Asia. He was away from Primorsky Krai at the time so he was not deported. However, his family was deported to Tashkent, so he lost contact with his family for a while.

1940 (age 24)     Graduated from Sverdlovsk Art College with outstanding grades and admitted to the Paintings Department of ‘The Russian Academy of Fine Arts (currently I. Repin St. Petersburg State Academy Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture)’ located in Leningrad (currently Saint Petersburg, Russia). Here, he met his lifelong companion and wife, Derbizova Praskoviya Trofimovna, 4 years younger than him. Although he was a student of the Paintings Department, he studied etching and lithography at the workshops in the Graphics Department whenever he had a chance, to widen his studies.

1941 (age 25)     In early June, when he finished his first year at the Academy, he went to Tashkent, where his mother and sister lived. Then he unexpectedly faced the German-Soviet War. He tried to return to the Academy when the new year started, but could not do so due to the ‘Siege of Leningrad.’ He then started to work as an illustrator for a publisher in Tashkent.

1942 (age 26)     On February 19th, the Academy escaped the sieged Leningrad to find refuge at Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The Academy arrived at Samarkand around late March, and he joined them around the time the new semester had begun. There, he studied and produced political propaganda posters at the Tashkent publisher at the same time.

1944 (age 28)     The Academy moved their refuge to Zagorsk (currently Sergiy Radonezhskiy, Russia). Here, he married his classmate, Derbizova Praskoviya Trofimovna. He visited his ill mother in Tashkent alone during summer break. Around late September, the Academy returned to Leningrad from Zagorsk. He returned to Leningrad along with the students of Leningrad Conservatory, who had fled to Tashkent. The Russian Academy of Arts was renamed as ‘I. Repin St. Petersburg State Academy Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture’ after the war.

1945 (age 29)     World War II ended for Russia on May 9th. His first son Alexander was born. His mother, who was seriously ill, passed away.

1947 (age 31)     Graduated first in his class and received a gold medal from I. Repin St. Petersburg State Academy Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (hereafter Repin Academy), through paintings with the theme, Korean fishermen, under Professor A. A. Osmyorkin. Simultaneous to graduation, he entered graduate school at the Repin Academy through professors’ recommendations and devoted himself to his Ph.D. studies under Professor B. V. Ioganson. In the same year, he became a member of the Artists’ Union of the USSR, Leningrad branch. Since then, he regularly participated in the Union’s exhibitions except in 1959.

1950 (age 34)     His work, Lenin and Stalin on Vacation, Significant Friendship was presented in all USSR exhibitions in Moscow. He began to regularly participate in exhibitions.

1951 (age 35)     Graduated from graduate school with Lenin and Stalin on Vacation, Significant Friendship as his graduation work. Started to work at the Drawing Department, Repin Academy as an assistant professor. Received his Ph.D. degree in Russian Art.

1952 (age 36)     His second son Sergey was born.

1953 (age 37)     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 since June, 1953. As he worked as the dean of the Pyongyang College of Arts and advisor for the Department of Painting, Drawing, and Stage Art, he not only redressed the education system of the Pyongyang College of Arts, but also advised and promoted professors.

1954 (age 38)     In September, he returned to Russia and was reinstated to the Repin Academy. He presented works he painted in North Korea in exhibitions held by the ‘Leningrad Union of Soviet Artists’ and ‘Artists’ Union of the USSR.’ He started to fill his other exhibitions with drawings, portraits, and landscapes he created in North Korea. The theme related to his motherland acted as the backbone of his works for a while. With the support of the USSR Art Academy, he participated in the publishing of “Methodology of Drawing and Painting,” in which the most influential professors at the time had written for. He published his essay in it as well.

1955 (age 39)     Assigned an art studio by the Leningrad Union of Soviet Artists as a result of his activities as an artist and research. He was granted the right of residency in an apartment by the government authorities due to his successful dispatch mission in North Korea. However, the leading members of the Leningrad party took it away from him, which led to his realization of the sorrows of living as an ethnic minority. In August, he conveyed his will to return to his motherland to an old friend, Jeong Sang-jin, who was leading the ’Celebratory Concert for the 10 Year Anniversary of Korea’s Liberation’ in Leningrad. However, Jeong was purged by the government, therefore his will to return to North Korea was discarded.

1956 (age 40)     He expressed his will to return to his motherland to Lee Sang-jo, the ambassador in Russia. However, Lee was also purged, so the hopes of returning dissipated once again, giving him intense discouragement. Nevertheless, he continued to communicate with his acquaintances in North Korea through letters. 

1957 (age 41)     Presented Liberation Day in Pyongyang, an oil painting on an approximate size 300 canvas, in the ‘Anniversary Art Exhibition of the Leningrad Artists,’ dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution.

1958 (age 42)     His daughter Olga was born.

1959 (age 43)     Applied for North Korea’s ‘Homecoming for Ethnic Koreans Overseas Program,’ but he was the only person who was excluded in the list. He realized that his exclusion was because he had been purged. Perhaps his devastation was too great, since he did not participate in any exhibitions and halted all activities this year.

1961 (age 45)     Secured an apartment near his studio on his own expenses. Traveled through Italy, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Yugoslavia, and the Netherlands. He could not accept the fact that he had been purged, so he visited the Primorsky Krai area every school break from this year to 1964, to demonstrate the injustice he was experiencing, and to relieve his resentment.

1963 (age 47)     Became interested in the education methods of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm during his visit to Sweden. He painted his only oil on canvas self-portrait, Self-Portrait.

1964 (age 48)     Starting this year, he renounced his hopes towards his motherland, after visiting the Primorsky Krai area once more. From here on, he seized to paint his motherland. He created a landscape etching of his hometown, Shkotovo.

1966 (age 50)   He resumed visiting the Primorsky Krai area every school break, searching for his identity, until the early 1980s.

1970 (age 54)     Visited the Netherlands and Belgium.

1972 (age 56)     Visited Prague for a field trip for sketching with his students at the Repin Academy.

1973 (age 57)     Finished his oil painting, People of Our Times and presented it in ‘1973 Leningrad Artist District Exhibition.’ The size of the painting was as large as 360x531cm, and he worked on it for 3 years from 1970 to 1973. The whereabouts of this painting is currently unknown.

1974 (age 58)     Revisited Tashkent. Based on his impression from his trip to Central Asia, he created numerous series of etchings. In Autumn, he traveled to Hungary. 

1977 (age 61)     At last, he was promoted as a full-time professor at the Repin Academy. Although it took him 24 years to be promoted, it is greatly significant because it defeated the discrimination towards and the sorrows of ethnic minority artists. 

1981 (age 65)     Traveled to France.

1983 (age 67)     Traveled to France and Portugal.

1985 (age 69)     Retired from the Repin Academy due to health issues, and became a pensioner. Even after retiring as an educator, he continued on to create works and remained passionate about painting.

1990 (age 74)     Passed away on May 25th after suffering a stroke. His works were presented in Golden Bridge, an exhibition organized by the Hibel Museum of Art (Palm Beach, U.S.A). Although this exhibition opened after his death, it is recorded as his first exhibition held in the West, away from Russia. However, according to the family of the deceased, only 4 out of the 5 paintings that were presented were returned, and they were not able to retrieve Still Life with Jasmine (1969, Oil on canvas, 58x78cm).







Oil on canvas

119.5 x 7 cm

Girl in a Sunny Spot


Oil on canvas

47.5 x 29 cm

Choi Seunghee, Studying Plans for Her Studio Activity for the Next 3 Years


Pencil on paper

20 x 28.8 cm

Portrait of Boris L. Pasternak, the Author of "Doctor Zhivago”


Oil on canvas

70 x 114 cm




40 x 63.8 cm

Geunwon Kim Yong-jun (Artist, Essayist)


Charcoal, pencil on paper

44 x 33.5 cm

Sketch of a Farmer Wearing a Vest


Charcoal on paper

57 x 39 cm

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