The West still knows very little about North Korean art. This is no surprise to any of us since North Korea is understood as one of the most secretive countries in the world. Everything is guarded under a firm hand of the government, and yet many would say, or were told to say, that censorship is not at work, but in fact this is a blessing in disguise, protecting its people from the West, their enemies and its controversial existence and values. Art in North Korea best fits the statement that ‘all art is propaganda’, and to this service most if not all of the North Korean art is produced. The grand public sculptures of the founding leader Kim II Sung and the present Kim Jong Un are considered as sacred monuments, the most amazing examples of poster art in service of the propaganda are also produced, used for informing, and encouraging the people to continue to work and serve the leaders and power figures. So, how much more do we know about North Korean art, its artists, and its art production? Does the West idea of the aesthetic and the role of art as a social commentary of the day even exist in North Korean paintings and sculpture?
The socialist machine of the North Korea is quite strong and its turning wheels touch not only the everyday life but also its creativity. Believe it or not, but there are actually three themes that are considered as consistent and to an extent one can wonder if they are actually the three that were approved - the glorification of the leader, the celebration of the present day life, and the celebration of the revolutionary past and all the fallen martyrs. Most of the large public murals depict the mentioned themes and seem to reference the famous revolutionary avant-garde movements, such as Russian Constructivism. Yet, the mentioned movements, its art or any kind of abstract art for that matter, the people of North Korea, do not value as a means of expression that would best describe their county, living situations, and emotions. Most of the work produced falls under a style of Socialist Realism of the 1950’s and has since then progressed into a flair of its own. In the largest ever government-run studio, Mansudae Art Studio, located in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, over 700 artists and in total over 4000 other staff members, are put to work as if with any other job with set hours and quota. In such a studio, along the above-mentioned mural paintings, various other paintings are produced depicting the happy life of the every day, decorative motifs with flowers, and theological paintings encouraging spirituality. But, the need to glorify the leaders and to celebrate the political power of the government overshadows the majority of the production and the ideology of power is not to be questioned or harshly commented upon.
In the most recent exhibition in Washington of the Social Realism works of the country, a special kind of technique of painting on rice paper showed itself as a dominant trend and style of production. The distinct kind of painting with ink on the very fragile sheets of rice paper, called chosonhwa, requires high precision and technological mastery from the artist. Due to the fragility of the surface, the number of the ink layers is restricted and as such one cannot but admire the skill. Such mastery of the skill for the production of painting or sculpture is promoted at the Pyongyang University of Fine Arts. Devoting itself to over eight years of study, the graduate students, future creatives of the country, are ranked and receive the ‘First Degree’, allowing them to start the work in the studio. From then on, the artist, understanding his production in service of the people and above all the government, can move higher up the ladder, if he produces the required quota, if he enters the competitions, and wins awards. The highest rank is the title of the People’s Artist. Creativity and this is the concept so strange and questionable to the West, is not allowed much freedom of expression. Yet, in some of the best examples of the chosonhwa, the individual artistic expression is noticed in the presentation of various emotions and human experiences.
To the number of westerners visiting North Korea, one question always lingers – What is actually real in the country that seems to be so closed-off? Forming its own bubble, the produced art, the way of living, the images that one sees through the official channels, are all constructions, and as such promote the idea of the utopian land and overall happiness. This, as we know is not the truth, and due to this, it is very tricky to understand the ideas or ideals that the produced art shares and exposes as it exposes only but one story. Even though most recently, North Korean artists have started to express the personal and everyday life scenes, or have started to produce portraiture paintings of their friends and families, the differences are found in the various approaches to compositions, mastering of the light and the presentation of the depth and the distance on a flat surface of the paper or canvas, but not in the expressed overall idea of what life really looks like. The monumental sculptures, buildings, towers, mass games celebrations Arirang, and avenues, celebrate the idea of the grandeur, power, and balanced country with one goal in mind. With the knowledge that the government controls what comes in and what comes out, for many this would be a strange concept for art production that the West perceives as the creativity’s true role while for North Korea it stands for the only known or allowed.
Editors’ Tip: Exploring North Korean Arts
Opening up the civilization we know little about, the beautifully designed book, offers its readers the most ambitious explanation of the produced music, literature, paintings, design, animation, and sculpture works of the North Korea. Exploring the internationally acknowledged animation artists, poster and stamp designs, book illustrations, the book also offers an insight into the produced music, written works, and celebrated chosonhwa paintings, focusing on presenting the political views and standpoints of the entire production. Bravely discussing the political hand of power the book brings the society of compromises and the creative production under military role.
All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Pak Ryong – Sam – Farewell. Image via cctv-america.com; North Korea Propaganda Poster Design. Image via vox.com