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North Korea’s public image is carefully curated by its government, leading to a widely held view that the nation’s cultural sector is devoted solely to propaganda and therefore lacking in artistic merit. Yet art is a crucial part of North Korean society, and at a time when the political situation surrounding the country appears to be reaching a turning point, this subject is receiving an increasing amount of attention.
At the forthcoming Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, artist and Georgetown University professor BG Muhn will present a selection of 31 painters from Pyongyang’s Mansundae Art Studio, thought to be one of the largest art production centres in the world. As he prepares to give North Korean art arguably its biggest platform yet, Muhn discusses what he has learnt about these artists’ attitude towards their work and his hopes for this timely project.
Alexander Morrison: How did your interest in North Korean art begin?
BG Muhn: I was born in South Korea and educated there until I finished my degree in journalism. Just like all South Koreans at that time, I was saturated with anti-communist education, which meant having genuine fear of North Korea. But my fascination began in America, where I came to study, and had a chance to see a work of North Korean art. It was Chosonhwa, a type of ink wash painting on rice paper that is commonly called Oriental painting. When I saw it I was surprised – I never expected anything like that from the North. Seeing that artwork broke my fear. I wanted to know more, so I started making trips to North Korea to do some research.
AM: What is it that stood out to you about the Chosonhwa style and North Korean art more broadly?
BGM: As an artist I was astonished by their expressions. The scene I saw in America portrayed a group of people in the midst of a snowstorm – Kim Il Sung as a young general, carrying his young wife alongside other soldiers. I was very moved by the individual expressions on their faces – very sublime and noble. This is not really seen in other forms of Oriental art in South Korea, Japan, or China.
AM: You refer to your surprise at seeing the facial expressions in these works. From your perspective, how much artistic freedom are these artists able to have?
BGM: This is an interesting question – when I ask them myself, it actually simply doesn’t quite make sense from a North Korean artist’s perspective. It implies that they would like to break free if they were given a chance. In fact their exposure to other kinds of art, such as work depicting psychological states or satirical messages, or criticising government, is very limited there. So they don’t think of making many choices beyond what they already know. We have to understand that North Korean society is very different from the liberal environment we live in.
AM: On the topic of foreign influence, one thing I understand North Korean artists do draw from is the Socialist Realist style that was popular during the Soviet era?
BGM: Exactly, right. Overall I would say there is very little influence from foreign countries. But Socialist Realism, which developed in Soviet Union in the early 1930s, became pretty much the dominant style in other communist countries, including North Korea. It is underlined by a clear purpose to depict socialist and communist ideas, often glorifying the roles of the poor and the proletariat. It utilises realist techniques, and the content is usually focused on war, the ideological education of the people, and the idealisation of leaders.
The type of Socialist Realism found in North Korea, however, is quite different from that of the Soviet Union. The biggest difference is that, as I mentioned, North Korea has developed its own unique style of art – Chosonhwa. Also, in North Korea, Socialist Realism has developed to include really delicate, nuanced portrayals of people’s facial expressions.
I wondered why they are different. The question became the focus of my studies, and I found that it’s because North Korean society is still very much influenced by Confucianism. This means that it is their mission, their responsibility to express nobility and some kind of sublimeness of human inner strength through their art. Challenging situations they faced like battles, in which they are supposed to feel anxiety and fear, they go the opposite way – showing how they endure that situation, their difficulties, their fear.
AM: And this attitude of North Korean artists towards their art – there’s a communal aspect to it too isn’t there?
BGM: Yes, in North Korea the artists and the authorities have developed this unique collaborative working method in all media, but particularly in painting and in sculpture. Once the subject matter and scenes are decided upon, often by leading art organisations, many artists work together to create large-scale paintings and sculptures in a relatively short period of time.
These works are usually made to commemorate a sorrowful or celebratory national event such as the death of a leader or the construction of a dam. For example, in 1996, 60 Chosonhwa artists from the Mansudae art studio collaborated on a panoramic Chosonhwa painting depicting a mourning scene after Kim Il Sung's death in 1994. It was 2 metres high and 82 metres wide. The particular nature of the rice paper helped the artists to form these gigantic paintings efficiently – large sheets of rice paper are glued together for any desired width, so after completion the paintings can be easily folded for storage prior to being mounted for display.
An artist told me when I was in Pyongyang that to create a work depicting the building of a dam, they walk into the construction field, and rather than doing any preliminary work, they join in with the workers to establish a rapport. And after that they begin sketching images of the subject.
AM: And the authorities are involved in deciding on the content of these works?
BGM: The authorities are not involved that much. There is a leader artist who controls the depth of the painting and decides which areas they need to make darker and lighter, and when artists are working on very unusual pieces they will need to be authorised. But overall they seek harmony, working together to successfully create a final piece.
AM: And this year you will be showcasing the work of 31 North Korean artists at the Gwangju Biennale. What’s the story you are trying to tell there?
BGM: First of all I hope I can establish a discourse around North Korean art, because as I’ve expressed I don’t think there are many fair critical perspectives on this subject at the moment. I’m going to introduce a large number of collaborative works of art, all made in Chosonhwa, as well as landscapes and beautiful examples of literati painting – a scholarly tradition many thought had disappeared a long time ago. It will be the first opportunity for the people of South Korea and the rest of the world to see the full spectrum of North Korean art within the context of Socialist Realism.
I believe this exhibition will have significance and historic value for the Korean peninsula. The two nations have been separated for more than six decades, with little exchange of culture, art or politics. Although the political situation is seemingly developing rapidly these days towards reconciliation between the South and the North, and although its relationship with other countries appears to be changing, it’s notable that we actually don't know how society operates or functions in North Korea.
For example, while it’s true that North Korean art is largely propaganda, that is not all it is. I scrutinised North Korean art in Pyongyang for six or seven years, making nine trips, and within the prescribed themes I found evidence of a high degree of creativity. Here we are not talking about art for art’s sake, but within this limited environment, artists are still creating artworks that convey a mastery of brushstrokes and that offer solutions to artistic problems. I hope to show this in Gwangju.
BG Muhn is an artist and professor of painting and drawing at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. His is the author of Pyongyang Art: The Enigmatic World of Chosonhwa, published in March 2018.
The 12th Gwangju Biennale will run from 7 September to 11 November 2018 in Gwangju, South Korea.