Inside the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea
It is the last place where Socialist Realism is still flourishing; our reporter spent a week there visiting artists’ studios
By Adrian Dannatt. Features, Issue 200, March 2009
Published online: 18 March 2009
North Korea may remain a notoriously secretive state yet its visual art has proved a surprisingly agile ambassador. Indeed considering the profound isolation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), there seem an improbable number of collectors and exhibitions devoted to its art. As one of the few remaining truly exotic destinations, even just a week in the capital Pyongyang is sufficient to glean some sense of the ruling dictatorship’s devotion to the visual arts. Indeed the only posters to be seen on the streets are products of the country’s numerous art factories.
Now, the art of the DPRK is set to be seen on a global stage. We can reveal that the next Asia–Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, the leading art event in Asia, taking place this December in Brisbane, will feature the most significant exhibition yet mounted of work from the DPRK. This is to be co-curated by Nicholas Bonner, an English landscape-architect and film producer based in Beijing, who also runs the leading DPRK travel agency, “Koryo Tours”, and who has amassed the most significant collection of contemporary art from North Korea.
The art itself looks like classic Social Realist propaganda, that Beaux Arts technical tradition received through Russia, maintained by the Soviet Union and now, with the transformation of China, only being practised in North Korea, unchanged for more than 50 years. Abstract painting does not exist as it is deemed bourgeois and anti-revolutionary, and if some representational art can be purely aesthetic without political overtones, many landscapes do portray places of the revolution or of political significance.
Obedience to the ideology and excellence in its clear communication to others are what matter rather than any individual glory. This ensures an anonymity to much DPRK production that only its cognoscenti can penetrate. Experts can not only assign an artist’s name to a work, they can also determine whether it is an “original” or one of endless “copies” of an image.
Ever since the founding of the state in 1948, certain themes have maintained their place in the officially approved iconography of the “Fatherland” and it is hard to establish which artist first produced a specific image and when. These same images can be reproduced countless times over the decades. Thus much detective work is required to trace the origin of an image, the only real source being the annual “Yearbook” cataloguing official production.
As Bonner explains: “The skill level is very high in academic drawing and painting, but the production is massive and it’s hard to find ‘pure’ pieces, you have to know the provenance or where things were first found.” Indeed, even the museums display copies, ostensibly to “preserve” the quality of the originals kept in storage.
All DPRK artists are members of state-run studio complexes where the art is actually created, and every artist has a formal ranking. These start at level C, move up through B and A, followed by “Merited Artists”, then “People’s Artist”. There are around 50 “Merited Artists” still working today and perhaps 20 “People’s Artists”, the best known being Son U Yong, Kim Chun Jon, Jong Chang Mo, Li Chang and Li Gyong Nam. Almost all artists working in oil and brush-and-ink are men but there are exceptions—for example Kim Song Hui, well known for her brush-and-ink work, is also a People’s Artist. There is also the Kim Il Sung Prize but artists normally have to be at least over 50 to receive this highest accolade, the most famous recipient being Jong Yong Man.
The top art institute is the Pyongyang University of Fine Art with various sections: brush-and-ink, oil, sculpture, ceramics, mural painting and industrial arts. Young artists are selected from around the country and if they are judged sufficiently skilled they will study here. Pyongyang University requires a minimum of five years study: at the moment there are 7-10 students studying oil painting and around 20 studying Korean brush-and-ink painting. In total there are around 150 students a year in the fine art department. Students enjoy class outings to local factories and much time is devoted to object and life drawing although not with nude models but, for example, girls in swimming costumes.
After finishing university the students are selected by various art studios—the Paekho or Central Art Studio, the Songhwa established in 1997 for retired artists, and the most active studio-compound, the Mansudae in Pyongyang.
Here visitors, especially foreign tourists, are welcome to see the artists working in their small studios, watch the instructional video on the operation of the company, and buy some work from the large gift shop. Prices at the very top end for a “People’s Artist” can reach as high as €15,000, the favoured currency for all foreign transactions.
Woodblocks are a North Korean speciality, though nowadays they have been almost entirely replaced by lino prints with an attractive rich ink finish. The first ever exhibition of such prints in the United States, loaned from Bonner’s collection, opened last year at New York’s Korea Society, which is currently touring through the country. Initial editions are often very small, less than ten, but if the image proves popular the lino is either re-cut by the same artist or by a “copy” artist and signed by him.
At Mansudae there are also small-scale ceramic sculptures available, naturally of a propagandist nature, as well as more classical ceramics. There is even a startlingly realistic sculpture, reminiscent of Duane Hanson, of North Korea’s most famous ceramicist Uchi Soun (1919-2003) and examples of his widely-exhibited work for as much as €10,000 a pot. There are also striking large-scale figurative watercolours on paper and the highest-quality work, local ink paintings called “Chosonhwa”, some of which will be “thematic art” on revolutionary themes, as each artist will produce at least one a year for the state to show his support for the country. Mansudae employs some 150 of these ink-artists, compared with perhaps 60 oil painters. With some 1,000 members Mansudae produces at least 4,000 top level original works a year, though it also has a factory-style section producing copies for western hotels. Employees, who work a five day eight-hour week, are paid, dependent on level, at a similar rate to the national average, €35 a month for a worker and €70 for a technician.
Mansudae also actively promotes its art abroad, assembling and delivering exhibitions for hire around the world, claiming some “100 shows in more than 70 countries”, with artists chosen by grade rather than by name. Mansudae even runs a commercial gallery in Beijing’s 798 district and likewise supplies the bulk of stock for galleries and dealers around the world.
Thus it could not be easier to assemble a collection of contemporary DPRK art, you can commission whatever you want painted and studios will ship anywhere in the world, but it could not be harder to source the originals. Bonner elucidates: “Propaganda posters tend not to be signed. In this case it is certainly more difficult to know whether you are buying an original or a copy—but there are ways to tell, particularly if you have the original and the printed copy, how the painting is prepared, stretched and how the slogan is added. It is a difficult market to know what you are buying—ink works and oils are copied and sold as ‘original’ but on close inspection of DPRK records such as Yearbooks you can see they are copies. They are not fakes as they are signed by the copy artist not the original artist.”
Art was previously dated in the Roman style however since the death of Leader Kim Il Sung most paintings are dated from the year of his birth 1912. For example “Juche 89” represents the year 2000, Juche referring to the ideology of self-reliance, elaborated by the former leader.
Thus, though sometimes back-dated, it is possible to work out the approximate age of DPRK work, and it is rare to find anything, outside of the museums, made before the 1970s. Bonner’s collection is unique not only for containing the original maquettes of the country’s most famous and longest running posters, but also works from the 1960s, and even the early 1950s, if not 1948 itself.
“Quite a few artists actually came north from South Korea after the revolution, in the heroic period of rebuilding the country. The problem with earlier work is they didn’t prime their canvases so quality can be rough, but later they also used home-grown Korean pigments and Mulberry paper and these remain in excellent condition. Their oil painting is definitely second in quality and expertise to their traditional Chosun Hua Korean ink painting,” he says.
Bonner has managed over the last 15 years to find prime original works by such better-known artists as Jong Yong, Ryu Hwan-gi, Song U Yong and Mrs Kim Sung Hui.
“I’m still looking, but the days of collecting are slightly over as all the very good, early, pieces have gone.”
Other collector-dealers include David Heather in London, who hired a Pall Mall gallery in 2007 to show recently accumulated works, and Wim van der Bijl and Ronald de Groen in Holland who mounted an important exhibition at the Kunsthal Rotterdam in 2004. From Milan, Alessandro Belgiojoso collects and deals in political posters, as well as commissioning hand-painted versions of Western advertising. Meanwhile, Pier Luigi Cecioni, Italy’s biggest collector, owns some 600 pieces, mainly from Mansudae. Accompanied by a sumptuous book, Cecioni mounted an exhibition of his collection at Genoa’s Palazzo Cattaneo in 2007, curated by art critic Pier Luigi Tazzi.
But suitably for so anti-materialist a country, the one work of DPRK culture guaranteed to truly impress any visitor is impossible to purchase: namely the spectacular mass-choreographed Arirang Festival games, a triumph of total “performance art” at its most dazzling.
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