Understanding the Art in the DPRK
Understanding the Art in the DPRK
On artistic training:
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.
On artistic style:
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.
“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.”
More information on the Mansudae Art Company:
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.