North Korean Art (Review)

Posted January 8, 2019

Categories: Art, Articles, Book Reviews, Korea, Uncategorized

Review of BG Muhn, North Korean Art: Paradoxical Realism (Seoul Selection, 2018), 80 pages


Americans, if they have seen anything of North Korean art, have probably caught glimpses of the propaganda posters that occasionally appear in newspaper photographs of North Korean street scenes. The more knowledgeable North Korea watcher might be familiar with the paintings of Kim Il Sung and his family, the last examples of socialist realism still being produced in significant quantities in the world.


Both types of art strengthen the stereotype of North Korea as a rigid and relentlessly politicized society. They reinforce what BG Muhn calls “an assumption of uniformity.”


BG Muhn is an artist and a professor at Georgetown University. As he vividly demonstrates in his new book, North Korean art is quite diverse, often apolitical, and sometimes beautiful to boot. North Korean Art: Paradoxical Realism is the catalog that accompanies an exhibition that Muhn curated at the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea in 2018. The exhibition focuses on Chosonhwa, the works that North Korean painters prepare on the unforgiving medium of highly absorbent paper made from mulberry bark. Like the frescos of Renaissance artists, Chosonhwa does not permit any mistakes. One false move and the artist has to start all over again.


The collection of 22 paintings that Muhn brought to Gwangju features several examples of socialist realism – scenes that would not look out of place in the Soviet Union of the 1940s or, frankly, the New Deal period in the United States. Workers smelt iron, a brigade of cheerful young men complete work on a dam, sailors struggle to survive an ocean storm: these are the expected depictions of workers in a workers’ state. They are kitsch, in the sense that Muhn identifies as smiling in the face of hardship. This kind of melodrama is what modern artists scrupulously avoid.


Of course, North Korean artists also depict the country’s leaders, beginning with founder Kim Il Sung. But none of these paintings appeared in the Gwangju exhibit. The South Korean government, Muhn writes, wanted to make sure that this kind of propaganda was not put on display – despite the warming in North-South relations that the Moon Jae-in administration has cultivated. In fact, Muhn even had to avoid paintings that relied too much on the red color that represents revolutionary ardor. Given the still-strong anti-North Korean sentiment in the South, the government no doubt wanted to avoid providing conservative elements any easy targets to criticize.


Instead, the exhibition presented some remarkable snapshots of average life in North Korea, like a group of young girls arrayed on a bench with the autumn sunlight creating a dappled effect on their clothes and the knapsacks at their feet. In another, the sun breaks through the rainclouds just above a bus stop to create a triptych of rain-soaked commuters on the left, a central figure folding her umbrella, and a pair of children clapping with delight at the end of the shower. It has the high gloss and high spirits of a magazine advertisement, which is quite remarkable for a country that has little to no advertising.


But the real treasures in the exhibition are the scenes from nature, which is perhaps not so surprising given the high regard in North Korea for mountains, waterfalls, and certain animals. One of those animals is the tiger, which artist Kim Chol depicts dashing through the snow. It is an extraordinary painting, made even more so when you learn that Chosonhwa painters don’t use white paint but instead paint around the white of the paper. As Muhn relates, the painter spent seven hours alone on one of the tiger’s irises. A close-up in the book reveals the multi-layered lustrousness of the eye.


Then there are the waves. I was familiar with the highly stylized representation of waves in Asian art, such as the famous waves of the ukiyo-e or woodblock prints of Japanese tradition. But Kim Song Gun has made the painting of waves into a higher art form. His large canvasses of waves striking rocks pulse with the dynamism of the tide. The recipient of the country’s highest award for art, Kim has come to be called the “the virtuous painter of waves.” He has even written a detailed volume on the physical properties of waves and how to capture them in paint.


A final category of art in the exhibition is the so-called literati paintings. Given the connection of this type of painting to a class of scholar-bureaucrats that have long disappeared from North Korea, it was surprising to discover that the tradition has continued in the country. The paintings depict flowers, temples, and mountains, often accompanied by short texts presented in calligraphic form.


It’s always tempting, from an art historical point of view, to identify influences in a work of art. As I leafed through the catalog, I saw what I thought were echoes of Gerricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, the brushwork of John Singer Sargent, or even the photorealism of more contemporary artists.


But Muhn cautions against this type of interpretation. “Contemporary North Korean art must not be viewed through the lens of our own fixed assumptions, but through the context of North Korean society, and how it implements traditional values and socialist policy through its practice of art,” he writes.


It is this oscillation between the traditional and the explicitly political that makes North Korean art so fascinating. In either of these two modes, the paintings are wholly lacking in the irony that has become a hallmark of modern art. But even as we seek to understand North Korean art in its own context, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that North Korea itself is changing. BG Muhn’s book is a snapshot of North Korean culture at this particular juncture. But it can equally serve as a yardstick to judge the nature and pace of change within North Korean art itself.

Korean Quarterly, Summer 2019


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