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The creativity that survives in North Korea’s repressive state

Chosunhua (north Korea ink wash painting) is the most prestigious medium in North Korean art, and sets the standard for images made in other techniques. - Credit: Courtesy of Nicholas Bonner

Glimpses inside the so-called ‘hermit state’ of North Korea are rare, choreographed encounters designed to give the impression of an immaculately-run society in which citizens function as contented cogs in a well-regulated machine. In TV footage, the capital city of Pyongyang appears a grey, monotonous expanse, a joyless backdrop against which lives are lived in the service of a despotic and murderous leader. In such a climate, where free will and individuality have been eradicated, creativity would seem to be anathema, and yet a book of prints dating from the 1950s to the present day presents a more nuanced and less familiar view of this mysterious state.

Printed in North Korea: The Art of Everyday Life in the DPRK presents a selection of woodcut and linocut prints from the collection of Nicholas Bonner, a British expatriate who lives in Beijing, from where he organises guided tours to North Korea and has produced several films including Michael Palin’s 2018 documentary for Channel 5, and a romantic feature film, Comrade Kim Goes Flying.

He began acquiring prints on his first visit to North Korea in 1993, and has now amassed a collection that may well be the largest of its kind in the West.

Though considerably smaller than the vast portraits of leaders and heroic workers so often displayed in dictatorships, the prints are no less enthusiastic in their promotion of the regime, but they embrace subject matter that ranges from wildlife and landscapes, to aspects of everyday life, including scenes of childhood and work.

Scenes of beaming workers are balanced by less blatant propaganda, works that have artistic merit and are often characterised by a bold and interesting colour palette. 

Bonner recalls his initial surprise at North Korea’s colourfulness, and “the level of artistry in everything I saw from subway mosaics to the simple beauty of product design”.

Produced solely for a home audience, the prints provide a rare and unexpected window onto the state. They also make a telling contrast to the cultural output of South Korea, which, in the past few years has become increasingly familiar to us, with boy band BTS topping the US singles chart this month, and Korean manhwa joining manga on western bookshelves.

Seoul is ever more prominent on the international art scene, and in a wide-ranging new book Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation, Interaction, the country’s buoyant state is viewed in the context of its 70-year history, and its uneasy relationship with its closest neighbour.

If South Korea has opened its own traditions to the influence of the USA, China and Japan, North Korea has successfully sealed itself off from the outside.

In the 19th century, a small number of artists travelled to Europe, and during the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945, one or two were sent to train in Japan. Since then, says Bonner, “the amount of information coming in from abroad is absolutely minimal. A few artists do get to travel but mainly to China for various art projects or occasional art fairs”.

Under the circumstances, it is no surprise that many of the prints have a decidedly retro aesthetic that chimes unnervingly with the ongoing British fetishation of 1950s style.

Though the earlier images are mainly woodcut, those dating from the 1970s tend to be linocut, a medium that gained popularity among western artists, including Picasso and Matisse, in the first half of the 20th century.

The technique gained popularity as a propaganda tool during the Korean War of 1950-53, and it proved the ideal medium for delivering a quick, repeatable message at minimal expense.

Little has changed since, and scene after scene of jubilant factory workers, bountiful harvests and heroic exploits from the Korean War, consistently reinforce the message that North Korea is the greatest country in the world, presided over by a mighty, wise and beneficent leader.

Made principally to be viewed in exhibitions, the prints exemplify Juche realism, North Korea’s own brand of socialist realism, which Stalin defined as “socialist in content and national in form”.

Juche describes the North Korean doctrine of self-reliance, and though all art forms must conform to it, it finds its ultimate expression in the “national form” of chosunhua, traditional ink-wash painting.

Kim Jong-il, father of the current dictator, set out the particular qualities of chosunhua in a treatise On Fine Art, writing: “Buoying up the national feelings and aesthetic tastes of our people to the full, and representing reality in a lifelike way, Korean painting has become known throughout the world as an excellent form of painting. Painted in bright, simple and delicate brushwork, it displays excellent artistic characteristics as a powerful, beautiful and noble form of painting.”

Mirroring the rigid organisation of North Korean society, art is subject to a strict hierarchy that follows Kim Jong-un’s pronouncement that “art not related with the revolution, art for its own sake, is useless”.

The most prestigious images reaffirm the leaders as the guardians of the greatest country in the world, with each person performing a vital role in its ongoing success.

Landscape paintings are less prestigious, but, writes Koen de Ceuster, lecturer in Korean Studies at Leiden University, still “evoke the beauty of a blessed nation, graced by the presence of the leaders, and still-life paintings summon images of abundance”.

Limited subject matter makes repetition inevitable, though it may also make the particular talent of certain artists all the more evident. The exceptionally high quality of so much in Bonner’s collection is testament to the esteem in which art is held in Korea, and the state’s investment in artists’ training.

Talented children are identified at a young age and given extra tuition, which, for those who prove good enough, will be followed by a degree at the Pyongyang University of Fine Arts. On graduation, artists take up apprenticeships in studios that serve a particular city or province, or a government department or public service such as the railways, or the military.

The pinnacle of achievement is a job at the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, a vast production centre that employs the best of the country’s artists across all genres, from embroidery, to sculpture, to painting.

In addition to some 800 artists, Mansudae employs an support staff of around 3,000, responsible for producing art supplies such as brushes, paper and paint. The studio receives commissions from the Workers’ Party, the sole patron of art in the country, and is regularly visited by the leader, who, writes, Koen de Ceuster, “provides ‘on-the-spot guidance’ and shares theoretical insights with the artists”.

Most of the prints in Nicholas Bonner’s collection come from Mansudae, the Paekho Art Studios or from the annual competitions to which individuals can submit their best work.

Large-scale works for public spaces often require artists to work in teams, but they also work on their own projects, though these must still conform to the same unbending ideological standards set by the North Korean Artists’ Federation and the Workers’ Party.

Individual projects allow some space for individual expression however, and Bonner’s collection of artists’ sketches from the 1950s and 1960s, made en plein air just as a western artist might do, are impressionistic and unconstrained by ideology, the cheery workers and signs of abundance only added in the final work.

Some of these too, create an imaginative space amidst the relentless production of propaganda. Depictions of fishing boats at night, or the rushing white froth of a waterfall appeal to a romantic aesthetic, and while they still ultimately answer to the requirement to idealise North Korea, they lack the blunt tedium of more familiar examples of Juche realism.

The compositional devices that 19th century western artists like Van Gogh and Monet so admired in Japanese prints are evident here too, with high viewpoints, and close crops creating compelling and cinematic views of mundane activities. In Kelp (1985), by Ri Sun Sil, great chains of seaweed, hung on lines to dry for use in broths and tea, define the picture space. Colour is used in an exciting, and often conspicuously unnaturalistic way that is tolerated presumably because it facilitates the message.
Contrasting blue and yellow successfully promotes the campaign to increase fishing in the ‘golden seas’ around Korea, and the brilliant green of a soaring tree canopy emphasises a vigorous natural environment.

If such poetic diversions come as a surprise to westerners who tend to view North Koreans as more automaton than human, Bonner says that this makes his work to share the country’s visual culture all the more important.

“Here,” he says, “just as in the West, the lack of information is one of the most dangerous scenarios you can have. It’s far better to understand how they make film, make their art.”

As for condoning the regime, he says there’s simply not the money involved for that to be a serious concern. He works with individual artists and studios, never with the regime, and in commissioning work he encourages artists to depict everyday life, rather than the heroic postures associated with socialist, or Juche realism.

As North Korea seems once again to have retreated from the outside world, the insight provided by Bonner’s remarkable collection seems more precious than ever; perhaps it might even allow us to take comfort in one of Kim Jong-un’s more astonishing aphorisms, that “the strength of art is greater than that of a nuclear bomb”

Printed in North Korea: The Art of Everyday Life in the DPRK, by Nicholas Bonner, is published by Phaidon, £24.95

For more information on Nicholas Bonner click here 
Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation, Interaction, by Yeon Shim Chung, Kimberly Chung, Sunjung Kim, and Keith B. Wagner can be purchased from Phaidon by clicking here 

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