The North Korean art field is a difficult market to understand, if you are buying purely due to aesthetics then perhaps do not worry too much, but if you are looking to obtain a piece that you truly want to be original and with provenance (not a copy or re-print as many pieces are) then do contact Nicholas Bonner at firstname.lastname@example.org as he is working regularly with DPRK artists and is currently co-curating the DPRK entry for Asia’s biggest contemporary art event, the APT in Brisbane.
We can also put together an independent tour of DPRK that includes visiting an artists studio, the art gallery, various retailers, and if possible any exhibitions.
In 1978 at the 14th National Art Exhibition President Kim Il Sung wrote the introduction: “our arts must be truly popular ones that respond to the sentiments of our people; they must be revolutionary ones that serve the interests of the Party and the revolution”.
The North Koreans place a great importance on their art and the part it plays in the ongoing revolution and the purpose of the majority of DPRK artwork is for furthering this process. The country is also rightly proud of its traditional artistic heritage and art can be purely aesthetic without political overtones. Many landscapes portray places of the revolution or of political significance such as Mt Paekdu (considered in Korea to be the birthplace of the Korean people and the revolution) and Mt Kumgang (the mountain range running down the lower East coast into South Korea, considered to be Korea’s most beautiful area) which has come to represent the country’s division.
Abstract painting as such does not exist in DPRK art vocabulary as it is deemed bourgeois and anti-revolutionary. Contemporary styles can be seen - whether as the development of an artist’s work, the same landscape but painted in a stronger form or via an artist with a new painting method.
Artists decide themselves on their subject matter unless directly commissioned. There are individual styles - for example Jong Chang Mo and his bold ink work. Pak Yong Su manages a unit at Mansudae Art Studio with 63 artists, “Some prefer the modern style – strong touch and contrast whereas others remain more traditional in style.”
Artwork 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 (the Juche calendar) so for example Juche 89 represents 2000 (1912 is year 1, no year zero).
Propaganda posters are not seen as fine art and there is a separate training for this medium.
TYPES OF ART MEDIUM
INK WORKS (Chosun hua) The most beautifully painted artworks in DPRK are their ink works which might follow revolutionary themes or landscape/floral subjects. Each year an artist will dedicate at least one ink painting a year based on the revolution.
WOODBLOCKS/LINOCUTS Woodblocks have been almost entirely replaced by lino prints with an attractive rich ink finish. The first ever exhibition of such prints in the USA, loaned from Koryo Tours’ director Nick Bonner’s collection, opened last year at New York’s Korea Society who are currently touring it through the US. Initial editions are often very small, less than 10, 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.
OIL North Korean oil painting is definitely second in quality and expertise to their traditional Chosun Hua Korean ink painting. Again it is important to know if you are buying the original or a copy, especially if the resale value is important to you.
WATER COLOUR/GOUACHE Not often used in fine art in North Korea though a few artists have mastered its use.
JEWEL/POWDER PAINTING reported as a Korean invention this is perhaps better termed a craft than fine art.
SCULPTURE North Korea excels at sculptures, from the gigantic flying horse Chollima in the centre of Pyongyang, to the beautiful sculpted busts of the Korean heroes at the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery.
MOSAIC you have to see the incredible mosaics to believe them, excellent examples in the metro and on various public buildings. The majority of these are made by teams of workers at Mansudae Art Studio.
The top art university is the Pyongyang University of Fine Art which has various sections: brush and ink, oil, sculpture, ceramics, mural painting, industrial arts, etc. There are also several other specialist universities such as Pyongyang College of Handicrafts (responsible for embroidery and lacquer work), Pyongyang University of Construction and Building Materials (architecture), Pyongyang University of Cinematics etc.
Young artists are selected from around the country and if they are judged to be sufficiently skilled they will study at Pyongyang University of Fine Art. In Pyongyang and the hinterland there are local colleges for artists who do not reach the grades necessary for Pyongyang University of Fine Arts but these are not purely art academies but are shared with dance, design etc.
Pyongyang University of Fine Art requires a minimum of 5 years study though artist Pak Yong Su studied from age 15 to 23. He was in a class of only 5 students. Currently in oil paintings there are 7-10 students and in Korean brush and ink painting there are around 20 painters. In total there are around 150 students a year in the fine art department.
Students start with object and life drawing (not nudes, but maybe girls in swimming costumes) and class outings to factories and mountain areas for landscape painting, etc. They do not copy art as such, though techniques will be copied.
After finishing University the students are selected by various Art Studios - Mansudae, Minye, Paekho and the Central Art Studio are recognised as the best. Every professional artist is a member of a studio and all artists are registered under the Korean Literature and Artists Union.
A typical artist’s week involves painting on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Spending Thursday developing and improving skills and techniques, and Saturday (as for the rest of the population) is a study day for refreshing knowledge of the Juche Idea and other national texts. The working day is 8 hours long.
Unless on a government commission artists are free to paint what they wish, they would need approval for trips out of the city.
Each year an artist will work on a Chuchehua (thematic painting) the subject matter and how many paintings on this subject an artist produces depends on the artist and what he/she is feeling “according to one’s mind” Mr Pak Yong Su.
Art is judged by the Central Committee of the Korean Artists Union (Mr Kim Song Min assistant director at Mansudae Art Studio is President of this Union) and for exhibitions it is joined also by a separate elite ‘Council for National Art Exhibition’ who are made up of heads of Art Studios and related organisations.
Artists do not have to produce certain amounts of work per year - though there is obviously pressure on them to produce high quality works. We have seen works for sale by artists such as People’s Artist Son U Yong who have made very close copies of their own popular landscape paintings (these are perhaps simply studies but more likely to produce popular pieces to sell). Indeed much of DPRK art is copied by younger artists who are trained to copy work of their betters and in so doing improve their skills - they do sign the work with their own name even though it is a copy. These artworks often find their way into the art market but be warned, you are not buying an original. Certain artists use a nom de plume but this is not usual.
Artists are graded from level 5 (lowest) to level 1 (highest). For those whose skill levels exceed these brackets there are the even higher honours of Merited Artist and People’s Artist - the most honorific title being People’s Artist. It is possible for an artist under grade 1 to be promoted as a Merited artist if one of their paintings is judged to be worthy of such recognition for example appreciated by the Leader Kim Jong Il. Most artists would be in their late 30s before they were given Merited Artist status.
There are approximately 20 People’s Artists painting today (for example Son U Yong, Kim Chun Jon, Jong Chang Mo, Li Chang, Li Gyong Nam) and around 50 Merited artists. Almost without exception the artists in oil and brush and ink are men but there are exceptions for example Mrs Kim Song Hui, well known for her brush and ink work, who is also a People’s Artist.
Artists who have contributed to the DPRK arts are eligible for the Kim Il Sung Prize (artists normally have to be over the age of 50 years to receive this accolade).
As well as artistic awards the artists may receive ‘Labour Hero’ awards for their work towards the revolution.
Throughout the DPRK, exhibitions are held with a high degree of frequency. Dates are not always set to fixed schedules but often take place over national holidays such as Leader Kim Il Sung/Kim Jong Il’s birthdays and revolutionary anniversaries. Every autumn there is a landscape exhibition at the Central Art Gallery in Pyongyang. Amateur artists may have their own exhibitions but only rarely at National Exhibition level. There is also Songhwa Art Studio for retired artists which hold their own exhibitions.