But is it Art?

Encounters with Painters in North Korea
5pm SOAS, 8 December 2006
Koen De Ceuster, Centre for Korean Studies, Leiden University

Seon Woo Young (???) Rock Painting

“But is it Art”?: that was the question posed by Koen De Ceuster on Friday night at SOAS, as part of the series of talks held by the Centre for Korean Studies.

The talk started from the premise that the view of North Korean art held in the West is that it is bombastic Socialist Realism: propaganda pictures of the Leaders giving advice to rosy-cheeked workers building a Juche paradise. And that’s predominantly what you see, for example, in Jane Portal’s book, in the British Museum, and in numerous holiday snaps of North Korea. The almost unspoken presumption is that techniques and subject-matter are stuck in a socialist time-warp, with no scope for experimentation by the artist. And that therefore the art is not worthy of attention.

However, the pictures one tends to see as typical of North Korean art — the propaganda pictures — are not necessarily the ones that are most popular in North Korea. While depictions of the Leaders, of the guerrilla struggle, of construction of a socialist paradise, and less favourable pictures of life in the South, are all the most officially sanctioned, landscapes are also safe, and in fact are the most popular in the DPRK itself for domestic consumption.

De Ceuster has been working with a Belgian TV crew on a documentary on North Korean art (don’t expect this to come out in the immediate future) and as part of this exercise has been to the DPRK to meet some prominent artists.

Some of the key artists De Ceuster met, having achieved a certain status in the DPRK art hierarchy (a few good propaganda pictures gets you there) are allowed to do non-propaganda stuff: more traditional ink painting, or ink and colour painting, known as Chosunhwa (조선화). Within the confines of Chosunhwa there’s a certain amount of freedom. For example, a fairly abstract portrayal of a real place can qualify as realist and hence acceptable.

A problem which De Ceuster faced in preparing his talk was the scarcity of source material. The painters he met didn’t possess many of their own paintings: the works had been shown in / donated to public exhibitions and not been seen since. And reproductions of their work are hard to come by. My own internet searches of the artists De Ceuster mentioned came up with little, but what I could find I have loaded onto my flickr pages. And in fact, consistent with DeCeuster’s comments about the popularity of landscapes, pictures of Mount Kumgang seemed to be fairly common.

Sonu Yong: Dokdo

One of the more interesting painters De Ceuster introduced was Seon Woo Yeong (선우영) (born 1946), known as the Rock Painter. An example of his work is above. Note the extremely careful and detailed work. A slightly less detailed, but more emotive, picture of Dokdo is shown above.

Probably the top artist in the North is Jong Chang Mo (정창모) (born 1931), originally from Chongju in the South1. His themes tend to be flower paintings (example below).

De Ceuster discussed a number of images by his chosen artists, pointing out the variety of techniques — careful delineation of key figures in a picture (particularly the Leaders) but also more traditional single-stroke brushwork in the background. Similar variety can appear within the more traditional (non-propaganda) pictures. In fact North Korean artists are known for the strength of their technique: China sends many students there to study.

In a country where artists are effectively employed by the state — even the railways and major corporations have their in-house artists — clearly art is to a certain extent “under control”2. But talking to the artists, De Ceuster came to the view that things were not frozen in time; that diversity both in subject matter and style was developing, and that there was a certain flexibility — albeit within bounds — that makes strands of North Korean art, building on past tradition, worthy of attention. Just because an artist works within certain constraints does not mean that the work he produces is worthless: an artist can produce a work of genuine worth by excelling within a particular style and technique.

Jung Chang Mo Flower Painting

Links:

  • The Chosun blasts the British Museum for showing DPRK propaganda
  • Start your own collection of DPRK propaganda works direct from Pyongyang’s Mansudae studio, courtesy of the Epicentre Gallery
  • More Chosunhwa images at Kyorehsarangteo (scroll to the bottom of the page for links to 8 more pages)
  • Another article on this lecture over at Ringisei
  1. in fact a number of the South’s most talented artists ended up in the North []
  2. the title of Jane Portal’s book []

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