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Michael works in the health care field in Washington, D.C. and studies North Korean culture and relations between North and South Korea.
He doesn’t have much competition in this space, but if there is an American ambassador for North Korean art, B.G. Muhn would be it.
After years of visiting Pyongyang and persuading state officials to lend him artwork, Muhn’s vision of organizing a North Korean art exhibit in Washington, D.C. is a reality.
Twenty-three paintings by North Korean artists are on display at the Katzen Arts Center on the American University campus. The show, “Contemporary North Korean Art: the Evolution of Socialist Realism,” opened in June and continues until August 14.
Almost daring visitors to enter the exhibit, the first piece on display is Kim Chol’s portrait of a tiger striding through a snowstorm, eyes locked on his prey. Kim, known as the “tiger painter,” spent seven hours just perfecting the irises that burn inside the tiger’s eyes, Muhn says. Splashes of white in the painting are blank spaces, not white paint that Kim carefully painted around.
The tiger is one of the few paintings that does not carry an explicit political message. Most work on display is called chosonhwa, which literally means “North Korean art” but refers to ink painting on rice paper. The genre flourished from the late 1960s to the 1980s. At the time Korean War memories were fading among the younger generation, so art was employed to rekindle the fire with repeated messages about sacrifices made by soldiers and laborers to build the country.
Themes might be limited to military heroics or glorification of rural laborers, but that does not mean the work lacks artistic merit. In his lectures Muhn emphasizes that artists are able to inject their own individual styles within proscribed state themes.
‘It’s not fair to call North Korean art just propaganda’
“It’s not fair to call North Korean art just propaganda,” he tells visitors. “There are so many layers and variations that we don’t know about.”
ART BEFORE POLITICS
Since 2011, when he began his odyssey into the North Korean art world, Muhn, a South Korean native, has made nine trips to the country at his own expense. He met regularly with prominent artists at the famed Mansudae Studio, the nation’s preeminent art institution. Rare for any foreigner, he studied artists’ biographies in the archives at the Grand People’s Study House, the national library. As an artist on the faculty at Georgetown University, bringing the show to the U.S. took him away from his own art.
“I haven’t picked up a paintbrush in five years, but I don’t regret it,” Muhn tells his audience at Katzen.
When he first approached North Korean officials about hosting a show in the U.S., the response was blunt.
“No way,” they told him. Officials explained that previous intermediaries made similar promises but either did not return the art nor did they provide any revenue.
Politics comes before art, and Muhn is well-aware that any talk about North Korean culture is expected to be prefaced with criticisms of the government.
“By no means am I an advocate for the North Korean government,” he says. “I am aware of the human rights violations.”
Nor does he attempt to convince listeners that art is valued for its independent expression as it is in the West. One artist informed him that the Worker’s Party of Korea selects the topics that artists can paint.
Two of the large mural paintings on display are collaborative works completed by a team of artists, with one serving as supervisor. The largest portrait, Joyfully Awaiting the Completion of the Dam measures almost 15 feet wide and was completed by six artists. Several workers are shown holding tools and smiling as they look away from their work. The painting was completed in two months.
A second large mural, Sea Rescue in the Dark, completed in 1997, is the work of Kim Song Kun and four colleagues. Kim is considered a technical master on drawing waves and even wrote a book on the subject.
“Patience with North Korean products is low,” Muhn says. “We can’t look at it without judgment. You can see the technical mastery, the use of color, painting without outlines. Yes, it does serve the government’s ends, but it is museum quality,” he says.
Eschewing oil on canvas, leading North Korea artists use ink paint on rice paper, an extremely unforgiving medium. Budding artists practice with other materials until they acquire the necessary skill and confidence to work on rice paper.
‘Once you make a mistake you have to start all over’
“Once you make a mistake you have to start all over,” Muhn says.
Rice paper is not actually made of rice but composed from the bark of a mulberry tree. While the medium might be tough on artists, it is easier to ship than canvas. Many portraits were simply folded in half or rolled up. Upon arrival the paintings are treated with water and glue before being mounted on plywood. Muhn received some financial support from the Mansudae Studio in Beijing which displays and handles overseas transactions involving North Korean art.
One reason why the government is willing to let go of its art for exhibition purposes or pending sale is simple: money. When North Korean art is auctioned in China, a painting by a master artist can fetch $6,500 and as much as $14,000. Pricing is not random at all but is determined by the national commission for pricing artwork. At auctions in China works by painters such as Kim Dong Hwan and Choe Chang Ho typically sell for $10,000. Artists do not receive proceeds from the auctions and instead receive a monthly stipend and food rations. Nor are not they paid per unit of production, says Muhn.
Another portrait relatively free of political overtones is Choe’s A Worker, which features a weary male laborer seated with hands crossed and eyes downcast. This is a prime example of the molgol, technique or painting without outlines, a huge undertaking for an artist. Choe relied upon a combination of thin and thick brushstrokes.
Ten portraits are from the Choson National Museum of Art, but they are not originals. As they are considered national treasures, they cannot be sent outside the country. Authentic copies are painted either by the original artist or by state-sanctioned artists. In the West such work would be considered forgeries but in North Korea art officials do place a high value on them. Muhn explained the cultural difference in an accompanying exhibition book which includes a photo of the authentication document prepared for copied works.
Un’s work of ‘literary painting’ incorporates some elements of abstraction, another rarity in North Korean art
Following a different path from his peers, Un Bong, a North Korean art historian, painted a two-sided landscape of flowers on one side with his own writings on art or art history on the flipside. His portfolio unfolds like a paper accordion, historically the nation’s symbolic musical instrument. Un’s work of “literary painting” incorporates some elements of abstraction, another rarity in North Korean art.
One painting remains a work in progress to be completed upon its return to Pyongyang. Rain Shower in Bus Stop, a charcoal sketch by Kim In Sok, shows the early outlines of city residents clustered tightly together, waiting for a bus. One woman holds an umbrella delicately over her head, an image that Kim has revised repeatedly, according to Muhn. Waiting in long lines for buses is a staple of Pyongyang life. The composition, dated 2016, depicts children with predictable bright smiles in contrast with young adults who appear with blank expressions.
Prominent female artists are rare as most are sent after graduation to do embroidery work or smaller crafts. Kim Song Hee, now in her 70s, has been highly recognized by the state. Her work is not included in the exhibit.
When Muhn interviewed artists about their awareness of abstract painting and other Western techniques, they told him yes they know about it but quickly explain that such methods are not appropriate for their own culture. Artists do not work independently in studios. Among an estimated 3,000 artists statewide, 2,500 are working overseas building statues or working on government commission projects.
State institutions such as Mansudae and the Korea Art Gallery on Kim Il Sung Square sell art and art souvenirs, but there are no domestic art galleries in the commercial sense, according to Muhn. There is a building opened to tourists who visit the Mansudae Studio but the artwork is not as impressive. Muhn likened work sold to tourists as “barber shop” art that once hung on the walls inside South Korean establishments.
“It is good for tourists to buy, but it gives people the wrong idea about North Korean art,” he says.
All images by Michael Laff
He doesn't have much competition in this space, but if there is an American ambassador for North Korean art, B.G. Muhn would be it.
After years of visiting Pyongyang and persuading state officials to lend him artwork, Muhn's vision of organizing a North Korean art exhibit in Washington, D.C. is a reality.