North Korean art – known as Chosonhwa – has a reputation for being kitschy. Artist and Professor B.G. Muhn – who teaches painting at Georgetown University – hopes to change this perception. He says the DPRK’s socialist realism “attempts to show reality by expressing the subtlety of human’s inner emotion.”
Having visited Pyongyang nine times between 2011 and 2016, Professor Muhn has now published a book: “Pyongyang Art: Uncovering the Complex Layers of Chosonhwa,” which he describes as the first focused on North Korean art.
DPRK art, he says, expresses a sense of transcendence and the nobility of the people’s inner world – an “unexpected phenomenon and very interesting finding when we consider the disparaging views on DPRK art from outside the country.”
This is why, he says, they can’t be simply described as propaganda paintings.
And in spite of a variety of difficulties including a lack of funding, economic hardship, and even investigation by the FBI, Muhn is preparing for the publication of another book and an exhibition in South Korea. So what makes him dedicated to researching Chosonhwa?
The interview has been translated as well as edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: What is the message that you hope to deliver to readers through the newly-published book “Pyongyang Art: Uncovering the Complex Layers of Chosonhwa”?
B.G. Muhn: There has been a long-standing criticism of North Korean art, especially from critics in South Korea, that North Korean art is not created for art’s sake, but rather for propaganda purposes. I think this notion of North Korean art is not necessarily an inaccurate perspective, but is an oversimplified generalization that lacks a holistic perspective.
In this book, I argue for a more fair, relative approach that considers context and a closer, more complex look at North Korean art.
The environment in which North Korean artists are situated is, of course, distinct from that of any artists in developed, Western, and democratized societies. Therefore, a comparison of art and genres between those of two very different environments, and in particular, a comparison between critical perspectives on North Korean art and art from other regions, simply does not work: it is not a parallel or reasonable comparison.
Art can be appreciated and enjoyed as it is, on a very surface level, or more deeply through a more complex understanding of critical contextual components, a close analysis of subject matter and stylistic elements, and an unbiased perspective. This is certainly the case with North Korean art.
“The environment in which North Korean artists are situated is, of course, distinct from that of any artists in developed, Western, and democratized societies”
NK News: One of the reasons why you’ve decided to write the book is to suggest a new perspective on Chosonhwa using, in part, comparative aesthetics. How does this new perspective work?
B. G. Muhn: First of all, there has been no such book which attempts a professional and aesthetic analysis on the DPRK art either in Europe or South Korea. Given that this is also the first book which contains research focusing on Chosonhwa, this means a lot.
Research on DPRK art has so far concentrated on referring to Kim Jong Il’s art theory as well as the directions and commentaries of Kim Il Sung. But this book summarized part of my extensive research contents mainly obtained from field studies.
The “perspective on Chosonhwa” hopes to reveal its attractive features, which I believe is also the most distinct characteristic of DPRK culture and consciousness. The sense of pride in the DPRK, the feeling of the superiority in the system, and the Confucian morality prevailing among the society are present in Chosonhwa at large.
NK News: The book suggests that art historians are wrong to say socialist realism in the North ended in the 1990s and that socialist realism still blossoms in 2018 in the DPRK. What is the major role or function of socialist realism in North Korea?
B. G. Muhn: All socialist countries including North Korea seek to produce art which reflects the Party’s policies and can be enjoyed by the people. In other words, socialist realism generally pursues the goal of producing paintings for the people.
But what I repeatedly underscore is that the DPRK art has consistently attempted to express human’s deep and inner feelings, and therefore it shows the intention to promote self-esteem into the people by means of expressing emotions.
NK News: What are the biggest similarities and differences between socialist realism in the Soviet Union compared to that of North Korea? What are the major reasons for this difference?
B. G. Muhn: The art of both countries is clothed with the socialist realism, and they have similarities in speaking for the Party’s policies and producing art for the people.
The art of North Korea and the former Soviet Union have similarities, but there is a clear difference: the former Soviet Union’s socialist art focused on highlighting the realism of a scene, but DPRK art attempts to show the reality by expressing the subtlety of a person’s inner emotion. Such expression of nuance is Chosonhwa’s uniqueness and strength.
The DPRK found the method in depicting the figure’s subtle facial expression with ink-and-washing paintings on a piece of rice paper, a style which can’t be found in paintings of any other Asian countries. Of course, this can’t be compared to those of the former Soviet Union, where no such format of oriental paintings existed.
NK News: “The flower of the DPRK art is Chosonhwa and the nectar of Chosonhwa is thematic painting,” according to the book. What specific role does thematic painting play in the North Korean society? What social and artistic value does it carry beyond a propaganda function?
B. G. Muhn: The DPRK always puts an emphasis on the nation’s uniqueness, and therefore Chosonhwa has developed under the sponsor of the Party by holding the nation’s name “Choson” and stressing the characteristics of the people.
But what is problematic is that the capitalism and the free world considers the socialist art as kitsch based on an arbitrary judgment, which is a very narrow point of view. The art we know has been estimated and interpreted based on the perception we have been holding.
“Confucian values and virtues such as endurance, perseverance, transcendence are visible in the DPRK’s art”
If we appreciate the arts while simply defining and acknowledging them as propaganda paintings, we can enjoy and understand the consciousness of the society which produces the painting. The perception of the art in western society is a concept created in its cultural environment, and we accept it as legitimate.
But the legitimacy of the concept can be acknowledged only when there is an understanding that the circumstances of the free world and a country like the DPRK are totally different.
NK News: Chosonhwa during the 1950 and 60s is described as “warm art,” but the trend changed to “cold art” during the 1970s. What is the greatest cause of this change in artistic trend?
B. G. Muhn: It’s a change in society. During the 1950s and 60s, the recovery from the war and the establishment of the one-man system under Kim Il Sung was swirling around North Korea. Paintings were depicted as more human-friendly during this time, and tranquil and amiable-feeling art was the mainstream. Changes gradually occurred during this era, but traditionalism still remained in place in terms of techniques.
The issue arose in society at large during the 1970s was to express unforgettable history through art for future generations. The theme of the paintings is mainly about battle scenes fought against the U.S. and South Korea and anti-Japanese combat. Moreover, the people’s livelihood started to be brightly depicted due to the economic boom.
NK News: Is there any specific reason for describing the trend of the paintings during the 1970s as “cold art”?
B. G. Muhn: “Cold art” has the meaning that the paintings revolved around historical events. During this era, the “cold art” displays the DPRK’s unique sensitivity. This unique sensitivity is based on Confucianism. Confucian values and virtues such as endurance, perseverance, transcendence are visible in the DPRK’s art, and therefore a lofty aspect of the East is portrayed in paintings.
Romanticism blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s when the lyricism of the DPRK thematic paintings came to a head. One of the characteristics of romanticism is to present a reverence for nature and its nobility, but North Korean romanticism attempted to find the nobility not in nature but in humans.
This aspect is an attractive feature that is hard to find in the world’s history, and it’s the method of the expression that the North has developed by itself under long-time isolation. The Confucian philosophy largely contributes to the expression of such human emotions.
NK News: The book said the emotions that are strongly expressed in Chosonhwa especially during the 1960 and 1970s are “the sense of transcendence and nobility, which is the restraint of spiritualized human emotions.” Why is the sense of transcendence particularly highlighted in the ideological paintings of this era?
B. G. Muhn: It transcends the sense of reality, in other words, it contains the meaning of undauntedly handling suffering and agonies and overcoming the situation. Therefore, the art pieces that display such transcendence is highly valued.
“North Korean romanticism attempted to find the nobility not in nature but in humans”
This is the reason that North Korea’s ideology paintings are more than solely propaganda. The tendency to express the nobility of the inner world of humans is one of the unique features of North Korean art. This is an unexpected phenomenon and a very interesting finding when we consider the disparaging views on the DPRK art from outside the country. My understanding is that there had been no researcher who has studied this issue.
Of course, not all ideological paintings possess these characteristics. Some propaganda paintings are kitsch, and we can appreciate them while acknowledging their attribute as they are.
We can enjoy the propaganda paintings as it is while acknowledging they were produced as a means to propagate the DPRK system. Let’s look at the examples below.
In “After Securing Arms” by Jo Jong Man, you can’t see the appropriate feelings such as horror, fear, anxiety through his face, in a scene where person escapes on a raft at sea after stealing weapons. The undaunted and confident facial expression is the distinct characteristic of the ideological paintings.
In the case of Kim Yong Kwon’s “Charging Forward to the Battlefield,” the facial expression of the man and woman is blank as shells drop around them.
Their contradicting facial expression to the situation and a display of transcendence and human’s inner nobility are the truly unique feature of North Korea’s art. The expression of emotion that doesn’t fit the situation at all, what is on display is human’s inner side such as transcendence and sublimity. This is a truly unique feature which can be only found in DPRK art.
NK News: Does the thematic painting containing a sense of transcendence have an actual influence on the North Korean public?
B. G. Muhn: Of course it does. You can find one representative example of overcoming hardships through such self-esteem and undauntedness through the paintings, and the public who appreciated such paintings can feel inner pleasure and pride.
NK News: You pointed out the thematic paintings produced in the 2000s don’t have the lyricism of art from the 1970s and 80s. Due to the change in the policy, paintings moved on to focus on glamorizing people’s life rather than the description of the Japanese colonialism and the Korean War. Do you believe that trend continues?
B. G. Muhn: The delineation of feelings can be seen, but it has declined compared to that of portraits in the 1970s and 80s. Especially, if you take a look at large-scale collaborative paintings — during which several artists work together to complete a work of art — in the 2010s, there are a large number of scenes of civil engineering works on a grand scale.
But, such paintings show the strong tendency of prioritizing the superficial pleasure of labor —whether they are fake or not —instead of expressing the inner noble will.
“Expression of nuance is Chosonhwa’s uniqueness and strength”
NK News: North Korean socialist realist art will be exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale in 2018 with the title “North Korean art: Paradoxical Realism.” As a curator, why did you choose to mainly exhibit collaborative art?
B. G. Muhn: The core of DPRK art is thematic painting (ideological painting), which centers around portraits and ideology. The collaborative painting is the type of work in which the thematic painting is expressed with the most intensive and vigorous energy. And it surely attempts to show the center of the socialist realism. Exhibiting multiple collaborative artworks in Chosonhwa has not been done anywhere before and most of them shown at the Gwangju Biennale are their first exposure in the art world.
One powerful aspect of North Korean art is the collaborative work. The artists and the authorities have developed a unique work method of collaboration in all media, particularly in painting and sculpture. In North Korea, once the subject matter and themes are decided upon by the leading art organizations, or sometimes by the artists themselves, usually to commemorate a national event, either sorrowful or celebratory, such as the death of a leader or the construction of a dam, many artists work together to create grand, epic-scale paintings and sculptures in a relatively short period of time.
In 1996, to create a panoramic Chosonhwa painting that was 6.5 feet (2m) high and 269 feet (82m) wide, which depicted a mourning scene after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, sixty Chosonhwa artists of the Mansudae Art Studio worked together.
The particular nature of the rice paper that is used allows the artists to efficiently create these gigantic paintings. Large sheets of rice paper are glued together for any desired width. After completion, the paintings can be easily folded for storage prior to being mounted for display.
NK News: The attitudes toward North Korean artists who engage in the collaborative art are described in the book: they lose the ego, there is no sense of possession (着) and work for the whole. But you mentioned that the collaborative paintings can never join the 21st-century art movement considering the contemporary trend of the Western art. Do you have any concerns that the exhibition of collaborative art could strengthen prejudice against the DPRK socialist realism?
B.G. Muhn: The prejudice against socialist realism is an inevitable phenomenon, in particular in South Korea.
A large number of the U.S. media broadcast and covered it when I exhibited the same collaborative paintings in the U.S.
I tried to introduce the paintings as they are. However, South Koreans react differently from Americans when I exhibit the same paintings since they believe it is directly related to the ideology.
This is the historical misfortune that South Korea carries. Ideology is a tenacious concept on the Korean peninsula that will exist for many years even after the South and the North are peacefully unified. It is because ideology caused a large number of deaths and a massive bloodshed in our history.
The mindset of South Korean people has the strong tendency to standardize the ideology and react with hostility. But the feeling of hostility contains a sense of fear.
The ideas represented in the DPRK thematic paintings are universal: the description of the scenes from history, the glamorization of a workplace, and the portrayal of the bright side of the people’s livelihood.
But South Korea binds such expressions of ideology appearing on the paintings together based on its stereotype and standardized them. I, however, think South Korea has now the potential to flexibly embrace the ideology appearing on arts.
“South Koreans react differently from Americans when I exhibit the same paintings”
NK News: You mentioned that you had been arrested and investigated by FBI in 2015 because of your studies on the DPRK art. What is the biggest barrier and difficulty you face in progressing the research? Why do you continue to devote you to the studies in spite of hardships?
B. G. Muhn: There are a lot of hardships and obstacles when conducting a field research. The biggest obstacle is the isolated environment. And I also have a personal restraint: long-distance travel from the U.S. and lack of funding from the research gave me economic hardship.
I have contacted several South Korean government institutions regarding funding, but it wasn’t successful.
Nonetheless, there are two reasons that I continue this research. First, Chosonhwa is a very attractive field of art. Secondly, it is because of a sense of duty. There has been no scholar who conducts the field studies with such fervor. My vocation is to advocate the attractive and excellent art of the Korean peninsula – Chosonhwa – to the world.
NK News: Research on Chosonhwa is virtually non-existent in South Korea. What is the way forward for the studies?
B. G. Muhn: The last ten years of the political situation where there have been no active inter-Korean exchanges gave despair to South Korean scholars.
I think I have filled some of the gaps with my research. If the two Koreas resume their exchanges, I hope the research will continue through means of conducting field research and securing research materials based on my studies.
Jenny Lee contributed to this report
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: B.G. Muhn (Kim In Sok, A Shower at the Bus Stop, 2018, Chosonhwa, 217x433cm) Do not duplicate or distribute all the photos without written permission from B.G. Muhn
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