Friday, May 25, 2018

Mansudae Art Studio

North Korea has been in the news, but most of what we hear is about denuclearization, summit meetings, and sanctions. But we don't hear much about the art and artists there.

Women Looking at the New Salt Harvest.
The dream career for an artist in North Korea is to be a member of Mansudae Art Studio, where about 1000 hand-picked artists paint a range of images: official portraits, history lessons, and pictures for the tourist trade.


Members of the reigning Kim dynasty may only be portrayed by the artists from Mansudae Art Studio, and they must be shown smiling in heroic leadership poses. The style of the art resembles the art from Communist China during the Mao era.

Photo from Color Magazine
Young artists who follow the path of success in art begin at age nine at specialty art schools, painting set subjects. If they pass a series of examinations, they make it into a class of 150 students at the central art academy of Pyongyang, and hopefully qualify to join Mansudae.

Women pilots in North Korea. One holds a model airplane
A typical artist paints 30 paintings per year, working four days a week. The 5th day is reserved for community service.


The artists don't all paint oil canvases of political scenes. They also paint misty mountain landscapes in traditional ink wash. There are also artists who specialize in pottery, other traditional crafts, and sculpture.

Monument de la Renaissance Africaine,
created by sculptors from North Korea
Some of the sculptors from Mansudae have worked for African countries to create gigantic monuments.

Some American museums have been interested in collecting North Korean artwork, but because of the trade embargo, it's very difficult to acquire them.

Read more online:
Wikipedia: Mansudae Art Studio
Met Museum: Diamond Mountains: A Conversation with Curator Soyoung Lee
Colors Magazine: Official Portraiture in North Korea is made by one studio

6 comments:

Meera Rao said...

That is so interesting!! Thanks for sharing.

Pierre Fontaine said...

Wow...and absolutely fascinating! I never considered what life as a state-sanctioned artist would be like. Clearly there are precedents from other countries and time periods. Some artists must chafe at being in a studio that is essentially creating state-sanctioned art for the masses though others are probably grateful to be employed as an artist. I'd be curious to find out about those artists who wish to push the boundaries of what's allowable (or not) in a country like North Korea.

On an unrelated note, my father was a soldier during the Korean War. He produced about 20 watercolors over the 2-3 years he was stationed there as a company clerk for his army unit (sort of like Radar O'Reilly in MASH). Most of the paintings were given away to fellow soldiers, friends and family soon after the war but we've retained a few paintings. I have one (a landscape scene), my father kept one and my brother has one as well. I've always wondered how different these places must look after 65 years since his service.

Bug said...

You have to wonder what people think when they see uniformed military walking with Kim through flowers. Strange doesn't cover it.

Robert Cosgrove said...

I wonder if there are any notable artist defectors from the North?

Matthieu Kiriyama said...

James, what do YOU think of those? The picture of the salt harvest has wonderful colours and light effects, doesn't it. The one with the soldiers and Kim Jong-il, and the one with the female pilots look contrived and mechanical (especially the dear leader photorealistic features), and they have the thick black outline of their faux-traditional inkwash style.

Bert Bontsema said...

I live in Assen, the Netherlands. The local Drents Museum had an awesome show in 2015 with oils, water colors and drawings from North Korea. All from a private Dutch collector. The Kim Utopia show gave a rare glimpse into a very foreign art practice, certainly seen with 'western' eyes. More info in the link (Dutch, but google translate will help)


https://drentsmuseum.nl/nl/tentoonstellingen/de-kim-utopie