Friday, March 12, 2010

Posters from North Korea

Here’s a rare glimpse of official art from North Korea, with explanations by B.R. Myers, a contributor to Foreign Policy magazine.

“Kim Jong Il comforts a distraught nation after his father's death on July 8, 1994. In the background is the 66-foot bronze statue of the Great Leader that was erected on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang in 1972. Dark skies in depictions of this period symbolize the growing threat from without.”

“The Dear Leader stands guard as the waves of a hostile world crash ineffectually against the rocks.”

Say what you want about the grandiose personality cult and the bizarre geopolitical posturing. I’m intrigued by the paintings themselves. That’s some darn good water painting in the second piece, especially in the recoil of the foamy wave on the left. The strong silhouette, and Kim’s resolute defiance remind me of N.C. Wyeth’s Billy Bones. Just swap the spyglass for tinted specs.

Look at the far red flag in the second painting. It sits back in space because of the muted color and the softened top edge. All the figures are well studied, though the value organization is a little busy. The grouping of figures reminds me of 19th century Russian history painters like Vasily Surikov (1848-1916). Official art in east Asia took much of its early inspiration from the Russian painters.

Back in the late 70s, I used to go to Chinatown in L.A. to collect Mao posters, which were impressive paintings on a lot of levels. They’re a piece of history now. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of the artists who painted them, and their stories are fascinating.

See more examples and read political commentary: B.R. Myers on Foreign Policy,
Thanks, Bryn.


Tom Hart said...

James, I agree with much of what you say about the technical achievement of these paintings. But I balk at a comparison of the lower artist to N.C. Wyeth. I admit that you said it "reminds" you of N.C., and nothing more. However, our "dear leader" looks much too pasted in. N.C. would have definitely made the subject more an occupant of the surroundings.

Thanks as always for sharing your discoveries and insights.

armandcabrera said...

Those paintings are well paintied I guess nothing helps an artist paint better than the threat of torture and death for them and their family:-)

Oscar Baechler said...

Good stuff! I always feel kind of sad, because due to politics and economic woes, there's all sorts of painters who never get their dues in America. Anybody from Poland, Russia, China, that general historically communist area, isn't going to be as famous, even if they paint like they should be.

Oh yeah, you should check out this website, BTW. It's a free drawing/sketching tool, and it gets crazy-good results almost instantly.

goat89 said...

I have a link to several propaganda posters, in which I will not post them here for graphic reasons, shows that they have really good artists. Really beautiful, but the idea behind it is absolutely HORRIFIC.

Christopher Thornock said...

I have always wondered why totalitarian states (Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, etc.) always tend towards the classical realist tradition. My guess is that there is the idea that the collective social agenda is more important than the individual. So any art that either calls too much attention to the individuality of the artist, or art that demands too much interpretation from the audience is verboten. The funny thing to me, concerning early Russian painting (around the time of the communist revolution) was the attempt by artists like Kasimir Malevich (painter of the Black Square, etc., worked abstractly) really wanted their art to stand out as a symbol of the communist ideal. His work was rejected by the party.

Gordon Napier said...

It's unfortunate that classical realism was retained as a propaganda art style by various totalitarian regimes, from the mid 20th century onwards- this was a boon to the modernists in the west who we still have to contend with. One can appreciate paintings of the likes of Napoleon and Washington looking excessively heroic without buying into the mythology.

artistguy said...

Not all "well executed" art is "good" especially if it stands for, or symbolizes, bad things like communism. Don't get me wrong, I believe having an open mind in art is a good thing. But truly smart people realize you shouldn't open your mind to everything or you'll self destruct. Having morals and standing up for what we believe in is more important. There are much much better non commy artists to study. Same goes for China, I'd stay away from it....
Sleep with the Devil and he'll eat you and your family for breakfast with a smile. >:)~

Andrés Carrandi said...

Thanks for sharing Mr. Gurney. These are great pieces of art I would have never seen if you hadn't posted.

jeff said...

Well this brings up the subject of content.

Politically this is one of the main reasons that after WW2 realism and especially classical realism was shunned. The modernist critique of social realism was defined by the war in Europe and later the Cold War.

Fascism and Communism are in part defined by this kind of propaganda.

I personally like a lot of Chinese and Russian work from these periods. However one can't escape the reality of the intent of this kind of work.

This kind of ideology remains today which is why most of the realism today is ignored or dismissed by a large cadre of critics, collectors and museums.

JP said...

I have always found that propaganda art (effective propaganda art) is both the amazing and terrifying. While I studied graphic design history in school they showed us a variety of nazi posters, films and signage. Everyone agreed the work represented horrible things, but darn it if those Germans weren't doing some of the best designing in the world visually.

On the flip side, Rockwell's Four Freedoms rallied Americans and raised a significant amount of
money for the war effort. It's a testament to the ability of art to transcend what is "real" and tap into the public mythology for better or worse.

Thanks for showcasing these pieces!

Don Cox said...

Much of the greatest Renaissance painting is propaganda, too, and not always of the nice "virgin-and-child" type. Consider the big painting by Rubens showing dozens of people falling into Hell.

Or Holbein's grandiose portrait of the Great Leader Henry VIII.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks for another excellent post, James. The conventional wisdom in the west, at least in recent centuries, is that state sponsored art is inferior (and people have been able to come up with some pretty persuasive examples, starting with the days when Napoleon offered prizes to encourage great culture and stretching through the notoriously bad taste and censorship of Stalin and Mao). The great intellectual artists in the Soviet Union who foolishly started experimenting with truly radical art and music quickly learned that "acceptable" revolutionary art meant recognizable images of happy peasants singing in the sun as they labored.

Nevertheless, rather than writing off all propaganda art, I think you and your astute readers are revisiting exactly the right questions. How is propaganda for the state different from propaganda for the Vatican (which everyone would agree is great art) or propaganda for one brand of laundry detergent over another?

Ultimately I suspect that truly "great" art requires more openness and ambiguity than propaganda will permit (paraphrasing Yeats who said that we make propaganda from our arguments with others, but art from our arguments with ourselves). But thanks for reminding us that there are certainly images of value here if we approach the field with an open mind!

jeff said...

Don some good points but Rubens was a Baroque painter not Renaissance.
Painters in the Renaissance were mostly working for the church and nobility and the work reflected this and the illiteracy rate, which was pretty high compared to the Baroque period.

I think it is interesting to juxtapose artist/illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth, Rockwell, Parrish, Leyendecker, Loomis, Dean Cornwell, William Medcalf to name a few from the same period as the propaganda work mentioned.

Justin M. said...

I think a lot of propaganda painting did a good deed (ironically) for the art world. If you look at commissions for tyrants, like many have mentioned (Bonaparte for example) there was a general trend of moving away from "classical" subjects to the ever more taboo modernity of "every day life."

It was rather common for artists like Gros, keeping with the Napoleon theme here (ex.Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, 1804?) to depict their patron tyrants in scenes that shouted "just an average day in the life of a great man" even though it never happened! In a sense, this is a bizarre meld of classical idealism and realism, is it not? Without getting too much into that vein of thought, propaganda can be the most interesting art, even if you don't support it!

Justin M. said...

* and by a good deed I mean a general change of pace (bla bla bla). One thing I respect, and cherish, about ART is that it will never cease to amaze and/or invent... spare we run out of imagination and/or inspiration!

I just watched the first half hour of Mike Judge's 2006 "Idiocracy" ... bone chillingly disgusting, I find it hard to believe he directed it as a comedy!

Petr Mores said...

James, I think it is great that you raise the ambiguity of propaganda art repeatedly (remembering the post on wartime art).

I grew up in communism and I want to draw our attention to one very important point I realized recently while seeing an exhibition of Chinese propaganda sculptures: The techniques of effective propaganda are frighteningly similar to those of modern-day Western entertainment, be it Hollywood or Pixar. Great craft, appealing to primitive emotions, bypassing rational and moral judgment, forging life's ambiguities into simple pseudo-truths, usually resulting in ungrounded satisfaction with oneself and vague spite for the "bad guys" .

I personally have no problem appreciating both propaganda and entertainment for its craft, but to me, both generally lack honesty, integrity and true spirit. Having said that as a broad generalization, I have to admit that each piece is different and for example some of the paintings in the wartime propaganda art post were to me truly moving, and I would find it hard to dismiss them as contrived. There are also islands of genuine feeling in the sea of entertainment.

By the way, a FANTASTIC blog! I have been following it everyday for about a year now and it loses none of its appeal, great work, so thank you!

Agra said...