Exhibit shows rare North Korean art: Sweeping landscapes, forced smiles

Curator says North Korean ink-and-wash paintings offer a glimpse of the reclusive society.

By Wooyoung Lee
A visitor walks past a North Korean painting, "A Tiger Running in The Snow," during the 2018 Gwangju Biennale at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea, on Thursday. Photo by Yonhap
1 of 4 | A visitor walks past a North Korean painting, "A Tiger Running in The Snow," during the 2018 Gwangju Biennale at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea, on Thursday. Photo by Yonhap

GWANGJU, South Korea, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- A group of rare North Korean paintings is on exhibit at South Korea's Gwangju Biennale, one of the longest-running biennial art events in Asia, offering a glimpse of the North Korea's unique state-driven art form.

The exhibition shows some 20 North Korean ink-and-wash paintings, called chosunhwa, an art form shaped under the Kim Il Sung regime.


"It's the most revered art form in North Korea," curator BG Muhn told UPI. Muhn is an art professor at Georgetown University and curator of the North Korean art exhibition at the 12th Gwangju Biennale, being held in the southern city of Gwangju, 186 miles from Seoul, through Nov. 11.

The paintings were created by North Korean artists at a state-run Mansudae art studio in Pyongyang. The studio houses more than 1,000 artists and some 3,000 supporting staff members, working tirelessly to create one of the last remaining art forms of socialist realism, Muhn said.


The paintings on exhibit weren't directly shipped from the North to the South but on loan from private collections in China and the United States.

For this exhibition, Muhn brought together four genres, including not only the widely known ideological paintings, but also rarely shown landscape and animal paintings.

Ideological paintings portray workers at a factory or a mining site as respected members of the communist regime. Landscape and animal paintings depict grandiose mountain landscapes to stress the beauty of the nation or a traditionally admired animal like a tiger to elevate people's spirit.

Muhn said he planned the exhibit to let people know that there's more to North Korean art than propaganda symbols.

"If you know the history and background, you can understand better," he said.

Paintings channel state-driven campaigns to everyday North Korean lives.

In a painting, workers wear smiles on their faces despite an arduous working condition in which they must bear the sizzling heat of the open hearth at a steel factory.

In another painting, miners never lose delightful smiles while working tirelessly to meet the goal to build a flourishing community.

Muhn explained that smiles began to appear in North Korean paintings after former leader Kim Jong Il, father of current leader Kim Jong Un, encouraged his people to smile despite the hardship from the famine and economic crisis that hit the country in the 1990s.


"Since then, a lot of smiles began to appear in North Korean art," he said.

North Korean artists are told what to paint, but they are given a certain extent of artistic freedom in how to compose and depict images, Muhn said.

Artists work in groups to create paintings that are usually made on a huge scale for celebratory and glorified propaganda images. Some of the large paintings on exhibit were also created by five or six artists together.

Muhn said the artists are aware that their works are being showcased at the Biennale and proud of seeing their works exposed to outside the world.

"As an artist, it's a huge thing, he said.

However, it never was an easy task for Muhn to put together an exhibit. He received many complaints from South Koreans, who are not happy to see what they call ideologically-charged "red" paintings.

"They said: 'Are you crazy? Are you really showing the red?'"

"The variety of expressions, that's what I intend to show in this exhibition," he said.

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