Contemporary North Korean Art: The Evolution Of Socialist Realism

On the very last day of the exhibit, my better half and I went to the Katzen Gallery (the art museum of American University) to see a visiting selection of North Korean. There was also an exhibit of contemporary South Korean but, as interesting as that was, the real driver of our desire was not the autocratic society’s democratic neighbors.

At the end of this, I’ll include links to an article about the exhibit, as well as the gallery’s page on it.

My own thoughts…

I really liked it. A lot.

I didn’t go in expecting certain things. Formal innovation, for example. Deep subtext. I went open to enjoying what I was likely to encounter (and did also encounter some stuff that surprised me).

The large scenes of heroic military and industrial figures, but despite the size, focusing on a small number of relatively nondescript people, so that the otherwise quotidian individual becomes the focus – the hero of the painting.

I expected that. I did not expect the small ink paintings (actually, they were all ink wash on rice paper in a style/technique called chosonhwa) of dismembodied flowers/branches/flora framing some rough calligraphy (I really wish they had translated the calligraphy for us; were they poems? paeans to the Korean people or leaders? mapquest instructions to reach a nearby gas station?).

My favorite was an unfinished painting of people waiting at a bus stop. It was so marvelously prosaic and contemporary looking. While obviously a painting of Korean people, it was not otherwise culturally distinct, which made it weirdly wonderful. Little touches, like a young man who seemed like he might have been glancing at a pretty young woman who was at the comparative center of the painting.

As an art lover and, more importantly, someone who believes in public support for the arts, North Korea’s massive investment in artistic production and support for the artist as a professional is enheartening… but this North Korea. You can’t say anything good about the regime, can you? It’s brutal, totalitarian, and directly responsible for so many deaths.

Artsy editorial on the exhibit.

Katzen’s page on it.

North KOREAN ART

I had seen this painting before; I think it is relatively famous; the title is “Farewell” by Park Ryong

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