Art school in North Korea is a little bit different...
Ideology moulds creativity and students study art’s purpose and the social obligation that comes with being a pro
Our new book Printed in North Korea: The Art of Everyday Life in the DPRK, offers rare insight into the state-sanctioned artworks that dominate this country’s visual culture.
While most of the book is dedicated to reproducing these rarely seen, often beautiful images, its introduction provides a detailed guide to the likely career and working methods of the artists who create the pictures.
“If children indicate an interest in art, they are encouraged to attend afterschool drawing classes where they learn basic sketching and drawing skills,” explains the Korean scholar Koen De Ceuster.
“At the age of sixteen, persevering youngsters showing potential can proceed to pre-university classes that put them on a track towards a career as a professional artist.
“The most decisive next step is to gain admission into the Pyongyang University of Fine Arts (PUFA), the pinnacle of art education in North Korea.
“It is at PUFA that ideology takes over and moulds creativity, where students study the meaning and purpose of art in North Korean society and discover the social obligation that comes with being a professional artist. Upon graduation from PUFA, a career as a professional artist beckons in one of the numerous art studios around the country
“No studio is more prominent than the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang. Testimony to the political importance of art in North Korea is the fact that the Mansudae Art Studio operates under the special guidance of the North Korean Leader, who is not only a frequent visitor to the studio, but also provides ‘on-the-spot guidance’ and shares theoretical insights with the artists.
“The vast compound is a proper campus where employees have the use of a barbershop and beauty parlour, a spa and health club, sports fields and fitness facilities, a kindergarten and a convenience store.
Mansudae Art Studio is one of the main centres for the creation of the many monumental art projects that mark historic sites and public spaces throughout the country. When a public art commission is received, artists in a particular creative team produce a set of designs for the Leader, the Party or the government to choose from.
“In the hierarchy of genres that governs North Korean art production, nothing compares to the ‘theme paintings’ that document the life and struggles of the Leaders, the revolutionary history of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the development of the Workers’ Paradise and finally the struggle for Korean unification.
“Countless artworks revisit the Leaders’ presence in the North Korean revolution and the post-revolution construction of the workers’ paradise. Numerous are the depictions of the happy lives of the people under the Leaders’ reign, where the toiling masses are cheerful and the harvests bountiful. Landscape paintings and prints, for their part, evoke the beauty of a blessed nation, graced by the presence of the Leaders, and still-life paintings summon images of abundance.
“North Korean artists study history, visit factories and construction sites, climb mountains and meet people. Along the way, they pull out their sketchbooks, take photographs and collect impressions. They observe reality with an ideologically trained gaze and capture fragments of meaningful life.
“Back from their forays in the country, artists get to work on transposing their lived experiences into works of art. The effectiveness of this effort depends on the selection of a scene that is sufficiently eloquent without being too obvious.
This is where, in North Korea, under the inescapable spectre of propaganda, great works of art bear the hallmarks of personality and character paired with skill and technique.”
To see much more by these artists order a copy of Printed in North Korea here.