Art from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a trademark for contemporary socialist realism. You can actually purchase DPRK art online—everything from propaganda posters to lucid landscapes, flower bouquets, and even family portraits. Sure, the propaganda posters sell best (they’re also the cheapest), but the jewel paintings are another thing entirely (rare and glitzy, completely made of stones).
Just a few weeks ago, at a trade expo in Dandong, China, with more than a hundred DPRK companies, the most popular attraction was a DPRK fine-art exhibition, which opened at Dandong Gallery on October 10. CCTV noted the art exhibit became the highlight of the trade expo, selling 30 artworks in the first three days. As you’ll see in this video, there was no propaganda art. It was the more expressive, postcard-y stuff. In other words, while many other North Korean barriers are up, fine art is one way of getting through.
This is all created by one studio in particular. Founded in 1959, Mansudae Art Studio is a Pyongyang-based art studio, which employs 4,000 workers, 1,000 of which are artists. Estimated to be one of the biggest art production studios in the world, it used to operate under the guidance of Kim Jong Il, making it the most prominent art institution in North Korea. Featuring production departments for oil painting, ceramics, woodcutting, and sculpture—Mansudae created the Monument to the Founding of the Korean Workers Party, where three fists hold up a sickle, a hammer, and a calligraphy brush. Dudes take their art as seriously.
Production work with international clients is a best-selling hit. Since the 1970s, Mansudae has an international chapter, offering cheap labor for huge monuments, like the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal and the Heroes Acre war monument in Namibia. Mansuade monuments have been criticized as Korean-esque; Germany is apparently their only western client, hiring them to recreate Frankfurt’s Fairy Tale Fountain. In the last decade, Mansudae earned an estimated $160 million. Yet, the artists don’t get a return—all the art sales go straight to the state.
In a rare interview, the manager of the Western website for Mansudae, Pier Luigi Cecioni, spoke with VICE from Italy about his Mansudae Art Studio website, the art of social realism, and what it’s like being one of five foreigners partying in Pyongyang.
VICE: How did you get to North Korean art? You seem to be an expert.
Pier Luigi Cecioni: In 2005, I was president of a classical music orchestra in Florence, Italy. By total coincidence, a delegation of my orchestra was invited to participate in the Spring Friendship Festival held in Pyongyang every year (now less frequently) around April 15, the birthday of the father of the country Kim Il Sung and the most important North Korean holiday. The participants in the festival were about 700, of which only about 20 Westerners (we were five). In Pyongyang, I asked if they had any art center or gallery to show me.
It turned out that in Pyongyang there was the Mansudae Art Studio, probably the largest art-production center in the world. I, and nobody I knew, had never heard of it. You can find some information on the Mansudae Art Studio in our website. When I asked them if they were interested in doing something in the West, they answered, "Sure." In January 2006, after months of correspondence, I returned to an extremely cold Pyongyang with my brother Eugenio, an artist, a professor at the Fine Arts Academy in Florence, and at the time, director of an exhibition center near Florence. We chose many works to bring to Europe and signed an agreement by which I became the representative of the Mansudae Art Studio in the West. One of the provisions of that agreement was to organize exhibitions of Mansudae Art Studio works in the West. I have returned to Pyongyang a few times, and Korean artists have come to visit in Italy.
At which point did the building the Mansudae Art Studio website evolve?
We started building the website in 2007, at the time of our first exhibition. The website is aimed at the Western public and it is managed by me.
Mansudae Art Studio represents the elite artists of North Korea. How difficult is it to get in, and what is the entry process like for the artists?
The vast majority of the best artists in the country are at the Mansudae. Practically all its artists have a university or a fine-arts degree. When a student distinguishes himself or herself at the university he or she is invited to join the Mansudae. Also, if an artist distinguishes himself or herself in another center he or she might be invited to join. It is a great honor to enter the Mansudae.
Do you know how many artists get in per year?
Since I have been in contact with the Mansudae, as far as I know, the number of artists has remained more or less constant so I don’t think there are a fixed number of artists entering each year.
The training is rather demanding, beginning at the age of nine, is that correct?
As far as I know there is not a demanding formal training starting so early. From elementary through high school, as far as I know, children go to school only in the morning and they study several subjects. From what I have seen, from about late elementary school through high school, in the afternoon, students may attend on a voluntary basis after-school programs and institutions in which they follow their interests which can be musical, artistic, sport, acting, and similar. My impression is that the training becomes really demanding at the university: North Koreans are very good and serious university students. However, I have not thoroughly inquired about the school system.
Is it true that even when their art sells, the earnings go straight to the state?
The Mansudae Art Studio has a perhaps unexpected economic autonomy. The money that comes from our sales goes to the Mansudae Art Studio. Different is probably the case for the very large projects abroad with which I am not involved and that probably are managed at government level.
Are there many clients abroad? What sells best? Where? Is it jewel paintings or, say, propaganda posters?
We do have collectors around. Being in Italy, most of our collectors are Italians. Propaganda posters, being the least expensive works, and rather spectacular, are the easiest to sell. However, we have sold pretty much all kinds of works. Jewel paintings are relatively rare.
I saw the painting Dance Party in Open Air by Han Guang Hun. Are the paintings based on real events or imaginary? It looks like a good party in the painting. I didn’t know Koreans could party like that.
Funny you chose that painting. The image I am emailing is a not very good picture I made on April 15, 2005 at the dance in the main Pyongyang Square to celebrate Kim Il Sung anniversary. I also joined the dances. When I made that picture I had not seen the painting [Dance Party in Open Air]. Apart those major festivities, Koreans like very much to sing, in fact I think it could be something genetic because almost all sing well. Last July, when I was there, in the evening I often saw groups of people singing, and on Sundays many people in parks have family picnics, sing, and dance. Karaoke, like in many Eastern countries, is very popular.
You said you met the artists when they came to Italy and they didn’t like contemporary art. What do they love? Do they embody big-ego personalities like Damien Hirst or are they humble craftworkers? Are they funny? Serious? Dramatic? Theatrical? Are they your friends?
The artists do not absolutely have big egos, nor are they humble. In a way, among the people I frequent, they all consider themselves equal, even though they are fully aware, in art, that some are better than others and that they have different positions work-wise. Western contemporary art in general does not interest them. In fact I saw them find it literally funny in the sense that they laughed at seeing some works, not with disdain but with true amusement. They are very much interested in classic art. About one year ago I accompanied a dozen of them to the Uffizi Gallery and to the Vatican Museums and they appreciated them very much. They knew the main artists that they had studied in the university. They are absolutely figurative and I have not seen experiments towards abstract or conceptual art or similar.
Mansudae Studio artist Lee Cheol was recently traveling for an exhibition and was interviewed on CCTV in Dandong, China. Do the artists often speak publicly and do they enjoy being in the spotlight?
I can’t give a general answer to that. When we opened our first exhibition we invited two artists from Mansudae and they spoke without problems. I don’t know if they speak publicly often in North Korea. I once saw the video of a long TV program, of course without understanding it, with the interview to the two artists that had come to Italy: they were very formal by our standards. They are very seldom abroad and practically nobody speaks a European language.
Do they speak English? I understand some travel for years at a time, creating murals in places like Namibia.
Practically nobody does. There are a few interpreters. The Mansudae has realized extremely large projects abroad, mainly sculptural and architectural. The most recent one is a museum in Angkor Vat, in Cambodia, which is inaugurated in this period. For those works they remain years abroad, somewhat like the diplomats. I have met several artists who have spent a few years in various countries, mainly in Africa.
During your time in Pyongyang, what is it like visiting the Mansudae art studios? Are they open to the public for tours? Do you have photos? Is it like art school, community-orientated?
For me it is now a very familiar place. When I am there I spend many hours talking about various matters with different people. I have many photos but I am not a good photographer. I never found any restriction at making pictures. In the Mansudae, which is about 30 acres, there is also a commercial gallery, which can be visited by the very few tourists. The other parts are normally not open to tourists because are working spaces. The place is somewhat similar to an American University campus (it even has a soccer field) but absolutely is not a school. There are about 4000 people, about 1000 of which artists, as I said before practically all university graduates so that their ages are not those of students. There are all kinds of artists’ studios, among which those of sculptors of monumental statues. There are laboratories, shops, supply departments, etc. There is one large gallery, a kindergartner, a sort of cafeteria and several other kinds of buildings. I have not visited everything. The people do not live inside the Mansudae: they go there only to work and live in their homes in Pyongyang.
The purpose of art in the DPRK is its political message. What else does socialist realism embody? What symbols are they taught to paint, both in Kim Jong-un paintings and more?
I would not say that the purpose of all DPRK art is its political message. The socialist realism works represent North Korea in a positive light and, in a broad sense, want to inspire the viewers to have positive and patriotic feelings and celebrate, especially with some large sculptures and large paintings exhibited in public places, the leaders. The subjects are often related to work, a subject not common in the West. One particular form of socialist realism art are the posters. They are hand-painted, not printed, and they have political or social messages. Many are aimed against the US, seen as past aggressors or potential aggressors. Besides social realism, landscape paintings are very popular. Also paintings of flowers and nature in general. There are also many portraits, mainly of workers. But then there are so many kinds of art—sculptures, ceramics, embroidery, various kinds of paintings, woodcutting, calligraphy, and some others—that I cannot generalize.
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