This North Korean Art Is More Than Propaganda

Socialist Realism isn’t just pictures of happy workers and brave soldiers.

It’s a little unexpected to find yourself staring at a work of North Korean propaganda in Washington, D.C. It’s even more unexpected to find the artistry of the work completely transfixing.

A new show of North Korean Socialist Realism paintings at American University rewards long, close looks. Approaching the work, there’s the initial feeling of being overwhelmed by the size—many are more than 10 feet wide. Then there’s the puzzlement that comes from seeing scenes that, to anyone outside of North Korea, seem either overly melodramatic or entirely implausible—workers smiling as they tap water from a dam, a soldier on horseback leaping over a burning railroad bridge, a man holding onto a boat ready to fire his pistol at an enemy. This, from a country the United Nations has said practices “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations.”

But then there’s the wonder, and the feeling of unease as you realize these paintings are more than just propaganda.

“I was fascinated by the art,” says artist and curator BG Muhn. “I thought, wow, this is something I never knew about.”

Muhn spent five years putting together the display, gathering works from North Korean museums and private collectors outside of the country. His goal was to show the craft behind the politics.

“It’s beyond our imagination,” Muhn says. “[North Koreans] not only produce nuclear weapons … they admire art.”

Through its art studios, North Korea produces works both for other countries and for its own citizens in public displays and museums. The works in the display in Washington (and in the above gallery) were painted between the late 1960s and the present day, many by multiple artists, and many are replicas, painstakingly recreated brushstroke by brushstroke.

All of them are examples of a technique called Chosonhwa, which uses ink and rice paper instead of oil paints and canvas. This limits how much layering artists can do, and leads to innovative techniques—for instance, a painting of a tiger includes several blank spaces to depict white snow. It also gives the paintings a sense of delicacy when viewed up close, which is surprising, given the strength of the political messages many of them send.

Going through the works, there’s a clear evolution over the decades. Newer paintings show modern brush techniques and more abstract representations of subjects. But even in the older paintings, there’s evidence of both Western influences and advanced techniques. One work depicts a rescue at sea, and the scene’s composition is surprisingly dense, as the line of an arm throwing a rope contrasts with the curve of a wave.

Despite their intricacy, many of the paintings are still, obviously, propaganda—that theme doesn’t change. The pieces in the gallery may not be over-the-top war posters that show things like a fist crushing an American warplane, but the pictures celebrate bravery, daring, and abundance, the latter of which is perhaps lacking in a nation that has frequent bouts of famine.

American University Art Museum director Jack Rasmussen doesn’t think that means they can’t also be looked at as art.

“Most of the history of Western art was propaganda for the church,” he says, also noting how similar these works are to American paintings in the 1940s (think Rosie the Riveter). “This succeeds at every level art should succeed at.”

This is a familiar point. The author Upton Sinclair argued in 1925 that “all art is propaganda.” Sinclair’s socialist critique argues that essentially there’s little difference, since art is the representation of reality through an artist’s personality, made “for the purpose of modifying other personalities, inciting them to changes in feeling, belief and action.”

Maybe not all art is political propaganda like this, and maybe more art flourishes in less stifling societies, but Sinclair’s thesis remains a fairly popular saying (it was later used as the title of a George Orwell collection).

Out of their context, these paintings don’t so much make the viewer set aside North Korea’s prison camps and potential nuclear threat, but they complicate what can sometimes be a one-dimensional view of the country. When asked if showing these works in the U.S. might soften feelings for the country, Rasmussen smiled.

“I don’t think many people will want to move to North Korea after seeing this,” he says.