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(Yonhap Interview) North Korean art Chosunhwa goes beyond glorifying Kim family

2017/07/17 16:33

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By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, July 17 (Yonhap) -- BG Muhn, an artist and a professor at Georgetown University, was "awe-struck" when he found out that North Korean art was more than kitsch propaganda posters vowing to destroy the "American war-mongering imperialists."

   His first encounter with an extraordinary piece of North Korean art, known as Chosunhwa, through an art dealer in Washington, left on him two indelible impressions -- shock and admiration.

"I was grown up, receiving strong anti-communist education so it was frightening and shocking to see Kim Il-sung (North Korean founder) in a painting. On the other hand, the painting was nothing like I'd ever seen before. It was so different from the kind of Oriental paintings I'd been familiar with," Muhn said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency last Friday.

This image provided by BG Muhn shows Jang Kil-nam's "Remembrance." (Yonhap) This image provided by BG Muhn shows Jang Kil-nam's "Remembrance." (Yonhap)

This image provided by BG Muhn shows Kim Chol's "Tiger Dashing in Winter." (Yonhap) This image provided by BG Muhn shows Kim Chol's "Tiger Dashing in Winter." (Yonhap)

"It broke the patterns of the typical Oriental ink wash painting that I had known. The expression was so lyrical and poetic. There was something about the brush stroke that touched my emotion."

   At that time, he was looking for his next project of historical significance as he'd just finished a three-year "Love Affair of the Empress," a painting series on mythical Chinese empresses that touched upon the dark side of human nature.

The encounter with that particular painting, he said, spurred his intellectual as well as artistic curiosity, so much so that he embarked on a serious research journey into the art form that few outsiders saw in person, let alone academically studied.

Since September 2011, he's visited North Korea nine times to meet and interview artists, museum officials, art historians and art school faculty members -- with minders attending. In 2012, he could time his visit for the opening of the National Art Exhibition where the gems of Chosunhwa, the unique genre highly prized in the North, were on display.

This image provided by BG Muhn shows Choe Chang-ho's "A Worker." (Yonhap) This image provided by BG Muhn shows Choe Chang-ho's "A Worker." (Yonhap)

This image provided by BG Muhn shows Kim Song-kun's "Sea Rescue in the Dark" (Yonhap) This image provided by BG Muhn shows Kim Song-kun's "Sea Rescue in the Dark" (Yonhap)

According to Muhn, North Korea developed the unique art form that emphasizes, among other things, a realistic expression of socialist ideology.

"Since North Korean artists haven't been exposed to outside trends, they could only go deeper into realism for the past 70 years. During the period, they were encouraged by the regime to develop their skills to more realistically express the values used to shore up the system," he said.

Contrary to two-dimensional and mostly monochrome Oriental ink paintings of East Asian nations, North Korea's Chosunhwa is painted with rich colors and delicate brush strokes, exhibiting a much more dynamic feel. Painting on Korean traditional paper hanji, he said, requires extreme dexterity and mastery of brushwork since there is no room for fixing by applying more paint like in oil painting.

In this photo taken by Jean Lee and provided by BG Muhn shows the professor interviewing North Korean artist Kim In-sok at the Mansudae Art Museum in Bejing, China on May 20, 2016. In the background shows Kim's work in progress "Rain Shower at the Bus Stop." (Yonhap) In this photo taken by Jean Lee and provided by BG Muhn shows the professor interviewing North Korean artist Kim In-sok at the Mansudae Art Museum in Bejing, China on May 20, 2016. In the background shows Kim's work in progress "Rain Shower at the Bus Stop." (Yonhap)

The image provided by BG Muhn shows "The Miracle of Chongchon River" painted by six North Korean artists. (Yonhap) The image provided by BG Muhn shows "The Miracle of Chongchon River" painted by six North Korean artists. (Yonhap)

Visiting the world's most closed off, dangerous country is physically and mentally very stressful, he said.

"Every time I went to North Korea, I did so with all the negative possibilities in mind. I don't know what's going to happen while I am there. I can be hurt. I can go to jail for whatever reason," he said.

"But once I am inside the North, ironically I feel comfortable. Once I am there, I can't get away. And I know I won't get in trouble if I stick to the rules. All I do is meet artists, watch their work, record and listen to what they say."

   Over the years, Muhn slowly built up personal rapport with some of the people he met. One time, he was given a chance to watch a group of artists work together to complete a large painting titled "The Miracle of Chongchon River."

   Calling it "an incredible experience," he said they must have felt his sincere, innocent passion to know more about Chosunhwa and share what he learned with the world.

While it goes without saying that art is used to prop up the regime and glorify its ideology, Muhn said his six years of research, which are being summarized in a book he hoped to finish by this summer, showed that some of North Korean art should get due academic attention and is subject to fresh perspective.

"Art laymen would find it hard to fathom North Korea's realism art since it is so rich and deep in content. There is no contemporary art there, so artists only go deeper and deeper to get the essence of Chosunhwa as if extracting magma from a volcano."

  

This image provided by BG Muhn shows a book with a temporary title which is roughly being translated as "Meeting her through Contemporary Art" that the professor has been working on. (Yonhap) This image provided by BG Muhn shows a book with a temporary title which is roughly being translated as "Meeting her through Contemporary Art" that the professor has been working on. (Yonhap)

This image provided by BG Muhn shows Un Bong's "Shimwon Temple." (Yonhap) This image provided by BG Muhn shows Un Bong's "Shimwon Temple." (Yonhap)

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr

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