Dream makers: The Mansudae Art Studio commissions in their local and global contexts
Gustav Kluzis | Latvia/USSR b.1895 | Youth to the aircraft 1934 | Poster | 141.3 x 97.4cm | Collection: Russian State Library, Moscow
Kim Gi Chol | North Korea (DPRK) b.1959 | The Songchun River Clothing Factory team arrives 1999 | Ink on paper | 135.5 x 250cm | Collection: Nicholas Bonner, Beijing | Courtesy: The artist and Nicholas Bonner
Iwan Wladimirow | Lithuania/USSR b.1869 | Intourists in Leningrad 1937 | Oil on canvas | 141 x 202cm | Collection: ROSIZO State Museum and Exhibition Centre, Moscow
On entering the DPRK space in APT6, one immediately recognises the importance of Socialist Realism, an official style developed as a ‘revolutionary art’ by the Soviet Union and adopted by the North Koreans who adapted it to fit their own rhetoric.
Much of the work of studios, such as the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, is intended to communicate the values and ideals of the governing regime. Although created under the purview of a totalitarian regime, these political works are complex.
The works conform to styles in which political symbols express ideas and principles of the established order. They also draw on a variety of sources, indigenous and exogenous. Significant elements in the works ensure their readings cannot be subsumed solely within a rigid and inflexible category of ‘state fundamentalism’. These works are not only visual historical material but are also illustrations of themes such as the homeland, joy and beauty.
In his essay ‘Utopian mass culture’, curator and writer Boris Groys analyses the relationship in twentieth-century art between notions of mass culture, the idea of an Avant-garde and a utopian vision that powered Socialist Realism (1922–53).2 He was one of the chief curators of the 2002 exhibition ‘Dream Factory: Communism’, which examined the official art of the Soviet Union during Stalinism. The language of socialist realist art is one key to the North Korean works on display in APT6. Ideals and visions of mass culture are uppermost — they are intended to appeal to the masses.
‘Dream Factory: Communism’, which took place at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, was the result of director Max Hollein’s visit to the permanent collections of the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow. Hollein says:
It became clear that the biggest and perhaps also most prominent rooms were reserved for the decades of Socialist Realism. The power, atmosphere and perhaps even desire that these paintings gave off was that much clearer. For outsiders like me, dealing with this art — which today seems monumental and folksy on one hand and postmodern and visionary on the other, and not simply in terms of its qualities as a medium — is extremely fascinating, especially because we can only guess at the full extent of its disastrous historical background but never really feel it as the Russians do.3
Looking at the works from North Korea in APT6, the influence of Soviet Socialist Realism is clear: the conviction that art could promote a new vision of life — what Boris Groys has described as ‘a new utopian vision of mass culture that encompasses all humankind’.4 The circumstances in the Soviet Union — which had had an important Avant-garde that had preceded the development of Socialist Realism — are very different to those in the DPRK. Even though the Koreans adopted the Soviet visual language and a utopian belief that art would serve and present new visions of life — the deep links to Korean tradition ensured that paintings made in the DPRK, even those most driven by propaganda, had distinct local inflections...Next