Arts and Culture
Professional artists in North Korea are cultural workers who follow and obey party guidance. Their role is to enthuse and mobilise people in support of the party and the leader. As a consequence, art has to be open and accessible to the viewer, which is why North Korean art is realistic. At the same time, artworks are communicative: they reach out and draw the viewer in, while conveying their singular message. This is most noticeable in so-called theme paintings (chujehwa), artwork that narrates an ideologized past, present and future of North Korea.
Unlike posters where the appeal is immediate and direct, theme paintings are more subtle and multi-layered. Episodes from the biographies of the leaders, the revolutionary past, or the construction (sites) of the present recount familiar stories coated in an excess of emotion. Rather than to be swayed by the shiny happy faces of children, workers, or the leaders, this presentation analyses the construction of an emotionally coherent historical narrative that is made up of a montage of iconic episodes. The repetitive nature of theme paintings evokes a mental map of North Korea’s historical memory that is repeated in an equally patchy memorial landscape made up of grand monuments and museums, filled with history paintings produced by the same artists creating the theme paintings. What results is a self-referential set of images and stories that is constantly recycled in various media.
The political power of these visuals rests on the familiarity of these images and their emotional coding.