As one might expect, securing the paintings for the show was no easy task. The North Korean government refused to lend support. While officials that Muhn spoke to were pleased with the idea, he says they were unconvinced that U.S. audiences would appreciate the work or even allow for the exhibition to take place. Muhn found an ally, however, in Pyongyang’s Choson National Museum of Art. An anonymous Beijing collector of North Korean art also provided support; he owns many chosonhwa works and has connections to the Mansudae Art Studio, a prominent art production center in the North Korean capital where some 1,000 professional artists are employed. The studio also has an arm in Beijing, including a museum.
Professional artists in North Korea who work in studios like Mansudae have to undergo extensive schooling. The program at Pyongyang University of Fine Arts (Pyongyang Art College), one of the country’s most prestigious art academies, requires a minimum six- to eight-year commitment. After graduating, artists achieve “First Degree” and can begin working in a studio. It’s much like any other job, with set hours and a quota on the number of paintings each artist is required to produce per month. These paintings are then submitted in local and national exhibitions, and sold to collectors in China and Europe.
More prominent and successful artists can progress from First Degree on to greater distinctions. “If you practice and achieve quite a lot, entering national art competitions and producing good work, then you’ll become a Merit Artist,” says Muhn. He adds that artists who continue to gain fame thereafter, over another six to 10 years, can earn the title of People’s Artist. Artists have also been known to win the Kim Il-sung Prize and achieve the title of Hero of Labor, and the highest honor, Double Hero of Labor. “There are only two that have that title in their history of art,” says the curator.
There are relatively strict thematic instructions that chosonhwa painters must follow when creating their works. “But it’s not that simple,” says Muhn. “Like artists everywhere, they also want to express something different from fellow artists. Even though they’re depicting the same subject matter, most come up with very different expressions as a result.” Much of this comes down to besting others’ technique: creating more dynamic compositions, mastering subtleties of light and dark, or finding the best way to create a sense of distance, for example. More recently, Muhn says, “Artists have been dealing with personal and everyday life scenes, portraying friends and family members.”
Chosonhwa painters are undoubtedly heavily influenced by their country’s isolation and autocratic regime in maintaining conformity with prescribed styles. “Their society has been closed off the last 70 years and most of the people don’t have much exposure to the outside world or other audiences,” explains Muhn. He says that artists “learn art history in college and are well aware of abstract art and other forms of expression we do here in the West, but they think it is not the proper or most perfect form to express their own art.”