"Farewell" by Park Ryong, 1997.
"Farewell" by Park Ryong, 1997.

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It’s been 70 years since the Korean peninsula was divided into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (better known as North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). It is a story of divergence in almost every realm imaginable: political, economic, social, and of course, cultural. American University’s Katzen Arts Center’s parallel exhibitions highlight the artistic dimension of this split. Curator BG Muhn is focused on revealing the two Koreas’ “vastly different” takes on realist art. “I want to show how realism in the two Koreas has developed differently over time, and what the current state of each representation of realism is,” he says.

The North Korean exhibition, “The Evolution of Socialist Realism,” is entirely Chosŏnhwa—“Chosŏn” meaning “Korea” and “hwa” meaning “painting”—but the term references a specific kind of traditional brush-and-ink on so-called “rice” paper (actually made from mulberry bark). It’s something like watercolor, but the ink bleeds easily on the unforgiving medium: There’s no chance to fix a mistake by painting over a layer. It’s a time-consuming and demanding process. Artists devote years to developing their pieces. With large, collaborative artworks depicting workers in action, the artists would volunteer to join labor brigades to build rapport and an understanding of the projects before making sketches.

The painters on display have achieved an immense degree of technical proficiency, due in no small part to the role the state plays in channeling and training talent. They are products of a regime that both prizes its art and is the last place on earth where the Cold War continues. Artists are well-respected figures in North Korea who draw state salaries. Works of art—many of them massive murals—dot the streets of Pyongyang, at the the monumental scale Communist regimes are fond of employing to impress the average person.

The competition for spots at Pyongyang’s art institute is intense. Once arrived, students study for eight years. Artists progress through a series of ranked levels—promotions bestowed by the state—with a select few reaching the top designation of “People’s Artist.” It’s a nation that recognizes the power of images, and a regime that has demonstrated a certain amount of savvy “ in wielding cultural diplomacy, offering workers from its enormous state-run Mansudae Art Studio to design and build monuments, memorials, and palaces in the developing world.

Muhn was responsible for making the connections necessary to get the North Korean art here. Not only is the show the first of its kind in the United States, but in many ways it’s also the first of its kind in the world. The North Korean government has organized some shows before, as have some private collectors, but Muhn says the result isn’t the same as professional curators assembling an exhibition. “It was really hard to put the North Korea show together,” he says.

The North Korean government was rhetorically in favor of “The Evolution of Socialist Realism,” but many North Korean officials still thought it would be impossible to stage this kind of exhibition. In terms of actually making the show happen, “I did not receive much support from the North Korean government,” Muhn says. “They said, ‘Wow, what you are trying to do is wonderful, but America is our main enemy country, so I don’t think they will allow you to have a show there.’” They told him they didn’t think American society would accept this kind of work. “When considering their perspective, it is also understandable that they would feel apprehensive about showing their work in an ‘enemy country.’” But like Muhn, museum director and curator Jack Rasmussen loved the idea of hosting this kind of exhibition.

“Tiger Dashing in Winter,” the piece that opens the exhibition, is so convincing in creating a sense of texture, you’d think it has bits of fur stuck in the paint. It reportedly took the artist seven hours to paint a single iris. The patches of white in the tiger’s fur and falling snow come not from paint, but the absence of ink where the underlying paper shows through.

These are not small pieces, which makes the painstaking effort put into them all the more impressive. Many display the epic, grandiose glorification of the People’s Republic one would expect the regime to sponsor. The images show heroic depictions of military battles, village women, industrial workers, and of course, the nation’s leaders. Often, the foregrounded figures have a stunning clarity, outlined in thin black lines that make it look as though they’ve been cut from photos and pasted onto their blurrier backgrounds.

There is a progression in the type of glorified figure. The exhibition’s early works feature members of the military and villagers, while those dating from the 1980s depict industrial workers. Near the back is a work in progress, “Rain Shower at the Bus Stop.” According to Muhn, the artist visited orphanages to sketch the figures of children, and convinced a woman he met on the subway to model for him. This work exemplifies what Muhn says is the move toward a focus on everyday people, though he cautions that the happy, fashionable, well-fed figures reflect an incomplete picture of daily life in North Korea. Life outside Pyongyang isn’t as rosy.

Many of the works are authorized reproductions. This is a strange concept in the Western art world, but in North Korea, the masterpieces deemed “national treasures” are not allowed to leave the state. Instead, museums and the state select eminent artists to create reproductions using identical pigments and techniques, signing the original artist’s name to the replicas in place of their own. Nine of the 10 works on loan from the Choson National Museum of Art are this kind of limited-edition copy. The tenth, “Women of Nangang Village,” is a duplicate made by the original artist some years later. Many of the other works come from a Beijing-based collector and were created for sale overseas.

In the back half of the exhibit are a few smaller paintings that seem out of place among these Socialist Realism depictions of North Korean heroes. These belong to Ri Jae Hyon, an art historian who does not paint for the state-sanctioned studio, and whose works are not well known within Korea. His paintings feature branches, blossoms, and blocks of text—more akin to earlier Korean. They are the only works in the exhibition that lack images of people.

“Conversation of All Those Whose Lips Are Sealed” by Jin-Ju Lee, 2012.

Downstairs, it’s another (much more abstract) world, where the intended messages are much less clear. Some paintings have figures; some have none at all. “Examining Life Through Social Realities” goes by a realism that falls closer to the definition of French realist painter Gustave Courbet, according to curator GimChoe Eun-yeong. It’s the artist’s view of reality manifested through expressive techniques.

Unlike their northern neighbors, the South Korean exhibition contains a multitude of media, from oil on canvas to fiberglass, with many mixing several.

Lee Jin-ju’s pieces evoke South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. The canvases contain meticulously rendered miniature scenes, like strange dioramas. Within the painting’s eclectic collection of abandoned and forlorn objects—a child’s plastic slide, apples scattered everywhere, black plastic bags flying on the wind—are cameras and flash screens, indicating something staged about the scenes.

Kang Hyung-koo has rendered Abe Lincoln with a pair of iridescent, shining eyes; a few steps away, he’s painted Audrey Hepburn, the same monochrome pallet and pebbled surface.

Setting the two exhibits next to each other draws attention to artistic traditions that have influenced both North and South Korean artists. Lee Eun-sil’s works also use traditional Korean painting on rice paper, but unlike the works upstairs, Lee’s “Confrontation” features two faceless, naked figures, an erotic scene framed by a window, far more provocative and enigmatic than any state-sanctioned work the North Korean government would send abroad. Looking at it, the viewer takes the place of the voyeur.

Then there are the resonances between works that have approached similar subject matter with radically different methods and media. Upstairs, “Sea Rescue in the Dark” depicts a courageous night ocean voyage to save fisherfolk; downstairs, Kim Sung-hun’s “Wave” has only the dark, roiling waves. “Joy From the First Smelting” depicts a sooty but smiling ironworker; “An Industrial Worker” has strips of wood where the worker’s face would be, a fogged-over badge dangles from the figure’s coat. Identity is wiped away, but the tiny dots of the flat, pink floral pattern composing the wallpaper-like backdrop are rigorously precise.

The artworks themselves are not photographic depictions of what reality actually looks like in either Korea, but the artists’ choices of scenes and methods create a window into the societies behind them.

Through Aug. 14 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave NW. Free. (202) 885-1300. american.edu/cas/museum/index.cfm.