We here in the West commonly refer to North Korea as the “Hermit Kingdom.” We don’t know what’s going on in the country day-to-day, all thanks to a complex mix of North Korean isolationist policies and our own nation’s economic embargoes against them. No surprise, then, that our knowledge of the country’s art is fairly non-existent.
If you want to know the basics of North Korean art history, the best primer comes from Jane Portal—without a doubt, she’s one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korean Art. In 2005 she published Art Under Control in North Korea in conjunction with the British Museum. For over 20 years she worked at the British Museum, first as a curator, then going on to become the museum’s department head for China and Korea. Currently, she serves at the Boston MFA as the Matsutaro Shoriki Chair, Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa.
I was curious if much had changed since 2005, so I called up Jane Portal. We had a lot to talk about, mostly about the North Korean art market. She made her first visit to North Korea in 2001, as part of an official group setting up diplomatic relations, as well as to purchase North Korean art of the British Museum.
Corinna Kirsch: You wrote Art Under Control in 2005, but since then no other scholarly editions on the subject of North Korea have emerged. At all.
Jane Portal: It’s now 2014, but things do not change very quickly there. I don’t think anyone else has done much work on North Korea since then; things have become more difficult in recent years.
On your visits, you made purchases for the British Museum.
The British Museum was able to acquire works directly from North Korea. I took cash with me, U.S. dollars in a brown envelope.
It’s kind of ironic, too, that the only way you can buy North Korean art in North Korea is to use American dollars! But that’s what they wanted—American dollars. Actually, after I went there, they changed the main exchange currency to the Euro rather than the dollar. I’m not sure why, but there may have been a lot of faking of dollars, counterfeiting.
But now you’re in Boston, at the Museum of Fine Arts. Are you able to grow a collection of North Korean art there?
As far as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is concerned, it’s very difficult for me to acquire North Korean art here. As you know, the U.S. has an embargo on anything from North Korea, either directly from North Korea or through a third country. So it’s quite difficult for me to acquire North Korean art.
I didn’t know that the North Korean embargo would extend to objects given to the museum from someone living in a third-party country like the U.K., like China.
You’d need to get official permission. I did talk to the person at the Korea desk at the State Department when I first arrived here, thinking I might try to collect some works. But I haven’t gone through that official process yet.
Every time you’ve gone has been with a group, correct?
Yes. When I went there, I wanted to purchase works of art [for the British Museum] and North Korea was very keen to sell. So they set up a shop for me in the basement of the National Gallery in Pyongyang and then on another day in the National History Museum, also in Pyongyang. They asked for high prices to start, until I explained that they weren’t going to get thousands of dollars for every work of art. They might get hundreds of dollars for a print or a painting.
There’s a point that you bring up in the book where you mention that North Korean painters end up producing two to three paintings a month, or twenty to thirty per year, leading a large studio, like Mansudae, to end up producing, say, one thousand paintings a year. My first reaction after reading that was that there must be an excess, a glut of art in North Korea.
Exactly. What is the market, though? There is a certain market in China and Japan. There is now a shop in Beijing where they sell works by the Mansudae Studio, one of the main art production studios in North Korea. They sell in Beijing and then there are a certain number of works of art made for the Japanese market, some of the lacquer and ceramics.
Are these “shops” more like offices? Are they more like art galleries?
They’re more like shops. But a lot of the works in North Korea are made for public projects, large communal works that are made by several artists. There’s the subway, the wall mosaics, or the large sculptures that you’ll see at the entrance of public buildings.
Who sells these works for the North Korean government?
There’s quite a few things that I bought, for example, from the National Gallery director, who was a painter himself. He turned up in my hotel room, knocked on the door and had a roll of paintings under his arm and said some of these were done by his friends. He was very keen to sell them so they could be seen outside of North Korea.
One of the things he said quite struck me; it was when he came to visit London. In 2001, we invited him and an archaeologist back to visit London to take part in a day symposium. He said to me that he doesn’t understand abstract art.
I took him around to the National Gallery in London, I took him to Cambridge to the Fitzwilliam Museum. And I remember there he was looking at Matisse and Picasso and things and he said, “Well, we just don’t understand what these abstract artworks mean.” They hadn’t had access to abstract art very much. Not in books, not on the Internet. So they’re stuck in a bit of a time warp.
The Great Leader and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, respectively, they made statements about art. They basically said that art had to be understandable by ordinary people and if something’s not understood, then it’s not good art.