Whether you realise it or not, when you think of north Korea, there’s a good chance one of the first things you think about is Mansudae Art Studio. Don’t believe me? Let’s test it out. Maybe you think of the statues of the great leaders. Well, those are made by the studio. Perhaps you think of the iconic pin badges? Those are also, all, made by the studio. That big monument with the Juche symbol? Also them. Propaganda posters? Well, posters are artwork, so naturally they’re made there!
Mansudae Art Studio has a solid claim for being the largest art factory in the world. With over 120,000 square foot of space and over 4,000 employees, the art studio employs a wide variety of styles to produce its craft. From ceramics to woodcuts, embroidery to charcoal drawings, stonework and metalwork, the art studio covers all its bases. I think we ought to go over some of the main points of the immense cultural institution.
History and Style of Mansudae Art Studio
Mansudae Art Studio was officially founded on the 17th of November 1959, a mere six years after the end of the Korean war. The devastation of the conflict had raised much of Korea’s cultural institutions to the ground and killed or maimed countless talented individuals. It’s no surprise that in the period of reconstruction, it took a little time to get things rolling again.
The studio was naturally developed as a means of promoting socialist values and ideals. Such projects began as far back as Lenin, recognising that dusty tomes of Marxist theory were far less tantalising to the average worker than a short, snappy poster or sculpture that wore its ideals on its sleeve. During the Stalin era especially, the early expressionist art of the USSR gave way to the ‘socialist realism’ format, which depicted everyday lives of workers in a romanticised way. Smiling farmers working away at fields, laughing factory workers with soot on their faces, all the same exuding a pride and confidence previously limited to the lofty art of monarchs and military leaders.
This standard of socialist realism passed its way through the eastern bloc and into China, becoming synonymous with countries espousing Marxist-Leninist ideals. It’s thus no surprise at all that north Korea and the Mansudae Art Studio would follow in those footsteps, releasing works that bore striking resemblance to their neighbours.
A good example would be the 1961 Chollima Statue as it compares to the iconic 1937 Soviet Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue. While the Chollima is distinguished by its namesake winged horse, both feature a man and a woman. The man in both cases represents the worker while the woman in both cases represents the peasantry, demonstrated by the hammer and sickle respectively in the Soviet case, while the Chollima statue features the man holding aloft a document from the central committee of the Workers Party and the woman holds a sheaf of rice. Both stand atop a large sloped platform and both prominently feature their respective symbols raised to the sky.
One more likely coincidental comparison is that Worker and Kolkhoz Woman featured (and still features) as the symbol of Mosfilm, the Moscow-based film production company. Meanwhile Chollima Statue features as the symbol of the DPRK’s SEK film studio. Not to beat the point into the ground, but yeah, artistic sensibilities were at least initially inspired by the trail the USSR blazed.
None of this is to suggest that the DPRK doesn’t have its own artistic flavour. Mansudae Art Studio works have often placed a very strong emphasis on bright, striking colours, grandiosity and particularly humour. Much Korean artwork shows its subjects laughing, or at least in the midst of a bright smile. Nowhere is it more true than with the statues of their leaders, pointed out notably in the Michael Palin travelogue documentary, in which he notes the idea of having the leader smiling and laughing as being a more ‘fatherly’ figure to the Korean people than the grim-faced, dour expressions on statues or portraits of many other country leaders.
Mansudae Art Studio Composition
Mansudae Art Studio is reportedly divided into 13 creative groups, 7 manufacturing plants and over 50 supply departments. The vast majority of employed artists are aged between 20 and 60 and are graduates of Pyongyang University, with over half of the country’s State Merited Artists and People’s Artists (the highest national accolades) having been associated with the studio.
The 13 groups are subdivided by their format. The same people working on sculptures typically aren’t the same ones working on paintings, embroidery or ceramics. These groups and sub-groups within typically have shared working areas with individual working spaces in these areas. The idea is that by mixing less experienced workers with more experienced ones, their collective work output can be advanced to higher levels. The largest and most respected group is the ‘Korean painting’ group, containing about a hundred members divided into five teams, led by a state merited artist. Their method is ink on paper, as opposed to the oil painting group which has around eighty members.
When an artist or group at the studio completes a piece of work, it is submitted to a ‘Council’ who review it. If/when it’s accepted, it moves on to another council before being sent off for sale, exhibition or whatever other purpose had been in mind for it. If the work is to be sold, the pricing is discussed between the studio and whoever will be selling on their behalf if it’s outside of the country.
Interestingly, pieces sold by the studio reportedly do not finance the state directly. Funds instead go directly back into the studio, allowing it to function somewhat independently from the rest of the economy. This pays the wages of the individual artists and helps fuel the upkeep of the studio as a whole.
Mansudae Overseas Project Group
The DPRK has few exports. This is largely due to the strong sanctions on the country, prohibiting what they actually can export. A loophole in this system, is the ability to export their artistic abilities and creativity. It’s worth considering as well that this is something not just any country can produce, with the immense talent and resources available to Mansudae being hard to replicate elsewhere. Not every country has an art studio on such a scale, with so many talented people involved. It’s no surprise that this would be seen as a good way to make money! Thus, Mansudae Overseas Project Group was born.
Reportedly established in the 70s, the overseas projects of the Mansudae art studio bring in millions of dollars per year, often tens of millions when commissioned for particularly big projects. As one might expect, the bulk of these projects are in the third world, comparatively outside of western influence. The African Resistance Monument of Senegal especially stands highly as an example of Korean artistry abroad, being the largest statue in all of Africa. At a cost of $27 million, it’s not exactly chump change for the studio, or indeed for the government in the case that overseas projects function differently from domestic projects in where the money goes.
Other African projects include the ‘Derg monument‘ in Ethiopia, a statue to Samora Machel in Mozambique, National Heroes Acre, a 230,000 square meter cemetery in Zimbabwe dedicated to fallen revolutionaries from the ‘bush war’, a cultural centre in Angola, further statues in Benin, Botswana and the Congo, plus four different projects in Namibia alone. These include their own Heroes Acre, a military museum, an independence museum and even the state house! Mansudae art studio has a great deal of involvement in Africa, you may have noticed.
Of course, work is not just limited to Africa. A massive mural of Hafez al-Assad in Syria was commissioned from the Mansudae art studio. A massive jointly-owned museum was also constructed in Cambodia, depicting the Ankor period. Perhaps most surprising though, is the Fairy Tale Fountain in Frankfurt, Germany. With the original destroyed during the war, none other than Mansudae Art Studio was commissioned to rebuild it. I’d say it’s a pretty good looking fountain, very far outside of Korea’s usual style so nobody would even notice! It should be noted though, this is hardly Korea’s only link with a western European country.
Links with Italy
In 2005, Pier Luigi Cecioni, an orchestra director from Italy, was invited to perform at the Spring Friendship Festival in Pyongyang. Through this chance experience, he came into contact with Mansudae art studio and became fascinated. He asked to see their art gallery and they obliged. He asked if they wanted to do any work with the west and they said yes! The following year, Pier returned with his brother who, helpfully enough, the director of the Fine Arts Academy in Florence and the director of an exhibition centre just outside of Florence. After organising a showcase at this exhibition centre, he became a liaison between Korea and the west, becoming responsible for many showcases to the west.
It is in fact this man who runs the official website for the Mansudae art studio. Through this, the studio is able to organise new exhibitions, it can advertise itself and works can even be sold abroad through a third party! The studio likely would be little known to the west altogether were it not for this man, making it possible for Korean art to become known in the artistic mainstream and even be sold to private collectors without ever setting foot in the country itself.
Mansudae Art Museum: Beijing
Getting ties with the west is very difficult, but ties with China are significantly easier. In 2009, the famous 798 Art Zone in Beijing got a new partner in the Mansudae Art Museum, a permanent gallery and shop for people to admire Korean works of art and buy them over the counter rather than through a complicated third-party system. From original works of arts to copies, stamps and postcards, this is some of the closest you can get to Korea without actually setting foot in the country itself.
A clear way to spot the museum is by the statue at its front, depicting the iconic Chollima from Pyongyang mentioned earlier. It’s far smaller than the original it’s based on, but still provides a nice hint as to exactly what country you are seeing just a little slice of. For those in Beijing even just for a few days before a tour with us, checking out the museum is a great primer for the fun lying ahead.
Visiting Mansudae Art Studio
Guess what? You can totally visit. On a great deal of our tours, so long as it’s arranged beforehand, it’s entirely possible to visit the studio yourself! Much of it is inaccessible unfortunately, but it’s entirely possible to tour the outsides, see some magnificent works, buy a few for yourself and if you’re very lucky, even get to see some of the artists at work and ask a few questions! You don’t get much closer to the action than this without being a Korean yourself.
For those packing a lot of cash, the studio also offers large ornate pieces that likely won’t fit in a suitcase. Luckily, that’s no problem because the studio offers an exclusive postal service to help ship it overseas. For a fee, naturally, but if you’ve gone so far as to buy one of those huge works, why not go the distance?