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Jane Portal. Art under Control in North Korea. London: Reakcion Books, disk University of Chicago Press, 2oo5. 192 pp., 72 color ills., 63 b/w. $35 paper
David Heather and Koen De Ceuster. North Korean Posters. New York: Prestel, 2008. 288 pp., 252 color ills. S2$ paper
North Korean art is a generally and surprisingly neglected area of study in English-language scholarship on East Asian art and art history. With different areas of focus, scope, and methods of presentation, two recent publications that attempt to address the paucity of serious academic research are Jane Portal's Art under Control in North Korea and David Heather and Koen De Ceuster's North Korean Posters.
Portal, former head of the Chinese and Korean sections at the British Museum in London, authored Art under Control in North Korea after two visits to North Korea in 2001 and 2002, and she describes the book as "just a beginning" (181).The back cover states that the work is "the first publication in the West to explore the role of art in one of the world's most isolated nations." Since North Korean art has been the subject of an occasional academic essay, book chapter, and website (e.g., Frank Hoffman's "North Korean Artists" at koreaweb.ws/nkart/xz1.html), it would be more accurate to describe An under Control in North Korea as the first book in English that attempts a broad exploration of visual art under the Pyongyang regime. There are six chapters. The first half places North Korean art in the ancient monumental tradition (Roman and Chinese) and the totalitarian tradition (fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism), a connection that is suggested but insufficiently argued, and provides a historical and political overview of the regime and society. The latter half focuses on the uses of art in the personality cult of the late leader Kim II Sung, the manipulation of archeology to reshape history, and the production and consumption of art under the Juche (independent stand or spirit of self-reliance) doctrine.
Art under Control in North Korea is written in an accessible and descriptive style. The final chapter, for example, simply and synoptically describes the theory of Juche realism, the organization and training of artists, the chronology of North Korean art, and some of the different art forms in North Korea. Portal organizes the latter as performing arts; town and country planning; architecture, monuments, and sculptures; underground station art; calligraphy; ink painting; oil painting; printmaking, posters, stamps, and coins; crafts; and ceramics. Several serious shortcomings, however, attend the synoptic approach Portal uses. For instance, there is no introduction in the book to contextualize the material of presentation; chapter I, "Art for the State," opens with a completely misapplied epigraph on socialist realism from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who used the phrase "socialist realism" but had his own unique, experimentalist interpretation of the doctrine; Portal does not elaborate on the point that the Soviet Union and China influenced the North Korean version of socialist realism; the impact of Japanese colonial fascism on the art of the postcolonial country is not examined; and some of the art forms discussed in the last chapter, for example, posters, are dealt with in a few passing sentences.
On the matter of Brecht, since Portal deals with North Korean art, it would make more sense to frame her subject matter with a quote from Kim II Sung or his son and successor, Kim Jong II, who was directly-involved in arts administration, as well as film and theater direction, in the 1960s and 1970s. Portals Brecht quote reads, "Realist art is the art of battle: it battles against false views of reality and impulses which subvert mans real interests. It makes correct views possible and reinforces productive impulses" (7). This is the first often theses on socialist realism from Brecht's 1953-54 notebooks. The theses do not mention party or state, arguing instead that socialist realism is about the artist and an attitude to the world (see Berel Lang and Forrest Williams, Marxism and Art: Writings in Aesthetics and Criticism [New York: David McKay, 1972], 226-27). Such a perspective is not found m the North Korean understanding of socialist …