Printed in North Korea

Nicholas Bonner, author of Printed in North Korea: The Art of Everyday Life in the DPRK, discusses the surprising visual culture of North Korea’s lino-cut prints    

I started collecting North Korean artwork and graphics on my first visit to Pyongyang. The best artists belonged to either Mansudae or Paekho Art Studios and the prints from these studios became an important part of my collection, which now consists of over 700 prints dating from the 1950s to today. The subject matter ranges from the prosaic (a potato researcher in a laboratory, a woman cleaning a bus) to the poetic (the towering pine forests of the north, raging waterfalls and moonlit lakes). What they all have in common though, is the delivery of an unambiguous political or social message. Nonetheless, and as every print in this book testifies, the artistry, sensitivity and talent of artists in North Korea are evident in abundance.

Buying art in North Korea is not a problem, but buying good is certainly not straightforward. More than a few collectors have fallen for what appears to be a great work of art, not realising what they have purchased. As well as authentic works of art, there are also legitimate ‘copy works’ of popular pieces that are signed by the new artist while acknowledging the original. Forgery is seriously frowned upon in the DPRK, nonetheless I have seen works that are deliberate counterfeits. This is not helped by the lack of a recognised system of provenance and a lack of understanding of the history of North Korean art.

Older works from the 1950s tend to be woodcuts, but in the late 1970s linocuts printed with viscous inks came to the fore and are the most well-represented in this selection. Various styles can be seen in the following pages – from the reduction method (one colour applied and printed before re-cutting the lino and applying a second colour) – to applying various colours directly on to the linocut for specific areas. What is common is that no more than fifteen prints are made from each linocut, because after this the ink clogs up the cuts and the fine details are lost.

Art in North Korea ranges from the purely aesthetic to the politically laden. While simple decorative paintings and prints are produced for homes and restaurants, works for public display tend to be of the ‘Juche realism’ genre. The works are shown in exhibitions and printed in magazines with the aim of imbuing the public with a sense of pride and purpose: no matter how mundane your job, you are an important part of the revolution, the country therefore remains strong and will care for you. Many prints, especially those selected for the annual year book on the arts, are simply archived, but some make their way into the hands of foreign visitors browsing in one of the art studios.

Each print, including every one in this book, was made to be believable and to resonate with a Korean audience even if, in some cases, it is an exaggerated, almost technicolour, reality. I sincerely hope that this selection of prints will resonate with readers as works of great skill, and in their own way beauty, as an important reminder that North Korea is a three-dimensional country filled with people and places that go way beyond the headlines.

Printed in North Korea: The Art of Everyday Life in the DPRK by Nicholas Bonner is published by Phaidon, £24.95

Postcards from Pyongyang

Nicholas Bonner reflects on his first visit to Pyongyang and his collection of vibrant North Korean visual ephemera

Pyongyang was, and remains, a more beautiful capital than Beijing. It is a planned city that sprung up following the devastation of the Korean War (1950–53) – locals say that only three buildings were left standing. The Taedong River and its tributary the Potong River run through the city and, together with various parks, give Pyongyang an admirably high proportion of green space. Early Soviet-style utilitarian apartment blocks and more modern prestige streets were interspersed with peculiar and original public buildings: theatres, gymnasia, cinemas and libraries, all with quirky but wonderful interiors. I had more questions than answers, and it only dawned on me on return to Beijing just how unusual it had all been.

The Monument to Party Foundation that was built on the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the Worker’s Party of Korea (1945–1995). The residential buildings behind are both topped with the slogan ‘One Hundred Battles, One Hundred Victories’. © Nicholas Bonner

This curiosity-driven jaunt was the first of hundreds of visits, a decades-long enduring fascination with North Korea and its people; its art, products, oddities, mysteries and banalities. These combine to create a whole that remains murky beyond the parts that ‘they’ want you to see, but, with enough persistence and stubbornness, reveals itself incrementally. I have seen the contradictions and controversies, the surprise of normality, the well-off and the desperate, and the emergence of familiar elements from out of the seemingly alien. I still regularly get blindsided by unexpected occurrences; from surprising revelations from old friends, and the excitement of visiting a newly available part of the country, to the swing between sub-zero winters and sweltering summers. It isn’t a place to tire of easily.

Postcards from a 1973 set that depict scenes from the revolutionary opera Song of Mount Gumgang-san. © Nicholas Bonner

As a countryside ranger taking school groups on walks through the green fields and moors of England, I saw that kids stuffed their pockets with stones or flowers, and a similar magpie-style of collection started with me as soon as I began visiting North Korea. I was charmed and simply taken by the graphic design elements of the products there. Many were not technically or legally ‘available’ to me, a foreigner. So I would buy Korean sweets and keep the wrappers and the hoarding eventually became several large boxes stuffed with what others might, justifiably, call junk. When I was approached to publish a collection of North Korean graphics, this rubbish (which I did at least keep in labelled envelopes) suddenly transubstantiated into a carefully curated collection of expertly selected design ephemera.

Cards from a presentation pack of postcards of famous sites in Pyongyang. Pictured here, the May Day stadium, previously home of the Arirang Mass Games but renovated in 2015 and now a football stadium. © Nicholas Bonner

Nicholas Bonner is a documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, and co-founder of Beijing-based travel agency Koryo Tours, who organise trips to the DPRK.

This is an extract from the introduction of Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK, available now, published by Phaidon.