While early art mainly consisted of stone carvings and rock drawings, the Goryeo Dynasty saw quite the change in Korean art. There were many advancements during this time (918–1382) in not only the quality but in the expanse of the types of arts.
Pottery was an especially important art. The earliest forms of pottery were flat-bottomed pots, and the style changed many times over the centuries and depending on the purpose of the pot. Some forms were elaborately decorated while others remained plain. They were mostly famous for their use of celadon pottery. Celadon is a type of blue-green glazing technique that originated in China but developed by the Koreans. (There’s actually a trucking company based here in Indianapolis called Celadon Trucking that’s named after this type of pottery. I see their trucks all the time. Now I know what celadon means.)
Other types of art that are common from this early period are painting and calligraphy. Many times in tandem, calligraphy is steeped in Confucian traditions. They also have a variety of fabric arts (like embroidery and creating costumes and screens) along with paper art. My sister learned paper art when she was in Japan.
|This painting on Kim Il-sung looks vaguely like the one of Jesus surrounded by children.|
After North Korea separated, only paintings supporting the socialist/fascist regime were allowed. The majority of the paintings were in the form of propaganda posters and maybe some landscapes or animals. Kim Jong-il lightened up on some of these measures after he took over for Kim Il-sung. Other forms of painting were slowly introduced such as impressionism. However, the government is still pretty strict about the subject material of artists, and artists in general are often critiqued for any signs of dissent. Some artists, like the Fwhang sisters, were able to escape out of North Korea during the 1950s and continue their art.
The vast majority of literature is written in Korean. Writers are highly lauded, even though today, no writer is published in North Korea unless they are part of the Writers’ Alliance. This is like a state-run/state-backed organization that vets their writers to make sure they’re in line with the government’s views on practically everything. Historically, writers have often been considered dangerous because of their pesky habit of going against the grain. But the government figured out that if you keep your friends close and your enemies closer, you can manage. Right?
One of their early influences came from Russian literature. While many people around the world were enamored with the stories of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky (my favorite!), or Anton Chekhov, North Koreans leaned toward the works of Maxim Gorky and other works centered around morality.
As North Korea rebranded itself as an extension of the Marxist-Leninist form of Russian communism and took the necessary measures to take it a step further, a few notable writers emerged from the wings. The works of Cho Ki-chon is often referenced as the inspiration for the cult of personality that Kim Il-sung grasped onto and implemented. A cult of personality is when the people have such fervent feelings for their leader, and any disrespect is not tolerated and/or punished. It’s often shoved down people’s throats by means of mass media and other propaganda until the leader is seen as a demigod. Another writer who had quite a bit of influence in this was Han Sorya. His main push was a Korean ethnic nationalism. His famous novel, Jackels, stands out for its anti-Americanism.
After Kim Jong-il took over during the mid-1990s, poetry began to be promoted over the novel. There were a few reasons for this, but one of them was more economical. During this time, there was also a food shortage going on along with the beginning of a shaky economy. Poetry took up less paper, especially short poetry. Longer, epic poems were only reserved for six lucky poets. There was an effort to translate a few pieces of current literature into English, and they were all stories that centered around a few themes: 1) Americans are horrible people and the cause for everything terrible in the world (I won’t dispute perhaps we’re the cause of some terrible things, just not all of it), 2) Bad things happen when you turn your back on the Korean way of life and its great and glorious leaders. They actually have some literary awards they present, too. And while things are crazy strict with bringing in literature into the country and taking out literature, one author who writes from North Korea and goes by the pseudonym Bandi managed to smuggle out a manuscript to South Korea. The book, called The Accusation, was just published in English just a couple months ago, and you can find it available on Amazon.
Up next: music and dance