Painting has a long history in Korea: the earliest samples, realized with a well developed technique which implies an older tradition, date back to around 100 b. C. Though Korean painting has been strongly influenced by Chinese painting, in the course of centuries the two have often followed different paths and, in particular, their most prolific or best periods often do not coincide. This has led to Korean painting having its own distinctive, somewhat bolder and more direct, features.The genre “Korean Painting” as intended here refers to ink paintings on paper. It is still the most popular genre in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: in the Mansudae Art Studio there are far more artists who practise it than any other. In fact, for the first years it was practically the only technique utilised and the subjects were almost only political and social. Since the 1970’s landscapes and nature in general became popular subjects too. However this technique is still the one used for the most important social or political works, especially for the largest size ones.
Oil painting arrived to Korea only in the XIX century. It has been perceived as foreign for a long time and it entered the Mansudae Art Studio only a few years after its founding, after a specific approval by Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country. It is now mastered as the traditional Korean Painting, with top quality materials being used. It is applied mainly to landscapes, natural subjects (such as animals) and portraits.In December 2008 Eugenio Cecioni, one of the two people in charge of the project to present Mansudae Art Studio works in the West of which this web-site is part, and himself an artist and a professor at the Fine Arts Academy of Florence, the most ancient of the Western World, gave an oil painting course in Pyongyang to about 30 accomplished painters. The course had been requested by the North Korean Ministry of Culture and was sponsored by the Italian Embassy in Seoul, responsible also for North Korea. It was the first time, and still the only one, an art course was offered in Pyongyang by a Westerner.
Korea has a long tradition in producing images or signs through a printing process. The first metal movable type printing press was invented in Korea around 1230, more than 200 years before Gutenberg, and recently proof has been found that could push this date further back. As far as woodcuts are concerned, the first print from wooden blocks. 80,000 of them, illustrates the complete collection of Buddhist scriptures and it is dated 1021.North Korean woodcuts utilize inks that are often more brilliant than those used in the West. The woodcuts presented here are typically made out wooden blocks and sometimes linoleum.
Until 2010 the editions of each woodcut were of very few copies, normally 5, often less. Often editions were not numbered, not in order to print more copies and to hide their number but because the North Korean tradition, not market-oriented, did not pay attention to this aspect. Artists chose this technique not so much because it allows to produce several copies but because they liked it.
Since 2010 things have somewhat changed and now editions of 20, 30 and up to 50 copies are made. In these editions each copy is numbered according to Western standards. The price of these copies, other conditions being equal, is of course lower than the pre-2010 editions. Most woodcuts shown in this website are pre-2010.
Jewel Painting is a typically North Korean technique in which paintings are produced by applying coloured stone powders on rigid panels. This technique, very time-consuming, was previously called Powder Painting. It was Kim Il Sung who changed its name to Korean Jewel Painting to underline the fact that it was developed in Korea using indigenous precious and semi-precious stones.
The images do not do justice to the extremely high quality of the embroideries depicted in this web-site or in books. Oil paintings, for which embroideries are mistaken if not watched carefully, can match with difficulty their chromatic effects. Works are usually made by more than one artist (practically all women) using silk threads, while the support is chosen because of its strength. Much more attention is paid to the thread than to the supporting material. Subjects are taken from nature, with flowers being the most common. Two particularly popular subjects are the flower named after the founder of the country, Kim Il Sung (Kimilsungia, a hybrid cultivar of orchid developed in Indonesia), and that named after the current leader Kim Jong Il (Kimjongilia, a hybrid cultivar of tuberous begonia developed in Japan).