The square outside the theatre and opera house in Frankfurt am Main, Germany’s financial capital, is not an inviting place. Windswept and freezing in winter, scorching in summer, few people linger there except to catch a tram or wait for the doors to open for the evening’s performance. So little attention is paid to the art-nouveau fountain that occupies one end of the square, facing the enormous windows of the opera bar. On the “fairy-tale fountain” (pictured below), as it is known locally, a female figure in marble towers over bronze sculptures of several grim-looking reptiles and a boy and a girl fighting two enormous fish.
The focused expressions on the children’s faces do not betray the long journey they took before taking up position on the fountain: the bronzes came from Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, in 2006. They were commissioned by the city of Frankfurt as replacements for 19th-century sculptures that had been melted down during the second world war to be turned into ammunition. Sculptors at the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang scrutinised old photos of the town square in order to produce the replicas. Then they loaded them onto a ship in Nampo, a North Korean port, bound for Hamburg.
The Mansudae Art Studio is one of the biggest art-production sites in the world. Created in 1959 to produce art that revered the totalitarian regime, it now employs around 1,000 artists and 4,000 other staff, such as researchers and technicians, all of whom work on a campus in the centre of Pyongyang. The studio makes everything from small sketches, woodblock prints and ceramics to monumental statues that are sculpted in cavernous halls. In September, President Moon Jae-in made the first visit to Pyongyang by a South Korean leader in more than a decade, and dropped by the studio. He expressed hope that art could become a bridge between the two Koreas. When his wife spoke at the opening of an exhibition of Mansudae’s art at the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea a few weeks earlier, she voiced similar aspirations.
Given that the chief purpose of art in North Korea is propaganda, such a stance is curious. The studio’s main job is still to meet the totalitarian state’s apparently insatiable demand for roadside murals, statues and large-scale decorative paintings for public buildings. For residents of Pyongyang, some of the most visible works are the giant mosaic murals at the city’s metro stations celebrating the studio’s perennial themes. The platform at Konsol station is decorated with a 30-metre long mural of cheering soldiers and children clutching bunches of flowers, glorying in North Korea’s victory over Japan in 1945 following decades of occupation. Elsewhere you can see workers walking through sun-struck fields of wheat, and panels advertising the nation’s fecundity in the form of branches heavy with fruit. The pieces are kitsch: a mural that graces the entrance of the Grand People’s Study Hall in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang shows Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994, gazing into the distance from a hilltop, surrounded by pink-blossomed bushes, light green grass and deep-green pine trees against a background of blue skies and fluffy clouds. Pieces are considered state secrets until they are completed, guarded under dust sheets and hidden from outsiders.
That the Mansudae studio also made the sculptures on the Frankfurt fountain hints at another motive for this art factory: profit. North Korean artisans are highly skilled and, compared with their global competitors, extremely cheap. Until the United Nations added products from the Mansudae Art Studio to the list of sanctioned North Korean exports in 2016, they were attractive to cash-strapped governments who wanted to kit out their countries with monumental statues. Dakar, capital of Senegal, boasts a 160-foot monument celebrating “African renaissance” that was completed in 2010. It shows a windswept family gazing out heroically from the top of a mountain. In Cambodia the firm recently built an entire museum dedicated to Khmer history near the temples of Angkor Wat.
Since the studio is owned by the state, as is most enterprise in North Korea, the cash flows straight into the regime’s coffers. By some estimates, the works have earned the government hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign-currency revenue since the early 2000s: the Dakar monument alone cost $27m, which the Senegalese government ended up paying for in land because it didn’t have the cash. Foreign customers have bought small paintings and posters, too. The work is particularly popular in China: despite the sanctions regime, Mansudae artists still travel to China to work on private commissions there. Some galleries near the North Korean border continue to ply their trade largely unhindered.
The combination of high-level artisanship and affordability played a role in the commissioning of the sculptures for the Frankfurt fountain, admits Klaus Klemp, who was in charge of cultural affairs in the city government at the time. But the fountain was commissioned at a time when diplomatic relations on the Korean peninsula were thawing. Klemp, now an art-school professor in Offenbach, had struck up a relationship with officials at Mansudae during a government visit to North Korea in 2004: “In Germany we have positive memories of the idea of change through rapprochement.”
More than a decade later, change in North Korea has not been forthcoming. But interest in Mansudae is once again being buoyed by the climate of détente on the peninsula. Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, has engaged in a flurry of meetings with world leaders, and the effect of this is now beginning to reverberate beyond the political arena. The Gwangju Biennale, which opened in September, features an exhibition of 22 paintings by Mansudae artists. Most are on loan from Ji Zhengtai, a Chinese collector and dealer who makes regular trips to Pyongyang and runs a Mansudae-themed art space in Beijing’s 798 art district. Ji, who also collects Chinese socialist realism, says the repetitive techniques and themes of the work make him feel nostalgic for a bygone era: “It embodies some of the values Chinese art used to have but has lost since it was Westernised.”
Not all agree. B.G. Muhn, a South Korean painter and lecturer who curated the exhibition in Gwangju, says that he wants to familiarise South Koreans with their neighbours’ artistic output. “It’s not all propaganda,” he says. Some of the paintings on show are a long way from the kitschy murals on display in Pyongyang. One by Choe Chang Ho, entitled “At an International Exhibition”, shows an intimate scene of four girls, two of whom are non-Koreans dressed in traditional Korean hanbok dresses, gathered around a laptop in a room full of paintings. It hints at the role of art as a connector between the closed-off state and the outside world. The blurred brushwork of another work, “Rain Shower at a Bus Stop”, carries echoes of European impressionism, even though the neon painting by Kim In Sok depicts an everyday moment in Pyongyang.
The exhibition also illustrates the limits within which North Korean artists must work. Most paintings show enthusiastic workers in the joyful pursuit of dam-building, rugged labourers at rest or heroic fishermen engaged in dramatic rescue operations. Unless the current efforts of “change by rapprochement” prove more successful than previous ones, the world is unlikely to find out what North Korea’s artists would produce if they could escape the confines of their allotted role.
Chen Jiehao contributed additional reporting from Beijing