LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas art history professor is one of few scholars who have traveled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, specifically to study how art has helped shape the country’s narrative from triumphant revolutionaries to communist dynasty.
Marsha Haufler, a professor of art history and associate dean for international and interdisciplinary studies for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, has traveled to North Korea fives times since 2007. She is working on a book that examines the mosaic murals created and planned in North Korea during the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s eras.
Although a specialist in Chinese art, Haufler also teaches Korean art history and first went to North Korea to visit ancient sites and museums to collect material for a course called the Art and Culture of Korea.
“I had all kinds of books and pictures from South Korea, but very little from North Korea. It’s hard to do a survey of a region when you don’t have examples from half of it,” she said.
On her first visit, the contemporary mosaic murals caught Haufler’s eye. Found in subway stations, on the exteriors of stadiums, museums and theaters, and on freestanding “billboards” along major streets, these mosaics are a primary form of public art, especially in the capital Pyongyang, where they combine with sculptures to create open-air galleries.
“I didn’t go to study the mosaics. They are just what hit me,” Haufler said.
Haufler notes she had little to no access to the mosaics’ production process or to how North Korean citizens receive the work; however, much can be learned from analysis of the murals’ subjects, styles, techniques and placement.
The mosaics are related to the socialist realist art created throughout Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century, and find counterparts, for instance, in the Moscow Metro.
The mosaics borrowed from the techniques, theme, style and placement of Soviet Union mosaics. The paintings and posters of China’s Cultural Revolution also influenced the North Korean work. However, while the Soviet Union and China moved away from these styles in the 1970s and 1980s, their grip on North Korea’s visual culture stayed strong.
Haufler found that early North Korean mosaics helped promote the regime’s utopian promises with visions of a socialist paradise on earth and images of happy, well-fed people with eyes lifted to a bright future. After Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, the mosaics began to represent the “Great Leader” as the “eternal president” and his son Kim Jong Il as his rightful heir and military leader who required unswerving devotion in order to face external military threats.
Haufler’s most recent trip was in the fall of 2013, when she traveled to the country to take advantage of an opportunity to see indoor mosaics. A trip the previous year, which focused on Buddhist temples as well as on mosaics, coincided with the end of the country’s 100-day period of mourning for Kim Jong Il, who died in December of 2011.
Haufler has published two scholarly articles on North Korean art. “Mosaic Murals of North Korea” appeared in the international symposium volume Exploring North Korean Arts. And, this past fall, Haufler published “Re-inscribing Mount Myohyang: from the Pohyon Temple to the International Friendship Exhibition," which examines the country’s preservation of Buddhist temples to political ends and the recasting of a famous Buddhist pilgrimage destination as devotional site dedicated to the Kim dynasty.
Haufler expects to complete a book on four decades of North Korean mosaics, illustrated with her own photographs, next year.