Pen Varlen is a Goryeo (Korean in Russia and Central Asia) artist and educator who was born in Primorsky Krai (the Maritime Province), Russia. His life and art were intimately bound up with the modern and contemporary history of Korea, including colonialization, national division, wars, and ideological conflicts, and also with that of Russia: the communist revolution, the Second World War, totalitarianism, the Cold War, Perestroika, and Glasnost.
Born outside Korea’s national borders when the country lost its national sovereignty, Varlen belonged to a minority group, unprotected in the land to which he and his family had migrated, but this did not prevent him from being an artist and a professor at one of Russia’s foremost art institutions.
In July 1953, Pen Varlen was accredited to North Korea by the Soviet Ministry of Culture of the USSR. He was tasked with reestablishing Pyongyang University of Fine Arts—destroyed during the war—after the model of the Russian Academy of Arts’ system and curriculum, and with teaching Socialist realism. At the time, Kim Il-Sung had not yet issued any specific directives or nationalistic teachings on art and literature, so North Korean artists had to rely on Soviet theory and practice. Pen Varlen acted as a mediator between the two countries. During his fifteen-month stay in North Korea, Pen faithfully fulfilled his duties. He also actively engaged with artists in North Korea and painted the mountains and streams of his homeland and the humble lives of North Korean people. His life and work serve as a significant link to connect the contemporary art history of South Korea to that of North Korea since the division of the peninsula. After his return to Russia, Pen was prohibited from re-entering North Korea for political reasons. (Ms. Hyesung Park, assistant curator, MMCA)