North Korean art causes stir in Vienna

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Vienna


A rare exhibition of North Korean art is taking place in Vienna's MAK Museum. The museum says it is the first time major paintings from the Korean Art Gallery in Pyongyang have been shown abroad.

North Korea, in this exhibition, is a land of smiles.

More than 100 oils, water colours and traditional Korean ink paintings, dating from the 1960s to the present day, have been brought from Pyongyang to Vienna's MAK Museum for Applied Arts and Contemporary Art for the show, called Flowers for Kim Il Sung; Art and Architecture from the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea.

The works show beaming farm women feeding geese and ducks, or plump, rosy-cheeked children wandering through fields of flowers. There is also a soldier lying in the snow, grinning as he looks up from his gun, untroubled by cold or fear.

'Heroic daily life'

And then there are the benevolent smiles in the pictures which have a special status in North Korea: the portraits of the Great Leaders, Kim Il Sung and his successor Kim Jong Il, shown hugging children, encouraging construction workers, and visiting peasants.

These portraits, which are cordoned off, have titles like "President Kim Il Sung is always with us", and "We are the happiest children in the world".

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, the director of the Korean Art Gallery in Pyongyang, Han Chang Gyu, says he hopes these artworks "with their depiction of the heroic daily life of our people" and their "lively reproductions of our beautiful scenery", would lead to a "better understanding" of North Korea.

A few of the pictures on display seem to escape overt politics - some landscapes, and a still life of the ingredients for kimchi - Korean pickled cabbage - done in the traditional Chonsonhwa brush and ink technique.

But most of the works, with their brilliant, almost fluorescent colours, are a reminder that in North Korea, art has a social function, one that is subordinate to the revolutionary process - what many in the West would call propaganda.

Image caption,
Noon time, by Yang Myong Ryong, 1963

All the artists represented are state employees, whose task is to communicate the "correct attitudes and values".

The curator of the exhibition, Bettina Busse, says that does not diminish the pictures as works of art.

"Of course the art is very clearly related to the ideology, but it is not true that it is more propaganda than art. They are really very good works. We want people to be a bit open-minded."

But the exhibition has caused controversy.

Most reviewers were concerned by what one critic called "the moral dilemma" of dealing with the North Korean dictatorship and by whether criticism of its human rights record was being stifled in order to avoid upsetting Korean officials.

'No freedom'

Gerald Matt, the director of another Vienna museum, the Kunsthalle Wien, organised a photo exhibition in North Korea a few years ago, and says the restrictions imposed by the North Korean authorities are considerable.

"It is a totalitarian country and their art serves the glorification of the leader and the system."

"There is no freedom for the arts" in North Korea, he says, and "no freedom to do a show or to decide what you take in that show or what not".

Image caption,
Kim Jong Il, the supreme commander of the KPA, deeply concerned over the soldiers' diet, by Ri Chol, 2000

"The question is: can you do something like this without commenting, without discussing the background?" Mr Matt says. "That is something I doubt."

The director of MAK, Peter Noever, says he understands people's concerns about the project, but that he hopes the exhibit, which took four years to get off the ground, will lead to a better mutual understanding.

"Art knows no borders," he says.

"Art won't change anything. It won't change the political situation - but nevertheless through art, maybe you get a slightly different view or a new view or you understand things in a different way."

One painting of Kim Jong Il inspecting an army kitchen is called "Kim Jong Il, the Supreme Commander of the KPA, deeply concerned over the soldiers' diet".

This and other pictures of conspicuously well-fed women and children may strike Western viewers, who remember the devastating famines in North Korea, as cynical.

Others, like one of two children lying in the grass watching tiny kites flying in a clear blue sky, are more poignant, despite their kitschiness. It is a dream, perhaps, of a kinder world that is out of reach.

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