``Blauer Himmel: The Blue Sky Over My Country'' (2005)by Ri Sok Nam
One hundred thirty works from North Korea are being shown for the first time outside the country in Vienna, in the world's largest exhibition of its kind that opened Wednesday.
The Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) is showcasing "Flowers for Kim Il Sung" in collaboration with the Korean Art Gallery in North Korea. Sixteen portraits of Kim Il-sung and his successor Kim Jong-il will be shown for the first time abroad, as well as 30 propaganda posters and other painted works. The architecture of the country will also be represented with a model of the Juche Tower ― the world's highest stone tower that was built in honor of Kim Il-sung's birthday ― including building blueprints, photographs and design sketches.
Director Peter Noever was the mastermind behind the exhibition, which came about from his inspiration to collaborate with the isolated nation after a spontaneous trip there in 2003.
"The impressions I gained of this country spawned the idea of exhibiting, in Vienna, the art production of this culture. I proposed the idea to the Korean Art Gallery," Noever told The Korea Times in an email interview. "At first those responsible in the DPRK did not really know what such an intention involved, as it seemed so exotic; these works had never before been shown abroad. ''
"In a long-term process, trust was gradually established and talks with the Minister of Culture of DPRK finally took place in 2009."
The works were selected in "close collaboration" with the Korean Art Gallery and a range from landscapes, urban scenes and brush paintings said Bettina Busse, the curator of the exhibition. The oldest artworks are from 1960, the newest from 2010.
In North Korea, artists are employed in large studios, where creative minds work together and are paid a monthly salary. "It emphasizes leadership, the spirit of revolutionary struggle, and filial piety, which is extended into the state and national forms of art," Busse said.
Koen De Ceuster, a professor at the Centre for Korean Studies in Leiden University, is one of several North Korean experts invited to speak at a series of panels ongoing throughout the summer in conjunction with the exhibition.
Stylistically, De Ceuster explained, the art there "developed in a bubble" following the Korean War (1950-1953). "Just as you saw in the Soviet Union, North Korean art closed itself off and became quite restricted in both style and content."
However, that disconnection from the outside art world led to a divergent aesthetic, particularly in regard with the traditional paintings. The artwork can be picked out by the "strength of the strokes, the vividness of the colors" De Ceuster said. "Which you might interpret as a political message, but that really distinguishes North Korean brush paintings."
"It's a painting style that deserves to be recognized for the development it brought to oriental painting," he added.
Though focus is placed on content over individual mastery, there are some who "have their own outstanding art and they have their own recognizable style."
This crack in the system of uniformity is part of what De Ceuster appreciates most about the art. "It allows me to say something of North Korea that goes beyond the usual political analysis."
The professor has also had opportunities to meet some of the minds behind the art through his visits to the country. "Through the painters, you get an impression of what it means to live in North Korea. How they talk about their artwork as artists is what I find fascinating ― of course you're not dealing with robots."
There has been criticism following the exhibition for featuring such politically sensitive material that focuses on mostly propagandist subjects. However, museum director Noever views the large-scale endeavor as more than a mere outlet for an agenda.
"'Flowers for Kim Il Sung' should in no way be viewed as a political statement, but rather purely as a unique opportunity to examine the idealizing art of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which is hardly known at all," he said. "With this showing at the MAK, the DPRK has broken through its isolation ― at least in terms of artistic production."
A supplementary program will also screen a selection of films from North Korea. "Flowers for Kim Il Sung" will run through Sept. 5 at the MAK. For more information visit www.mak.at.