Archive for July, 2010


Flowers for Kim Il-sung – the review

Diversity is everywhere yet in a society such as North Korea it can be very difficult to see the diversity that exists behind the façade of a homogenous and closed society. A country with 20 plus million people does have a diverse range of people, even if we can’t always see them. From the artist to the sportsperson, the poets, the accountants, scientists, musicians, and librarians. In the world of Kim Jong-il diversity is less apparent to the outside world.

The exhibition, “Flowers for Kim Il-sung” is a rare glimpse into North Korea because it not only shows depictions in painting of the secretive state, but because it shows us a country that houses true artistic talent. The majority of the paintings are from the last decade and less than half show the two despicable leaders. What remains is a treasure trove of beautiful art works depicting life in North Korea, sometimes idealised and sometimes starkly honest.

On the basics, the exhibition is in a square room. The outside wall shows paintings that do not include the Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung. The inside wall, roped off, shows paintings which include these two figures. There is a section of propaganda posters calling on North Koreans to work hard, keep the streets clean, and work hard. Another section includes information on the Juche Tower and there are pictures of notable architecture in North Korea; the May Day Stadium, the ice rink, and the Juche Tower. But what holds your attention are the paintings on the outside wall.

This is not all kitsch propaganda although there are clues in some of the paintings. The art is predominantly oil on canvas. Paintings of happy children in the fields and such may include on kid amongst the group holding a toy gun, or a child dressed as a soldier. Others paintings will not include such an image. There are two women in a boat looking at the ducks on the pond. Two ladies in traditional dress engaged in a striking dance. A peasant woman in a bare house, holding her baby while her young son looks on.  A cartoonish painting of men at an ox market. Striking images that do not remind or engage the viewer in a political fantasy.

Not all the paintings fall into that category. There are also the happy workers striding to the countryside on their day off to ‘volunteer’ for farming work. The generals on mighty horses riding out of town in the bitter cold with a look of stoic determination and the painting of great factories puffing out smoke and workers smiling after a hard days work. And as I mentioned, kids playing in the field with a toy gun hiding somewhere in the painting. But even these are beautifully depicted. All paintings are signed by the artist. This is their work.

The inside wall is different. A 1994 painting shows Kim Il-sung looking plump and healthy surrounded by the North Korean people. A depiction of a man who is omnipresent, eternal and loved by his people. A painting of the two Kim’s walking down a darkly lit street in heavy snow apparently talking about work. Always working, always thinking about the people. Kim Jong-il working late at night in his office. Kim Il-sung is mostly painted in scenes where he is with the people or talking to people but Kim Jong-il is mostly with the military. Of course there is overlap, Kim Il-sung also has paintings of himself with military officials but he is depicted more as a man of the people than his son is.

As for giving money to the regime, there was no need to worry. We went on a Saturday, which is free entry including for the exhibition. The merchandise was not very exciting. A couple of large coffee table books of North Korean art, and North Korean propaganda posters, which I did not buy. A range two postcards and a little notepad. I got two postcards and two overpriced notebooks.

This exhibition was well worth the trip to Vienna. Some of the paintings were so striking and beautiful depictions, they remain vivid in my mind. Of course it didn’t hurt that the weather was fabulous and that we also enjoyed  a few other sites while we were there.

Schloss Belvedere

Schloss Belvedere

Museum Quartier

National Art Museum

I didn’t buy a hat because I couldn’t find the kind of thing I was looking for. I’m off to Barcelona in a couple of weeks so I might try there.


Flowers for Kim Il-sung

(Source: France24)

Vienna’s MAK Museum currently has a rare exhibition of North Korean art work. When I first read about this event I knew I would be going. Within a day I had my ticket to Vienna booked; I leave tomorrow. Of course, there is some controversy surrounding the exhibition. North Korea is, by fact of its very existence, controversial. Part of the compromise for showing the paintings was that there is no explanation about the regime. The Museum argues that everyone knows well enough what a miserable country it is. Critics argue that showing the art work is promoting the regime’s propaganda and by extension the regime.

For me, this is of little import. Sure it can be seen from both sides but as someone who knows very well the human rights abuses taking place in North Korea, I feel I’ve made an informed decision about going to see this exhibition.

This is very much a rare chance to see art work from North Korea. I can envisage scenarios in North Korea’s future where such art work may not survive the test of time. When a regime falls either suddenly or at least not via a slow, stable transition, the nasty realities and corruptness of the regime can be harshly exposed to an angry public. In such cases, treasures of the now hated regime do not stand a good changes of survival. Who knows what will happen to North Korea’s art work but I think I’ll take my chance to see it now rather than wait for later.

Am I giving money to the regime – I expect that they have been paid for this exhibition of which some of my admission fee will contribute. However, I think the arms trade they do is probably keeping them in business more than whatever portion of my nine euro they will receive.

As avid fans of this blog will already know, I visited Vienna in December last year as well. I had a great time and am excited to be going again and this time in warmer weather. Although Vienna does do Christmas very well. My winter red hat was such a smashing success I am thinking of getting myself a nice new summer hat while I’m there. I’m thinking light blue.

Update on the exhibition to follow when I return.

July 2010
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