Although most people know relatively little about North Korea, both real and fictional events keep making headlines in global news outlets. The mysterious, as well as the supposedly bizarre and unique nature of the country of Kim Jong Un has fascinated Western audiences for decades.
That popular appeal undoubtedly worked wonders for the Drents Museum in the Dutch city of Assen. From April 3 to August 30, the museum is hosting the art exhibition The Kim Utopia, wholly dedicated to North Korean art. Although it is not the first time that a DPRK art exhibition has been organized on European soil, one can surely say that it is rare to be able to witness original artworks created by the Mansudae Art Studio in an EU country.
It is not the first time for the Drents Museum to feature art from (former) communist countries. In 2012-13 it organized the exhibition The Soviet Myth, where socialist realist artworks, mainly from the Stalin era, were on display. This controversial genre is often portrayed as monotonous, uninspired propaganda that has never resulted in any “real” art. Interesting enough, the great merit of this exhibition was that it showed visitors the significant diversity and aesthetic quality that existed within socialist realism.
When Dutch art collector Ronald de Groen witnessed this exhibition filled with Soviet art glorifying Stalin and his communist project, he immediately contacted the museum. Over the years, he had built up a collection of no less than 3,500 pieces of art from the DPRK. When I asked him where his admiration for North Korean paintings and drawings came from, he replied that he was moved by the “authentic” qualities of the art, as well as by the fact that it had remained free of Western influences. The Drents Museum was baffled by De Groen’s collection and agreed to host The Kim Utopia, an exhibition featuring 80 paintings and works from the period of 1960-2010.
When a visitor enters the first exhibition hall, he is welcomed in true North Korean fashion. The first wall is filled with a gargantuan slogan (which feature a central role in North Korean state ideology), reading “No matter how hard the road ahead is, we will walk it with a smile.” The motto is well-chosen, because the artworks show a lot of smiling and laughing DPRK citizens. A range of either positive or negative representations reveal a strong Manichean worldview, where Good and Evil (capital letters intended!) are locked in a battle that knows no nuance. The pictured individuals look joyful, militant, hopeful, furious, heartbroken – but never neutral.
In almost all the paintings, people are at the center of what is being shown. We see farmers that show off their harvests, soldiers that educate the people (in line with Kim Jong Il’s Songun-policy), or a father that familiarizes his son with the noble labor in the coal mines. Apart from idyllic paintings, there are also violent works of art that show American “dogs” torturing an innocent North Korean or the Southern “puppets” engaging in brutal repression. This way, the fact that torture and oppression reign supreme in the North instead of the South, is blamed on the demonized enemy.
There is even a painting of a girl setting fire to a puppet version of George W. Bush, who (in the eyes of official DPRK propaganda) is ultimately responsible for the hardship and suffering in North Korea. Also, there are some outright racist depictions of Japanese colonial henchmen.
Pictured individuals sometimes almost appear to emit light
The North Korean branch of socialist realism features even more dreamy and idyllic elements than its Russian and Chinese counterparts. Pictured individuals sometimes almost appear to emit light. The painting techniques, however, are quite archaic and usually work with very classical Western compositional schemes. And sometimes, the unrealistic propaganda just overdoes it. A painting that prominently shows a slogan saying “We are happy” or one that shows abundant food in a time of famine are an exceptionally cheap and easy smokescreen intended to hide the nightmarish realities of life in the DPRK.
Finally, the exhibition also features some propaganda posters that were obtained in the DPRK by the Dutch stamp collector Willem van der Bijl, who visited North Korea dozens of times until he was briefly incarcerated there in 2011. Also, it is possible to watch the documentary A Day in the Life by Pieter Fleury, which tries to show normal daily life for citizens in the DPRK.
But in the end, that’s not what it’s about. What makes The Kim Utopia so special is that the visitor is given the opportunity to discern the narrative structures that Pyongyang forces on its people. In an introductory lecture, professor of Korea Studies Koen de Ceuster notes: “The artworks form a gaze which then reflects back on reality. The themes that are present in the paintings are things that every single North Korean is able to understand.”
And that is exactly what the visitor should do: try and discover the message that each painting contains. North Korean art is remarkably explicit and direct. It features a lot of stories, is filled with symbolism, and is devoid of subtlety. And yet, the strange and outlandish iconography, unknown to Western audiences, poses a problem when it comes to interpreting a work of art.
For example, the painting “Congratulations” by Kim Hyon Chol appears to show nothing more than a family posing for a picture. Yet, when you interpret it correctly, there is so much more going on. The sock that the child is wearing has the shape of the Korean Peninsula. A calendar refers to the day the DPRK was founded. And even the red flowers on the bottom are a reference to Kim Jong Il, on which I will elaborate later on. The texts that are hung next to the paintings, written by De Ceuster, are of great help to visitors who wish to understand the esoteric symbolism of the DPRK.
Naturally, all the artworks in Assen were commissioned by the North Korean state. And not just that, they are all targeted at legitimizing and idolizing the supreme rule of the Kim regime. Everywhere, we either see how people in North Korea work tirelessly on creating paradise on Earth – or how these noble attempts are thwarted by the evil outside world. These attempts are often depicted in terms of battle. Some paintings show Stakhanov-like labor heroes, pulling off enormous individual efforts that benefit the collective well-being (in accordance with Juche, the official DPRK state ideology).
Yet, after the artist has paid heed to the mandatory discourse, he is left with some leeway that he can fill his own, individual style. When taking a closer look, we can see painters experimenting with modern styles such as pointillism (see “Pride” by Chong Tok) and impressionism. However, most artists have merely received schooling in North Korea (and sometimes in Russia or China) and only know Western art styles from books – which shows. But the diversity in styles also shows that North Korean artist still try to make use of their very limited yet not wholly absent artistic freedom.
One of the oddest aspects of The Kim Utopia is that, contrary to what one would expect, the Great Leader is shown in just one single painting. In that particular artwork, we see a young Kim Il Sung prophetically pointing forwards to a heavenly future in the workers’ paradise. Oh, and how he looks like his grandson, the incumbent Kim Jong Un! A couple of other paintings that show the streets of Pyongyang feature portraits of the Kims – but that’s it. The main role in The Kim Utopia is not played by the Kim dynasty, but by the workers, farmers, soldiers and children that serve it loyally.
That being said, Kim’s spirit is unmistakably present in every work of art present in the exhibition. Countless North Koreans carry his image with pride on a mandatory pin on their chest. Also, the red begonia-like flowers that pop up in many paintings are called “Kimjongilia.” They are featured in the works of art to show the loyalty that the pictured individuals have towards their leaders. Even plants can’t escape Kim’s omnipresent personality cult.
There is also a more banal reason for the absence of works featuring Kim in Assen. According to De Groen, they are much more expensive – and although he has some paintings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, he has mainly focused on collecting other North Korean paintings.
Tucked away in the abbey adjacent to the museum, the photo exhibition North Korean Perspectives offers a different, more critical view of life and politics in the DPRK. Not to be confused with the mass of “rare glimpses” that the media keeps coming up with, the remarkable pictures and creative ways of editing done by ten photographers take a closer look at the utopian North Korean self-image.
All the artist do this in their own, individual way. Some try to unmask North Korean hypocrisy by highlighting the dystopian reality behind the DPRK’s dreamy façade. Others point the camera at what normal, daily life consists of for North Koreans. The photographers are the only ones that try to take a realistic approach towards “the Hermit Kingdom.”
Especially worthwhile is the work by Alice Wielinga (1981), who mixes elements from official state propaganda and art with photos of regular events in North Korea. That way, she focuses on the tension that exists between “realities” in a way that is both moving and food for thought.
The Kim Utopia mainly focuses on five major themes: resisting the enemy, the Korean War (1950-1953), the leader, the “fiery wish” of national reunification, and the realization of the workers’ paradise. According to De Ceuster, the task of each North Korean artist is “evoking a proper set of emotions from the audience” – and penetrating this with Juche. What we view is not reality, but a society that is perfect in the eyes of the regime – in other words: the Kim Utopia.
Of course all the paintings were designed specifically for a North Korean audience, which views politics and art as part of the same branch. However, this fact makes it even more interesting for the attentive visitor to analyze the cultural matrix that the regular North Korean is confronted with. The exhibition has done an excellent job at putting together a diverse and intriguing overview of the countless personal styles that the (at least regarding the message) monotonous North Korean propaganda contains. The Kim Utopia is recommended to anyone who is looking forward to diving deeper into the art and propaganda of the Kim regime.
Photos by Casper van der Veen of Ronald de Groen’s exhibition The Kim Utopia at the Drents Museum
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