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Vienna Hosts Art and Architecture from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
A visitor takes a photograph of a painting called "Leader, you are near the frontline" by artists Ri Sang Mun and Kim Jong Thae at the exhibition "Flowers for Kim Il Sung, Art and Architecture from Democratic People's Republic of Korea" at the MAK museum in Vienna, Austria, on Tuesday, May 18, 2010. The exhibition runs from May 19 to Sept. 5, 2010. AP Photo/Ronald Zak.

VIENNA.- The art of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is largely unknown outside its home country. The exhibition Flowers for Kim Il Sung at the MAK offers a first-ever comprehensive look at this country’s contemporary art, poster art and architecture. In the spotlight is a culture that seems foreign to us, determined by the all-encompassing worship of “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung (deceased in 1994) and his currently reigning son Kim Jong Il, Chairman of the National Defence Commission, and characterized by the Chuch’e Idea, a specific interpretation of socialism. “Art is the only societal force capable of overcoming borders,” asserts Peter Noever, director of the MAK, in reference to this exhibition. Noever adds: “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. With this showing at the MAK, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has broken through its isolation—at least in terms of artistic production.”

In close cooperation with the Korean Art Gallery, around 100 works of fine art—oil paintings, ink paintings and watercolors—and 30 selected posters will be presented. Large-format portraits of the president Kim Il Sung and his successor Kim Jong Il, Chairman of the National Defence Commission, will also be on display. Supported by the Paektusan Academy of Architecture, a separate section will be devoted to architecture; at its center there will be a model—made specifically for the MAK—of the so-called Chuch’e Tower, the highest stone tower in the world. This is one of the many monuments that were put up on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, and it gives an impression of the city-planning idea upon which the reconstruction of Pyongyang was based.

As a rule, there are two central categories of oil painting in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea: one treats traditional themes such as portraits, landscapes and scenes from the daily lives of workers, farmers, etc., while the other consists in portrayals of the president Kim Il Sung and his successor Kim Jong Il, Chairman of the National Defence Commission. Mountains, idyllic lake landscapes and even nearly impressionistic landscape views are done in a fairly traditional manner. Paintings emphasize the achievements of the state and its workers; motifs are supplied by road construction, factories, etc., as well as by proud and happy people. Portraits of the president and his successor enjoy a special status in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The paintings soon to be exhibited by the MAK will be leaving the Korean Art Gallery for the first time ever. They portray the father and the son, usually together with representatives of the people and in the most varied situations. The leaders’ closeness to the people is repeatedly emphasized. Alongside calligraphy, ink painting had been Korea’s traditional painting technique. Only in the late 1950s, however, did it regain official recognition as a Korean artistic skill. It is gradually being appreciated more by the authorities, with works in this medium now being done on all topics by members of major artists’ studios.

Poster Art
Posters show with great clarity the conviction and determination to follow an ideological path that is not subject to question. But they also make it possible to trace political developments in the sense of gradual changes associated with domestic and international circumstances. In terms of their design, they are similar to posters of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Colors are an important element of such posters’ design: red, internationally recognized as being symbolic of socialism, is employed most frequently. There exist numerous whole series of posters based on the motif of the red banner. Red appears above all in posters on the themes of ideology, political mobilization, loyalty and self-sacrifice, since this color also stands for conviction and determination, as well as for cruelty/brutality. Blue, on the other hand, symbolizes tranquility, peace and harmony. The Korean Peninsula is depicted in blue on flags used for events involving both Koreas.

The human being, as the master of his own fate, also stands in the focus of this country’s poster art. People are seldom depicted as individuals, but rather as prototypes of a social group, outfitted with the corresponding attributes. The posters never feature images of the president and his successor. But posters do quite often make reference to historically important personalities or occurrences, thereby providing a historical context for day-to-day political events.

Pyongyang is referred to as a “Paradise on Earth” as well as for “public art,” and as a “reward for all hardships.” After having been destroyed during the Korean War (1950–1953), it was completely rebuilt from the ground up according to Soviet and Chinese examples as a flagship of the modern Korean state. It is characterized by wide boulevards lined with high-rises and imposing buildings for various activities of public life (theater, halls for large events, the state museum). Another determining factor in the city’s appearance consists in the various memorial structures that were put up in honor of President Kim Il Sung: the Chuch’e Tower, the Triumphal Arch and the Mausoleum. Alongside the model of the Chuch’e Tower, this exhibition will also include architectural plans, photographic material and design sketches.

In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea art assumes a social function and is subordinate to the revolutionary process. Artists occupy a special status. They are required to depict and communicate the correct attitude, behaviors, morality and values. In the case of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, education and culture are the most important settings for the revolutionizing of the individual and the communication of the new ethos. Training of artists encompasses more than just the acquisition of artistic skills; an important component is also their engagement with the ideology.

In general, there are so many different painters that no single one of them really stands out; it is much rather the content that is important. The MAK exhibition features artists including Jong Hui Jin: he painted two portraits of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Also represented are Kwak Hungj Mo, with two posters from the late 1950s or early 1960s, and Kim Kyong Hun, who created two posters in 2010.

All artists in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea are members of the state artists’ association and are paid a monthly salary. In return, they must produce a certain number of paintings. There are large ateliers and also office-type settings; one example is the Mansudae Artists’ Studio. The mounting of exhibitions is under the control of state organizations; there are no privately organized presentations. Much as in politics, the realm of culture has also seen the development of a variant that is oriented toward Korean tradition.

The MAK has a long tradition of offering glimpses into the worlds beyond Western artistic and architectural trends; such exhibitions have included Cine Art. Indian Poster Painters at the MAK (1999), Architecture Again. The Havana Project (1997), Art and Revolution. Russian and Soviet Art, 1919- 1932 (1988) and The Tyranny of the Beautiful. Architecture in the Time of Stalin (1994).

The current exhibition Flowers for Kim Il Sung. Art and Architecture from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues this policy in compelling fashion, daring to tackle a theme that has been covered only rarely in academic publications.

MAK | "Flowers for Kim Il Sung" | Vienna |

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