The exhibition at La Galleria is entering its last two weeks. A number of the artworks that were in the gallery last time I visited are no longer there, having found good homes1, and the opportunity has been taken to move some of the pictures around to give more prominents positions to some artists previously hidden away. But still dominating the main exhibition space is a huge composition in watercolour, painted by a team of artists led by Cha Yong Ho.
4.1 metres wide, it depicts a battle scene at the Nakdong River near the Busan perimeter during the Korean War, when the Northern forces had pushed southwards as far as they were ever going to. A heroic DPRK brass band is playing as shells explode around them. Trombones are wielded like grenade-launchers (in fact I was reminded of the story of the beer-bottle VC. Having run out of ammo, were the north Koreans trying to breach the perimeter with only their trumpets, like Joshua at Jericho?). A bandaged horn player bravely continues playing despite his right arm being in a sling. These guys could teach the Brits a thing or two about keeping a stiff upper lip.
But while the scene is arresting, the composite authorship shows. The musicians all have crazed expressions in their eyes. It looks as if they are reacting to an horrific scene somewhere, but they are all looking in slightly different directions, albeit vaguely to the right. They’re certainly not looking at the conductor, who is waving his arms more in shock than in time to the music. But there’s nothing particularly horrific depicted in the picture in the general direction they’re looking. Yes, a shell has landed some 50 yards from them, but in the other direction. Anyway, it’s a fun picture if you’ve got the wall space.
As I was immersed in the picture, one of the gallery attendants started playing with the audio-visual system. When I had gone in, a DVD of Dan Gordon’s A State of Mind was in the machine, waiting at the menu page. To liven things up, the attendant swapped the disk for a karaoke VCD. A demurely dressed woman strolled along beside a Pyongyang fountain singing heart-rending songs of loss and yearning, while under her feet the words she was singing were progressively illuminated to encourage you to join in. Somewhat incongruous, in the same room as the dramatic battlefield painting.
The LCD monitor had been chosen with a great sense of diplomacy. How many manufacturers of flat panels TVs can you think of which aren’t Japanese or South Korean? The gallery had managed to find one with an Elonex brand name on the front.
Alongside the screen is a display of celadons and other ceramics, including some by the now deceased U Chi Son (above). These will undoubtedly become collectors’ items in the future.
Propaganda posters always provide a lively display, but when the exhibition started most of them were laid out for sale on a large surface in front of the large battle scene. By now a lot of them have been sold (a major UK museum is rumoured to have bought one or two), though many still remain. The nice touch is that all these posters are hand-painted. Copies, yes, but done by humans rather than machines. A cost-effective way to decorate a wall.
Other works are the familiar mountain scenes by Son U Yong (above) and Ri Chang, whose watercolour of Mt Baektu now has a red blob beside it. Son U Yong’s paintings of Mt Kumgang are reminiscent of the typical mountain scenes you see on Chinese wall hangings. Somehow however they manage to be more real and yet at the same time more mysterious, with the mountain peaks floating magically among the clouds.
Never having been one for flower paintings, I was surprised to find myself drawn to Jung Chang Mo’s Magnolia. Jung is, I understand, one of the most senior of the artists on display, and it is said that the years are beginning to take their toll on his health. Having previously come across this painting when plundering the internet for materials to illustrate my report from Koen De Ceuster’s talk, it was a great pleasure to see it in real life. The technique as the artist allows the dark watercolour paint of the tree branch to run into the paler background paint, thus gently blurring the edges, is not something that you can see in an internet reproduction, nor the gradations of white paint depicting the blossoms.
Nearby is another flower painting (below left), possibly my favourite from the whole exhibition, by Kim Chok Hak, while next that that was formerly a watercolour which slightly jars upon western eyes: a familiar chosonhwa watercolour of a plum tree — very nice and pretty — but underneath is a beaming figure of a young lady from the People’s army. Clearly the contrast appealed to someone, because that is now gracing the walls of a purchaser somewhere.
Which brings us to the more unusual items in the collection. First, the “jewel paintings”. Sometimes called “mineral paintings”, these are made of crushed rock2. Close up, the texture of these works look as if they’re painted on sponge. But if you have the right collection of crushed minerals there’s the occasional sparkle as a particularly reflective particle catches the light. In one quiet image of a girl reading a book (unfortunately damaged in transit from Pyongyang — you’ll have to ask the gallery to bring it up from the basement) the sparkle is silver. But in the rather more triumphal image of a red army girl looking optimistically into the Juche future, the sparkle is golden and more prominent — almost like glitter on a christmas card. It’s this picture which started the exhibition hung in the window, issuing a challenge to the fusty Institute of Directors on the other side of Pall Mall.
More intimate are the small drawings executed in ball-point pen — an idealised drawing of a soldier, or a happy grandfather smiling benevolently on the grandchildren which surround him.
The embroideries, too, are a surprise. In the basement in the gallery opposite is a large embroidered picture of a woman in traditional costume, while in the main gallery is a very vivid depiction of a river flowing through woodland. From afar, it looks like an oil painting (above). Up close (below), you can appreciate the needlework.
The stitching is fluid, the direction and length following demands of the picture, rather than being all the same size and direction. This picture is the only one in the exhibition to have been kept in the original frame — all the others were framed on arrival in London – and if you lift it away from the wall you can see the intricacy of the work on the back. This embroidery, alas, is now making its way across the Atlantic to a lucky purchaser across the seas. Tucked away downstairs is a particularly unusual creation – an embroidery of swimming fish designed to be looked at from both sides, perhaps as a centrepiece on a table. A nightmare to frame.
In the gallery opposite the dramatic animal paintings by Pak Hyo Song dominate. More restrained in real life than is suggested by their reproductions on the internet, these are nevertheless in a completely different style from most of the other paintings in the exhibition. More puzzling to me is the subject matter. I understood that there was a certain range of subjects which were acceptable for North Korean artist to cover. Maybe the People’s artist has more freedom, but Pak, as a merit artist (the next tier down) seems to have the freedom to paint scenes which surprisingly escapist from the North Korean perspective. But the subject matter reflects Pak’s stay in Zimbabwe so perhaps he has been given the freedom to record the sights he saw there.
Not much on show were the oil paintings, though the style can be seen on La Galleria’s website. Indeed, reviewing the website and comparing it with what has been on show, it is clear that the shipment from Pyongyang exceeded the space available to exhibit it, and it is therefore to be hoped that any other opportunity might be found to put the work on show. The quality of the work, and the subject matter whether propagandist or more traditional, deserves the exposure.