Seven years ago, artists from Pyongyang’s Mansudae Studios came to London with a wide range of works in a variety of genres. There were ceramics, oils, chosonhwa, embroidery, and of course the images that caught everyone’s attention: the propaganda posters. The location was opposite the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall.
This week, a different set of artists from Mansudae showed their work, and the focus was different. None of those colourful posters: fine art only. The exhibition was held at the DPRK Embassy in West London: off the normal gallery circuit, but giving visitors the thrill of setting foot on North Korean territory. Despite the claims (in many of the articles linked below) that this is the first time that the embassy has opened its doors to the public for an art exhibition, there was an exhibition held there seven years ago. That exhibition, by artists and designers from the Korea Paekho Company, also avoided the propaganda posters, but was possibly of less general appeal than the current show.
The novelty of this week’s exhibition is that as well as works brought over from DPRK, the artists came to London three weeks early to create some new works, on location. The first week they purchased local materials: canvasses, oils, brushes from London art suppliers; and they scouted locations. The resulting works were on show at the embassy, and what they produced may surprise.
Working from photographs at a furious pace over the course of two weeks they produced oils in a traditional style, avoiding the kitsch that is sometimes associated with conventional North Korean oils. In their paintings of the Embankment and Trafalgar Square they have caught London’s autumn light particularly well, and in an interesting commentary on observation there are two paintings of visitors to the National Gallery. In one, a couple rests from their viewing on a comfortable seat, while in the other a tourist takes a photo of the room on her iPhone. In both paintings what is interesting is that it is the people, not the paintings on the wall, that are the focus. A commentary perhaps on what people see in many galleries?
But the most interesting London painting of all is the one of the poppy installation at the Tower of London, by Hong Seong Il. In an art system which is said to be “Under Control” the artist has been given unusual freedom in picking his subject, and has chosen to paint an installation honouring the war dead of a country that fought on the UN side against the North Koreans in 1950-53. An interesting olive branch in an exhibition which is about cultural engagement.
Of the North Korean paintings, subjects which are overtly political have been avoided. Possibly the nearest we get is a bold and energetic work in which construction workers seem to be celebrating the successful completion of the West Sea Barrage, but which might strike a chord with anyone who has felt pleasure at the end of a hard day’s physical labour.
A woodcut of Dokdo, proclaiming the islands to be Korean land, was surely something that no-one present could have disagreed with. Though actually, a South Korean I was chatting with (yes, there were, unusually, South Koreans there in North Korean territory) found the sentiments rather aggressively expressed., while another woodcut of a family preparing vegetables had the energy and spirit of minjung artist Oh Yoon.
The oils seemed to be devoid of political message. I asked a Mansudae representative whether, in the picture of children playing with flower petals on the pavement, the flowers had any particular significance. Of course, I was expecting to be told that they were Kimilsungia. But no, just an abundant rose bush, and apparently this is a familiar scene in the summer, which children like to spell out words with rose petals on the streets.
Of the Chosonhwa paintings, trees with blossom and fruit predominated, though there was an impressive mountain scene by Ri Chang, one of the most senior of the artists represented. Born in 1942, he is a Peoples Artist, as is Kim Chun Jon (b 1941), painter of a snowy forest scene. And nestling among the works were a couple of embroideries, the needlework so fine that they were hard to distinguish from the paintings.
The opening reception was very well-attended, with embassy staff proving to be charming hosts, and two endearing young girls running around in hanbok. It is a shame the exhibition was only on for one week, but after all the exhibition venue is a functioning embassy, and the staff need their space.