When going along to an exhibition of work by North Korean artists you’re not quite sure what to expect. David Heather’s collection that was exhibited at La Galleria in 2007 had something for all tastes, including propaganda posters; a genre, influenced by western painting styles, that might be dismissed as Juche kitsch; and Chosonwha, which is a descendant from traditional Korean ink painting.
The 2014 exhibition at the DPRK embassy was mainly in the western tradition, some of them dashed off in a couple of days – from photographs – during the artists’ stay in London.
The surprise exhibition in Coningsby Gallery off Tottenham Court Road, held for one week only in February 2017, was almost exclusively in the Chosonwha style, depicting landscapes or flowers in ink and colour on Korean mulberry paper. The exhibition was of works from a private collection of a Korean businessman who now has British citizenship, and whose work regularly takes him to China and North Korea. He has made some astute purchases.
Probably the best known artist represented in the exhibition was Jong Chang Mo, best known for his flower paintings, and there were some fine examples on show.
For me, though, the biggest surprise was the work of Kim Ki-man (1924-2004), younger brother of the South Korean artist Kim Ki-chang. Born in Seoul, he ended up north of the border after the war. There was a tearful meeting of the two brothers in the 2000 family reunions associated with Kim Dae-jung’s sunshine policy. The younger brother brought one of his paintings to Ki-chang’s hospital bed.
Kim Ki-man’s paintings on show in the exhibition were in the best Chosonhwa tradition, like Jung Chang-mo’s. Both of them executed beautiful works of blossoms and birds, displaying virtuoso control of the brush.
Chun Young focused on pine trees and bamboo forests, with exquisite detailing of the pine needles and bamboo leaves. These were recent works, from 2016. Oh Yong Seong (b 1964) painted an eight-panel folding screen of flowers in vibrant colours, and a couple of other flower paintings including Scent of Nature. Mr Song, who has assembled this fine collection, speculated that the bright colours in the screen were meant as an antidote to the monochrome existence faced by many in North Korea.
The painting featured in the exhibition’s advance publicity, a dramatic depiction of Kumgangsan shrouded in clouds like a torrent of water, was a 2016 work by Choe Kye-gun (b 1942). In a style more reminiscent of the energetic woodcut prints of Oh Yoon and others, Kim Sung-hui (b Tokyo, 1939) painted a traditional dancer, full of movement.
There was no overt propaganda in this exhibition, and no kitsch. Just modern paintings in a style which respects the pre-modern artistic styles of the peninsula or which convey the drama or peace of a landscape. It was something that could be enjoyed for itself, and you could almost forget that the paintings came from a country that also produces those crude propaganda posters.
Chosun Paintings: Beyond Borders, Beauty was at Coningsby Gallery 12 – 18 February 2017
- Review in The Spectator
- Notice of the exhibition on Coningsby Gallery website, where more images are available.