Their output is seldom sold or shown abroad. But "The World According to Kim Jong Il," an exhibition that will run at Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum until Aug. 29, offers a rare and fascinating look at the captive artists' spin on life in the Hermit Kingdom. The 285 works on display are relatively recent, but they might easily have come from Stalin's Soviet Union or Mao's China. The North Korean art clock seems to have stopped circa 1930-50, and the impression that emerges from the exhibition is of a remote, sad and strangely poignant land.
All of the works come from a singular collection amassed by Dutch philatelist Wim van der Bijl and his associate Ronald de Groen. As a stamp dealer participating in international fairs, the Utrecht-based Van der Bijl befriended a North Korean dealer who later switched from stamps to art. On a visit to Pyongyang in early 2003, Van der Bijl's contact offered him some souvenir landscapes from around Asia, but the Dutchman turned them down, expressing interest instead in the propaganda posters he had seen around the city. "But I was told those were not for export," recalls Van der Bijl. The next day, however, he was shown a few North Korean itemsoriginal gouaches for propaganda posters, and some oil paintings in the best tradition of Socialist Realism. After his return to Holland, he received some 200 works on spec, rolled-up and unframed. Van der Bijl put in a request for hundreds more, then waited months for a second export permit. "They were worried that Westerners might make fun" of the works, Van der Bijl explains.
Perhaps it was the prospect of a much-needed influx of foreign currency that changed the authorities' minds. "At first they wanted an awful lot of money," says Van der Bijl. But he was ultimately able to buy another 300 or so pictures at an acceptable price. Worried that permission to export them might be withdrawn at the last minute, he carted about 85 of them with him on the plane to Holland.
The show begins with two large paintings, produced expressly for this exhibit, that flank the entryway and set the stage for this strange trip into the time-warped world of North Korea. On the right, spiffy, Mao-suited founding father Kim Il Sung surveys a construction site, surrounded by smiling, hard-hatted laborers; on the left, plump and girlishly handsome son Kim Jong Il stands on the deck of a speedboat, surrounded by marines. Visitors then walk through a series of galleries enclosed within a giant red-walled box set up in the museum's hangar-like exhibit space. "It's like entering the cocoon of North Korean reality for a short time," says Koen De Ceuster, a professor at Leiden University's center for Japanese and Korean studies, who served as the museum's adviser. "The people live surrounded by this all the time. For them it's total. There's no escaping it."
Equally inescapable, says De Ceuster, is the "numbing sameness" of many of the works. The posters, all from 2002-4, are exhortatory propaganda, illustrating the policy slogans of the moment. Typically displayed everywhere from schools to hospitals, they provide "an image of what the regime is thinking about," says De Ceuster, "and what policies are being presented to the people as priorities." Graphically, they feature lots of upraised fists, upthrust rifles with bayonets, and shouting leaders rallying the people. A poster celebrating Kim Il Sung's dogma of juche (self reliance or autonomy) depicts a soldier, a worker, a farmer and an intellectual holding the staff of a red banner with the word "Autonomy" written on it in yellow. The poster commands: "Let Us Firmly Maintain the Banner of Independence in Revolution and Construction!"
Many of the posters trumpet Kim Jong Il's "Army First" propaganda that touts the military not only as a fighting force but as a model of devotion and discipline. (Not coincidentally, it is also a key power base for the Dear Leader.) In one poster, a rifle-toting soldier leads a miner, a steelworker, a farmer and a scientist, urging, "Behind the Army First Flag, Forward March!" The backgrounds of posters like this typically feature icons of North Korean modernitymissiles, smokestacks, construction sites, dams, electricity towers, desktop computers and walkie-talkies, which seem to possess the kind of cutting-edge cachet that could only exist in a country where almost no one owns a cell phone.
The posters also push Kim's economic policies, often exulting in the nation's ability to overcome adversity. In one of them, a railway worker carries a walkie-talkie in one hand and a signal flag in the other, beneath the words "Let Us Solve the Strained Railway Transportation Problem!" Another poster shows a young farmer from the county of Daehongdan, where the potato crop has purportedly doubled. It reads, "Following the Example of Daehongdan, More Potatoes for the People!" In a country where at least a million people are believed to have died of starvation under Kim's regime, there is a grim irony to these rousing celebrations of team spirit and bountiful food. One poster, for example, portrays a North Korean youth amid a clutch of baby bunnies, along with the rallying cry "Let Us Breed More Rabbits!"
Other posters attempt to unite North Koreans by arousing their fear of imminent attack by foreign aggressors. In one example, a soldier surging out of a red globe declares, "Our Guns Are Merciless for American and Japanese Invaders!" Apparently produced in response to U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech, another poster shows a giant finger pointing at a tiny image of an exploding Pentagon, along with the battle cry "Let Us First Attack the Stronghold of U.S. Imperialism!" There is even a poster that disingenuously suggests South Korea is targeting the North with nukes, along with the plea "Turn the Korean Peninsula into a Nuclear-Free Zone!"
The paintings are less strident, portraying happy workers and farmers in their socialist paradise or honoring heroes of the Japanese occupation and the Korean (or "Fatherland Liberation") War. Meant to be decorative and edifying, they tend to appear in public buildings, hotels and touring art shows. All the women are pretty, all the men handsome, everyone smiles as they harvest crops and build dams. In one of these rousing paintings, the "First Heroine of the Republic, Cho Ok Hee" stands bound and barefoot on a snowy mountaintop, awaiting execution by Japanese troops.
The paintings, like the posters, propagate the myth of a land of joy and plenty. In one, a pair of beaming workers quaff foamy beers beside a table strewn with apples and grapes, while a foundry glows behind them. Others have a Norman Rockwell sweetness to them: an adolescent girl bids farewell to her younger brother as she heads off to military camp; an elderly railway worker strolls along a posy-lined track beside an idyllic stream.
Many of the paintings are technically proficient. But aesthetically as well as politically, North Korean art remains distinctly alien to the average foreign viewer. Says Jane Portal, curator of the Korean Foundation Gallery at the British Museum and author of the forthcoming book Art in North Korea: "Obviously the Social Realist style limits their acceptability to those who judge art from the point of view of mainstream Western aesthetics." Yet it's precisely this alien quality that makes the Rotterdam show so intriguing. As De Ceuster notes, the exhibit doesn't reflect the reality of North Korea: "All it portrays is an ideological image" meant to be stamped on the minds of a downtrodden people. Instead of revealing higher truths, this is the art of distortion, designed to prop up a higher power.