North Korean art in Vienna

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

A rare exhibition of North Korean art is taking place in Vienna's MAK Museum. The museum says it is the first time major paintings from the Korean Art Gallery in Pyongyang have been shown abroad. Katy Clark talks with The BBC's Bethany Bell in Vienna.

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark and this is The World. North Korea and fine art aren't words we often put together. But a North Korean art exhibition is on in Vienna, Austria. The paintings are by North Korean artists who depict life in the closed Communist country in a very positive light. So positive, in fact, that some observers are questioning whether the works can actually be considered art or just propaganda. The BBC's Bethany Bell is in Vienna. She's reported on the exhibit and some of the fallout. Bethany, first of all, you've seen the exhibit. Any good?

BETHANY BELL: I thought it was a very interesting thing to see. It's not the thing you see very often abroad. Certainly from the evidence of the pictures you would imagine that North Korea is a land of smiles. You have pictures showing beaming farm women who are feeding ducks and geese. You see plump, rosy-cheeked children wandering through flowers. Sort of quite kitsch pictures. There was one picture of a soldier [INDISCERNIBLE] about to shoot a gun and he looked untroubled by the fact that he was lying in the snow and untroubled by any type of fear. So this unbelievably positive picture of North Korea.

CLARK: Is everybody smiling? I mean is that a prerequisite in all of these pictures?

BELL: Most of them. It's mostly showing a very, very sort of positive picture of North Korea. The curator of the exhibition, I asked her whether there was any sort of point in showing these things, and she said, well, the art was very, very clearly linked to the ideology, but she said it's not true that they're more propaganda than art because the actually techniques which were on display she said were extraordinary. That they have some of them which are in the traditional kind of brush and ink techniques that you get in Korea. But, for me, I have to say the most interesting thing was the sort of political message that was coming across.

CLARK: Well, westerners may be somewhat accustomed to Communist propaganda from the past. It's considered interesting and campy. But this artwork is very current and a Pyongyang government official gave a speech at the opening saying the exhibit should help westerners understand his country. I guess what is going on here? What is the museum doing here? Is it trying to present a serious message from North Korea?

BELL: I think the director of the museum said he very much understood people's concerns. He understood the controversy about the project. But he says he hopes that it can perhaps lead to some type of better and mutual understanding, sort of echoing the line of the North Korean official there. What he told me is that art wouldn't change anything, it wouldn't change the political situation. But that perhaps through art you might get a slightly different view of things or you might begin to understand things in a different way. Some people who've seen it will find that very difficult to stomach. There's one picture showing Kim Jong-il in his role as the supreme commander of the army, saying that he's deeply concerned about the diet of the soldiers and for some people who remember the famines in North Korea, they may think that is rather cynical.

CLARK: I mean one of the criticisms of this exhibit is these pictures aren't presented in any context for instance. The catalog that goes along with the exhibit doesn't talk about the criticisms of Communist leadership in North Korea at all.

BELL: I think the reality is that if there had been any criticism, they probably wouldn't have been able to put this exhibition on because this is being done with the blessing of the North Korean authorities. On the other hand, I don't think any western viewer is going to think that these works are not propaganda. I think many people will recognize them exactly for what they are and some pictures to me, even though they were perhaps a little kitsch, perhaps suggested something more than just propaganda. There was one with two children lying on the grass and they were watching kites flying away in the blue sky. Possibly a dream of something else that was out of reach.

CLARK: The BBC's Bethany Bell has been speaking with us from Vienna. Thank you so much.

BELL: Thank you.