Sascha Priewe, curator, The British Museum
When the embassy of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) opened its doors for an art exhibition in November, here at the British Museum we were busy preparing the Korea Foundation Gallery for its re-display, which opens today. Given the curiosity about the mysterious state and the artists working there, it seemed timely to write about the British Museum’s collection of art from North Korea.
In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang, the DPRK capital. It was the time of ‘sunshine’ relations between the north and the south. Although north-south relations have iced over in recent years, this brief period allowed the world a glimpse into one of the planet’s most inaccessible societies.
In 2001 and 2002 colleagues from the British Museum and the British Library visited the DPRK. Jane Portal, then the curator of the Korean collections (and now the BM’s Keeper of Asia) built of one of the largest collections of DPRK works of art in a Western museum. On her first trip Portal collected woodblock prints, ink paintings, oil paintings, posters, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquer and commemorative coins. On her second visit she collected mostly prints and posters. Thanks to this initiative the British Museum now has about 80 objects from the DPRK.
The DPRK’s regime leaves artists few of the freedoms that artists in other parts of the world take for granted. Art from the DPRK is usually seen as a state-controlled propaganda tool. Often there has been little room to appreciate the works as works of art. But once we understand the context and constraints in which art is produced, we have the opportunity to think about their qualities as works of art. One example is The Steelworker, an oil painting by Song Chan-yong (b. 1930). The portrayal of a worker is naturally in tune with the tenets of a socialist country, however, with Song’s own words we can add a layer of appreciation to the work:
I have dedicated all my artistic life to drawing the subject of the working classes. The base of our society is the working class so I should draw them. I always like to place my easel in a glaring blast furnace not in a splendid studio. Then it seems to be more realistic. I intended to be an artist of the workers in the world of workers.
This and other works in the collection permit glimpses into an isolated world, which for most of us seems like a different universe.
When I visited the Pyongyang and other parts of the DPRK as a tourist in 2005, I felt as if I was stepping into the photographs, footage and stories of 1970s China. The place felt otherworldly, but realising that this physical manifestation is a reality for millions of people held me firmly on the ground. But it is within this context that great works of art are being created. There is politics behind some art, but there is also art behind some politics.