British Museum blog

Beyond propaganda? North Korea in the British Museum

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.

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000. 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. As one result, working level talks continued between the governments and tourist visits to the Diamond Mountains for South Koreans became possible. (British Museum OR.9666)

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000 (British Museum OR.9666)

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 Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

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.

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

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.

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Facelift: the new Korea Foundation Gallery

Sascha Priewe, curator, and Ellie Miles, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

The Museum is re-opening its refreshed Korea Foundation Gallery (Room 67) thanks to a generous grant from the National Museum of Korea. The project gave us the chance to re-think how we talk about and display things from the Korean peninsula. We took into account the collection’s profile, and how our visitors actually use our permanent gallery spaces. Most visitors make their own paths around the gallery, so we took down walls and moved cases to open up the space for them to browse and make different connections between objects. Bringing in colourful case designs and a new lighting design, we hope that the new gallery will give the objects a stronger visual impact, and encourage closer looking than before.

Samramansang Moon Jar #1 by Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960)

Samramansang Moon Jar #1 by Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960), USA, 2010–13, mixed media on wood (British Museum 2014,3046.1)

The collection tells an on-going story of Korean visual and material culture that continues to today. To start this new look at the Korean peninsula’s enduring history, we chose contemporary art with a historical focus. Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960) is an artist whose paintings of moon jars from the Joseon period (1392–1910) are particularly well known. His spectacular Samramansang Moon Jar #1 will welcome visitors into the gallery.

One of the parts of the new gallery that we are most excited about is the cases that we have reserved for changing displays. These will allow the gallery to be responsive to the events programme, new acquisitions and visitor interest. When the gallery opens on 16 December the first of these cases will show the work of Nam June Paik (1932–2006),the Korean pioneer of video art. The display of his works is in step with other interest in him, such as Tate Modern’s current exhibition. The other changing cases will allow us to make links with other collections within the Museum, too, and with the Museum’s exhibition programme.

Korean and Chinese objects displayed in Eumorfopoulos’ home, 7 Chelsea Embankment, London, 1934

Korean and Chinese objects displayed in Eumorfopoulos’ home, originally published in George Eumorfopoulos, G.E. 7, Chelsea Embankment, December 1934 (1934).

As we’ve been thinking about the re-display, the first ‘mini-exhibition’ will look at the history of the Korean collection at the British Museum, and how the earliest Western collectors of Korean art might have seen Korea. The beginnings of the Korean collections and the collecting of Korean objects began in the 19th century through the likes of the diplomat Thomas Watters (1840-1901), William Gowland (18427–1922), who worked for the Japanese mint, and George Eumorfopoulos (1863–1939), an ‘Oriental’ art collector in London, each representing different types of collectors. Between the three of them they amassed important collections but each with a very different texture.

East Gate – Seoul by Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Britain, about 1924, colour woodcut, donated by the Contemporary Art Society, P&D 1928,0310.40

East Gate – Seoul, colour woodcut by Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Britain, c. 1924, (British Museum PD 1928,0310.40)

Another lens through which Korea was seen was through photography and paintings. The display will show books featuring images of Korea published by the collectors’ contemporaries. Depictions of trades, pastimes, boats, architecture, costumes and natural history and so forth provided a lens through which Asia was perceived. And we will also show prints by Europeans and Americans that they made based on their impressions of Korea.

The gallery refreshment has given us the chance to look into the collection from different angles, to explore its strengths and its weaknesses. We have made some new discoveries and reconnected with objects that have been ‘old friends’. But our main task has been to improve the gallery to serve the visitors much more consciously by telling exciting stories and making connections with a part of the world, its past and present, that is still largely unknown.

The Korea Foundation Gallery</a re-opens on 17 December 2014, admission free.
View on the floorplan

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This beaded #wedding blanket was made around the 1950s in South Africa by a Ndebele artist. Under apartheid the Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically defined rural reserves. In response to losing their ancestral lands, Ndebele women began to make distinctive beadwork for significant events.

They also adapted these designs and painted them on their homesteads, to include ever more intricate and colourful patterns. As a form of protest, these artworks had the effect of making Ndebele identity highly visible at a time when the government was attempting to make them effectively invisible through rural segregation.

See this beautiful beaded blanket in our special exhibition #SouthAfricanArt, which traces the history of this nation over 100,000 years. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets before the exhibition closes on 26 Feb.
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This beautiful beaded necklace is made of brass, glass and fibre, and is known as an ingqosha, a traditional necklace worn by the Xhosa people. Young Xhosa women and men traditionally wear the ingqosha at weddings and ceremonial dances.

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Mahlangu’s Art Car combines tradition and history with contemporary art and politics; themes  that are explored in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition. Catch it before it ends on 26 February 2017 – you can book tickets by following the link in our bio.
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