VIENNA – “Why?” is the question Peter Noever, the director of the Museum of Applied Arts here, says he is constantly asked about a sprawling exhibition of propagandistic North Korean artworks now on view. The show has garnered condemnation and suspicion since it opened in May, just as international tensions flared over North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean naval ship.
The exhibition encompasses more than 100 oil paintings and watercolors from North Korea’s national museum, known as the Korean Art Gallery Pyongyang, as well as architectural drawings and models. This is the first time that secretive totalitarian state has sent a large number of its artworks outside its sealed borders.
Until now the country’s cultural proclivities have been known to the outside world primarily through television broadcasts of bizarrely choreographed dancing and gymnastics extravaganzas performed by up to 100,000 adults and children. The Vienna show gives another, somewhat more intimately scaled perspective on the controlled aesthetics of a dystopia where many citizens must scavenge for food and are subject to forced labor, torture and other repressive measures.
A cotton-candy palette predominates in the eerily upbeat paintings, whose high technical proficiency is matched by a severely limited range of subjects. Dutiful farmers, steelworkers, street sweepers and seamstresses all beam with joy; well-nourished children laugh in dazzling sunlight. “We Are the Happiest Children in the World” is one surreal title. An image from 2000 — just after the peak years of a famine estimated to have cost three million lives — depicts the portly dictator Kim Jong-il lifting the lid off a steaming pot in a kitchen laden with succulent meats and fruits as two white-toqued chefs and an army officer stand by. “The Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il Deeply Concerned Over the Soldiers’ Diet,” reads the caption.
The bulk of the exhibition comprises art created in the last 10 years. These blissful landscapes, street and domestic scenes are hung in open galleries, but monumental depictions of Kim Jong-il and his father — the ‘Great Leader’ Kim Il-sung — are tucked away in roped-off alcoves where guards prevent visitors from getting close. “We’re here to make sure the pictures won’t be damaged,” a guard said.
Along with protecting what are considered North Korean national treasures, the museum is doing everything possible to avoid offending the lending nation. The exhibition and 229-page catalog are devoid of any critical text referring to the content of the pictures or the political context in which they arose. A symposium involving specialists in North Korean art and politics has been scheduled, but only on the eve of the exhibition’s closing on Sept. 5.
“It’s totally clear that if we were to have contextualized this exhibition, as some wanted us to, the exhibition would not have taken place,” Mr. Noever conceded in an interview. While North Korea’s minister of culture wrote in the catalog that he hopes the show will contribute to “deepening mutual understanding” and exchange, the museum in Vienna said North Korea refused to allow any of the featured artists to travel to Austria.
“Is it ethical to show the propaganda works of a dictatorial regime?” a correspondent from the former East bloc asked the exhibition’s curator, Bettina M. Busse, at a press preview on May 18. Under the glare of camera lights, Ms. Busse told Czech Television: “There seems to be a misunderstanding of the topic. We’re concerned with culture.” The German newspaper Die Welt disagreed, condemning the exhibition, “Flowers for Kim Il-sung,” as “obscene.” The paper said that in a “terror regime” like North Korea there is “no perceptible visual art according to an acceptable understanding of any sort.”
The North Koreans themselves had trouble grasping the appeal of their artwork to the Viennese. “They didn’t understand it for a long time,” Mr. Noever said. “What interests me are artists who are apart and little-known cultures to which one has little access and about which one has little information.” Arranging the exhibition involved four visits to Pyongyang starting in 2003 and protracted negotiations, he said. No money was paid for borrowing the works.
Just three days before the exhibition opening, North Korea’s ambassador to Austria came to Mr. Noever’s office to ask once again why he was putting on the show. “There were anxieties,” Mr. Noever said. “The North Koreans feared it was propaganda against North Korea.”
Many Austrians, meanwhile, have accused Mr. Noever of burnishing the image of the regime in Pyongyang. The Austrian finance ministry, which usually provides insurance protection on art loans from abroad to government-supported museums like Mr. Noever’s, refused to do so for this show. “This exhibition shows a covert sympathy,” said a ministry spokesman, Daniel Kapp, “and the finance minister decided we will not contribute.”
Mr. Noever provoked further furor with his catalog essay lamenting that “our Western ideological lenses cloud, if not entirely distort, the view of other realities” and urging museumgoers to “bid farewell once and for all to Eurocentric and culturally imperialistic attitudes.” The show, he argued, “proves that cultural differences can be bridged with mutual respect.”
As museum director for the past 24 years, Mr. Noever has demonstrated a flair for attention-getting projects. He brought in Jenny Holzer and Donald Judd to energize the displays of Biedermeier furniture, Mamluk carpets and assorted applied arts in what had become a fusty storehouse founded as an imperial entity in 1864; organized surveys of Soviet art; opened an art center in Los Angeles; and is seeking to transform one of Vienna’s Nazi-era antiaircraft towers into a contemporary art space. “Noever is no fool,” the Viennese daily Die Presse said of the North Korean spectacle, “but rather the leading Austrian exemplar of leftist radical chic.”
The show is unlikely to win North Korea any new adherents abroad, but many Korea experts concur it may help promote dialogue, albeit limited. “It is important to engage in cultural projects with different countries, even if the regime is one we might not like,” said Jane Portal, who heads the Asian department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and is the author of a book on North Korean art. “Engagement is better than total lack of communication.”
Even though Austria backs sanctions against Pyongyang to deter its nuclear arms buildup, Vienna apparently retains a special allure for the North Koreans. It long served as a base for shopping sprees to supply the North Korean elite with luxury goods, according to a memoir by a North Korean colonel who oversaw such purchases before defecting to Austria and publishing the book in March. Last year Italian police blocked an Austrian intermediary from buying two yachts for Kim Jong-il. Yet it’s not just shopping that North Koreans seem to like about Vienna. In the last decade Pyongyang sent 17 students to the renowned University of Music and Performing Arts to learn to conduct.
The Vienna museum has in turn repaid the North Korean affection with a tongue-in-cheek exhibition title relating to the use of flowers to glorify the North Korean leadership. In 1965 President Sukarno of Indonesia presented Kim Il-sung with a hybrid orchid named Kimilsungia. Then a new type of begonia bred in 1988 was named Kimjongilia after the current leader and called the “immortal flower.” Festivals devoted to these blossoms are held regularly in North Korea. At the Vienna exhibition sprays of artificial silk Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia adorn the entry.
“The North Koreans don’t get the irony of it,” Ms. Portal said of the florid title, which “many people who look at the exhibit think it’s a bit of a joke.”
“However much we may think of it as a joke or odd,” she said, “we’ve seen it all before in terms of communist and totalitarian societies — from the Soviet Union to the Nazis to China. This is the last remnant of that, the last bastion of this kind of thinking that’s bound to disappear. That’s why it’s so important for it to be seen and collected for posterity.”