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North Korean art show stirs controversy in Vienna

An exhibition of North Korean art in Vienna offers a rare glimpse into the isolated country’s art scene. But critics have slammed the lack of background information, calling the show a blatant example of political propaganda.


Well-fed kids with flowers in their hair lying in blossoming gardens… This is how North Korean painters see their famine-hit country according to an exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna.

The figures of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the reclusive Communist regime, and his son and successor Kim Jong-il loom large over pieces of work dominated by shades of blue and red, the colours of North Korea’s national flag. The exhibition also includes some fine examples of pure Stalinian architecture – a style that never went out of fashion in Pyongyang.

The exhibition resulted from a close collaboration between the MAK and North Korea’s national museum, the Korean Art Gallery. The BBC reported that North Korean art chief Han Chang Gyu told visitors on the show’s opening he hoped these pieces of work depicting the “heroic life of our people” would lead to a “better understanding” of his secretive country.

In bed with the Kims

But bringing these North Korean’s masterpieces to a western audience wasn’t without hurdles. The exhibition director, Bettina Busse, told it took the MAK long months of negotiations to get the show’s highlight - monumental portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il proudly encouraging children, soldiers, and peasants on their paths to a glorious revolutionary future.

“This is the first time these pieces of work have been allowed out of North Korea, where people are well aware of the West’s critical stance towards these iconic images. They don’t really understand why we’re interested in their art,” said Busse.

The Kim dynasty portraits are the regime’s most treasured pieces of art since they’re usually produced by the country’s best artists in the finest Stalinian aesthetic tradition.
Convincing the regime to send its most valuable contemporary paintings was only the beginning for the MAK. The Viennese museum also had to battle with suspicious Pyongyang officials to arrange the exhibition as it saw fit, with North Korean requests encompassing the smallest details.

“In the catalogue, the reproduction of the Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il portraits had to be printed in big size, but not cut in two by the book’s middle line,” said Busse.

Political propaganda

The exhibition does not include any background explanation on the totalitarian nature of the North Korean regime, a compromise by the museum with authorities in Pyongyang that came under fire from some politicians and artists. But the MAK forcefully denied it was giving a free pass to the regime’s propaganda.

“Visitors know very well that North Korea is the last dictatorship in the world. There is really no need to remind them of this fact. We just want to show North Korean contemporary art, not to talk about politics," Busse told

For those who want to know more about the regime, MAK is planning a seminar in early September on North Korean art that will cover the reclusive nation’s political situation.

Inside the MAK's North Korean art exhibition
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