'Flowers for Kim Il Sung' Vienna Exhibition Provides Rare Glimpse of North Korean Art

North Korea has a reputation as one of the most secretive countries on Earth. Now a museum in Vienna is providing an insight into the dictatorship's culture with an exhibition of contemporary North Korean art. The show only came about after extensive negotiations with the Pyongyang authorities.

North Korea's public relations initiatives are normally limited to bouts of saber-rattling and news of nuclear bomb tests. Hence it is something of a sensation that Vienna's Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) is able to provide, for the first time, an extensive overview of contemporary North Korean art and architecture.

The exhibition, which begins Wednesday and runs until Sept. 5, is called "Flowers for Kim Il Sung." It features over 100 paintings and propaganda posters showing happy, hard-working Koreans in blooming landscapes as well as portraits of the country's founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il.

The unique show is the result of a close cooperation between MAK and the relevant ministry in Pyongyang. The curators in Vienna had to find a "consensus" with the North Korean functionaries, says MAK director Peter Noever. The most sensitive pieces were the 16 portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, Noever says, explaining that it took a long time for the museum to persuade the skeptical North Koreans to let them include the portraits in the show.

The museum also encountered skepticism within Austria, where it was heavily criticized for working together with the Pyongyang regime. Austria's right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) was particularly critical of the exhibition.

Any attempt to "critically contextualize" the art could have put the whole exhibit at risk, explains Noever. Out of consideration for the sensitivities of the North Koreans, the MAK is therefore refraining from posting wall labels commenting on the artworks.

Nevertheless, Noever rejects suggestions that the museum is supporting the Pyongyang regime. "You can't just ignore art that is unfamiliar and strange," he says.


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