home | about | archive | links | contact

The art of propaganda in the year 2004

A recent news item, taken from the Far Eastern Economic Review, provided an awe-struck description of the North Korean stadium performances with living mosaics. These gigantic performances, for which twenty-thousand children are trained, are held every year in the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. Such an event must be incredibly impressive in scale and for the discipline it requires. Where else can you still find these performances except in North Korea, which has made the mass mobilisation of its people the core of its very ideological Juche doctrine (literally ‘self-reliance’, a contemporary, Korean, nationalistic variant of Marxism)? In China, perhaps, but there they are on a much smaller scale and lack the eye for detail.    

North Korea is a gold-mine for journalists. Every documentary, every film, every glimpse into the society of this secretive Communist utopia in Asia, the last of its kind, is news. Take, for example, the documentary, North Korea A day in the life of Pieter Fleury, or a broadcast of the Dutch current affairs programme, Nova, on North Korea in which thirteen-year-old Kim Kwang made the following remark: ‘Anne Frank longed for world peace. But her dream will never come true as long as Bush the warmonger is alive. Bush is as bad as Hitler. Thanks to him we shall always live in fear.’ This comment is indicative of the party propaganda that the North Koreans are spoon-fed every day.

            We get some idea of this propaganda from the exhibition in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam entitled The World according to Kim Jong-Il. Art from North Korea. The exhibition shows a collection of 150 propaganda posters and 135 paintings, all made in 2003 as state commissions and intended for hotels and public buildings. It is a rather curious collection, but not the less interesting for that. It’s shocking to see the stringent and dated visual idiom of the enormous rows of hand-painted propaganda posters. That this still exists! While in the United States reality games have been developed as propaganda material for the US army (‘a new technique’ that the Hezbollah is apparently using too), these posters take you back to the age of Constructivism in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, or to the propaganda of the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the posters, thematically grouped under the slogan Defending the revolution, shows a soldier in uniform with a grim, concentrated expression, his finger firmly on a red button. In the lower right-hand corner of the poster a map of the United States is shown magnified as a target. The message is clear: one press of the button and an atomic bomb is on its way to the United states. As on all the other posters, a space has been kept open at the bottom for a slogan: ‘Remain always alert!’, in the beautiful, abstract, Korean alphabet. It is one of the many examples in this exhibition of the aggressive anti-imperialist nationalism propagated by the Juche to lead autarchic North Korea towards a glorious future.

            The maker of the poster is known: An Song Gun. But the name might as well have been omitted. Forms of individual expression are not appreciated in this state propaganda; all the posters are painted in the same uniform, cartoon-like style. Harsh colours, a lot of red, hard contours, powerful dynamic compositions, fluttering flags (a symbol of political, military and patriotic mobilisation), soldiers in belligerent and heroic poses, and in the sky the sparkling star of Mt. Paektu, symbol of the divine leader Kim Il Sung. Although these posters have clearly been influenced at every stage since the 1950s by Russian social realism, it is above all the Chinese propaganda poster that has left its mark. The Korean variant combines it with elements drawn from traditional Chinese painting and popular art: soft, rounded forms and insipid colours with gradual transitions in a variety of graceful variants and styles. That changes in the 1960s and 1970s when the message of the Chinese posters becomes more uniform and strident as a result of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong. The contours become thicker and the poses more expressive, like frozen figures from the Chinese opera. It is no coincidence that the North Korean posters owe the most to this variant (for instance, the typical space at the bottom of the poster for the slogans is taken from it). The makers of the North Korean posters have a predilection for the most unambiguous elements of the propaganda idiom of their Chinese and Russian counterparts. Evidently the political and social ideology of the Juche doctrine must be conveyed without a hint of ambiguity.

            While the propaganda posters are hard and strident, the paintings are honey-coated and idyllic. All done in the same colourful, realistic, slightly impressionist style, they show the blissful dedication of the people that subordinates itself to the goal of the community. North Korea tries to advertise its Socialist paradise in the same way as China advertises its new economic hegemony to the outside world. Many paintings show buildings and apartments alongside the wide and spotless boulevards of Pyongyang, the epitome of architectural modernity, like Shanghai in China. Information and space technology is also paraded, but, unlike China, this industry is no more than a niche in a country plagued by an emaciated economy. Whereas China dangles a slick, photorealistic new, second reality before the eyes of its people, the Korean paintings present modern buildings beside fields of grain and farmers in an incongruously anachronistic, impressionist setting.

            Nevertheless, it would be wrong to draw hasty conclusions from this art that is specially produced for the state. After all, it is only one facet of the cultural climate in North Korea. Smatterings of the work of more autonomous North Korean artists can be found on the Web. Moreover, as Korea specialist Koen de Keuster notes in the exhibition catalogue, a latent Cold War rhetoric lies behind the Western, mythical picture of North Korea. In other words: the West prefers to see these distorted representations of reality, this curiosity cabinet of an outdated and perverted Communism. But there is no getting around the facts. More and more North Koreans are fleeing via China to South Korea. While the posters leave us with a pleasant sense of astonishment, nostalgia and entertainment, such reports present the bitter reality of this megalomaniac form of state propaganda.


The World according to Kim Jong-Il. Art from North Korea

Kunsthal Rotterdam

12 June to 29 August