Last week I visited this rare exhibition of North Korean ink paintings at the Kyoto Wang Inter-Art Museum/JARFO Kyoto Gallery. The artwork on exhibit had been bought by the director Chun-II Wang from the North South Korea Art Council .It had originally been donated to the Council by the National Museum of Korea to help them raise money.
It is unusual that so many artworks from North Korea can be seen together like this in Japan.
The ink paintings are in the traditional landscape genre. They depict dramatic mountain scenes in North Korea: towering mountains, rocky cliffs, trees clumped together on mountain sides, and rushing rivers and cascades.In some paintings there was the odd building or two, but other than that there was no other sign of human life.
All of them clearly belong to one school of painting, but despite the parameters of that style and the set motifs, there were differences between the works, most noticeably in their energy and dynamism. Some were more controlled, others much more spirited. What I found striking about the paintings was the brushwork.
Diluted ink is commonly used for clouds and skies in ink painting, but interestingly in some of the works the brush strokes were vertical or at a diagonal, with the ‘halos’ of water visible where the strokes overlap. All the paintings were on Korean paper (similar to Washi) which allowed for some bleeding of the ink. Mid-grey washes were used on the cliffs and, unusually in a few paintings, dark solid black areas of ink for areas in shadow, or perhaps caves.However, it was the linear brush work of the mountains and water that carried the life of the works. In some paintings the dark brushwork on the mountains resembled rapid scratches, seemingly divorced from their function of depicting rock face. Water was painted with dynamic rhythmical sometimes very gestural strokes in light ink. In contrast, trees and bushes were often portrayed more quietly with complex, subtle layers of colour and ink, wet into wet and with final dots of colour onto the dry ink.
The grandeur of the landscapes in the exhibition goes without saying, but my lasting impression of the paintings as a whole was of energy and propulsion. There was one exception,’Along the Shores of the East Sea’ by In-Gu Park. It was more lyrical and calm, I felt I could relax.