BERN, Switzerland – In front of a fiery sky, former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il watch with beaming smiles as rockets rush overhead in flashes of light and clouds of smoke. The painting “The Missiles” by Pak Yong-chol is one of the most valuable possessions of the collector Uli Sigg, acquired through the perseverance, conviction and contacts he made during his tenure as Swiss ambassador to North Korea in the 1990s.

Sigg said he previously visited the North Korean National Art Museum in the capital, Pyongyang, whose works glorify the country’s strength. He added that he was already familiar with the socialist-realistic art style favored by the communist governments of China and the Soviet Union – but he was impressed with North Korea’s more emotional variant.

“It was then that I decided to buy a work of art,” he said in a recent video interview. “You can buy pictures of happy, rosy-cheeked workers. But I wanted one with the leaders. “

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His first approaches to North Korean officials have been rejected, he said. Pictures of the dictators “were only allowed to be shown in embassies outside North Korea – and they are certainly not in private hands,” he said. “That was unimaginable.”

Instead, Sigg was offered a portrait of himself to be painted by one of the regime’s leading artists. “I said ‘I don’t want a portrait of myself, I want a portrait of the Führer'”, he said.

Sigg eventually convinced officials, he said, and built one of the most important collections of North Korean art outside the country. Pieces from the collection were recently exhibited at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, in a rare display of North Korean art in the west. Even more unusual, the exhibition shows the works alongside works of art by the country’s neighbor and enemy, South Korea.

The exhibition entitled “Border Crossings” ran until September 5th and was “sensitive” for both sides, said Sigg. Showing South Korean art is illegal in the north, and North Korean art was banned in the south for many years. Both Koreas protested before the exhibition opened at the end of April. Sigg, who left Switzerland’s foreign service in 1998, needed his diplomatic skills again.

Technically, the two countries are still at war and are separated by the 155 mile long demilitarized zone defended on both sides with barbed wire and anti-tank systems. Nobody is allowed to cross the border. Although the artists of the divided peninsula share a common cultural tradition, they work in different worlds.

Those in the south enjoy creative freedom in a society whose pop music has spread around the world. Seoul, the capital, is a major Asian arts center with a vibrant, diverse gallery scene. In the north, all professional artists are organized in two official studios that work under the strict control of the communist dictatorship and are isolated from international influences.

The only paintings that are on public display in North Korea are official commissions from these studios. With dramatic theatrics but in a realistic style, the country’s leaders are portrayed almost as religious icons, while workers appear as heroes, and landscapes emphasize the power and grandeur of its natural landscape.

Sigg said he hoped the exhibition would shed light on the contrasts between the two societies. “The main interest for me was this tension between the two Koreas, which once formed a cultural space,” said Sigg. “This exhibition makes this tension more concrete.”

The art museum invited officials from the Swiss embassies of North and South Korea to private tours ahead of the official opening. Neither accepted. A spokesman for the South Korean embassy said the ambassador’s schedule prevented him from attending. The North Korean embassy did not reply.

That year, Pyongyang’s representative in Bern complained to Sigg about a work of art that the museum was using to promote the exhibition on its website, he said. Based on a photo, the watercolor “Two Great White Sharks” shows North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong-un, who is surrounded by military personnel and peeks into a reservoir where the deadly creatures slide beneath the surface. (Kathleen Bühler, the exhibition’s curator, said the museum removed the work from the website, but not from the exhibition.)

While North Korean defensiveness was to be expected, Sigg said he did not expect objections from democratic, liberal South Korea. The exhibition received a US $ 77,000 grant from the government’s Korea Foundation, which supports South Korean art abroad. Weeks before the opening, the local legislators accused the foundation of promoting North Korean propaganda in Switzerland. The South Korean Foreign Ministry asked Sigg to prove that none of the North Korean works of art had been purchased in violation of international sanctions against the North.

As a neutral country, Switzerland has unusually good relations with North Korea. When Sigg became ambassador in 1995, the north was in dire famine and it was his job to investigate the consequences and report to the United Nations. (The Swiss humanitarian organizations then taught North Korean farmers new techniques in potato cultivation and animal breeding.) At around the same time, Kim Jong-un even attended school in Bern.

Although he visited North Korea many times during his tenure, Sigg was based in Beijing, where he was also the Swiss ambassador to China. He and his wife made contact with many artists there, he said, and contemporary Chinese art is at the heart of his vast collection. A donation from Sigg for more than 1,400 Chinese works forms the basis for the new M + Museum in Hong Kong, which is due to open in June.

Sigg said that he started collecting South Korean art in 2008 and that the works he acquired all concern the partition of Korea. The pain of the rupture immediately confronts visitors to the Bern Museum with a painting of the demilitarized zone in the entrance hall.

“Between Red” by Sea Hyun-lee, a southern artist, is painted entirely in shades of this color. Without people, it is reminiscent of traditional Korean landscape painting with an elevated view of curving rivers, rugged mountains, clusters of abandoned houses, and blooming orchards whose fruits may not have been harvested since the area between the two Koreas was cordoned off in 1953.

Another type of pain is seen high above eye level in the same room that hangs a huge North Korean canvas. The work, entitled “The Year of Shedding Bitter Tears,” depicts Kim Il-sung’s funeral in 1994. In a crowd of distraught spectators, a man has fallen to the ground, his head almost on the sidewalk; Another holds a hand to his heart in fear. Kneeling women in uniform sob into their hands and handkerchiefs. Even the sky weeps from dark storm clouds.

Less melodramatic, but more moving, are the works in which South Korean artists try to create cross-border connections. In an operation worthy of a Cold War spy thriller, Kyungah Ham smuggled Chinese intermediaries to smuggle her textile designs and instructions to North Korean stickers, whom she paid to produce the works.

One of them, “Hiroshima & Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud”, is based on a black and white aerial photograph taken after an atomic bomb exploded at the end of World War II. “For those of us who live in a divided country threatened by nuclear weapons, the work is not just a record of the past,” says the artist in an interview in the catalog. The embroidery, beautifully done in long, even stitches, is a testament to North Korean craftsmanship.

Sojung Jun’s video work “Early Arrival of the Future” examines the common legacy of the North and South Koreans. She invited two pianists – Kim Cheol-woong from the north and Uhm Eun-kyung from the south – to arrange and perform a duet that combines traditional melodies from a North Korean folk song and a South Korean nursery rhyme. In the filmed performance, they stand facing each other on two wings and close-ups show their subtle coordination through eye contact and facial expression.

But art can divide and connect – as Sigg knows only too well. He said he hesitated for a long time before deciding to host the exhibition in Bern, realizing that doing so risks destroying his ties with North Korea. He said it was possible that he would now be refused entry if he applied for a visa.

“What is new this time is that I am facing protests from two countries – usually only one,” he said. “But I’m relatively relaxed. When it comes to contemporary art, you have to have thick skin. “

Border Crossings: North and South Korean Art from the Sigg Collection
Until September 5th at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland; kunstmuseumbern.ch.