INTRODUCTION TO EXHIBITION ON POSTER ART OF MODERN CHINA RUNNING AT ADAM HOUSE, EDINBURGH FROM 6TH JUNE TO 12TH JULY 2014.
This exhibition on Poster Art of Modern China: 1913 – 1997 at the University of Edinburgh is a first in many respects: it covers a broad spectrum of this art form starting in the Republican period (1911-1949); includes highest quality exhibits, many of which are being displayed for the first time; and is the biggest exhibition of its kind ever displayed in the UK. The exhibition offers visitors the chance not only to appreciate the aesthetic content of these posters but also to gain some understanding into the history of China in the last century. The posters presented are on loan from the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, founded, directed, and curated by Yang Peiming, which is today the largest collection of Chinese poster art comprising more than 5000 items. Poster Art has a long history in modern China, serving different purposes - to enlighten, to entertain, to educate, or to make money. The exhibition aims to present this variety highlighting the artistic qualities of poster art production. The earliest poster on display is a highly decorative advertising poster created in 1913. Styled as a Shanghai calendar poster, and featuring the latest female fashion (the model wearing a western style high collar dress) this poster is an example of a very stylized and new representation of female beauty. The newest poster, featuring Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, was created in 1997. Very shortly after, most prints were reclaimed or recycled, so although this is the most recent poster of the exhibition, this poster is in fact very rare. The exhibition also features covers from a very special magazine Modern Sketch from the 1930s, along with highly expressive woodcut posters issued by the National government during the Anti-Japanese War. During the first three decades of the Maoist Era (1949-1976), propaganda posters had their peak in China, hence this era provides the majority of exhibits. Labelled as "propaganda" these posters still present a multitude of styles and artistic creativity with wide ranging impact. Posters were a widespread, accessible and affordable art, which enjoyed great popularity among the people, despite their often seemingly shallow and simplistic political messages. The idea that literature and arts should also serve an educational purpose and raise the moral constitution of the reader or viewer was not new in China, prevailing many centuries before poster art
emerged. The main purpose of propaganda is to persuade, involve, and engage. This means, the didactic function of art or propaganda can only be fulfilled in a process of communication between the creator and the viewer. For this reason core political messages have to be accompanied by images, ideas or issues important, relevant and sympathetic to the viewer. They also need to be recognisable and consistent, drawing on elements of a shared culture, while introducing new elements in a constant process of communication. At the same time, propaganda art is certainly no innocent affair. In times of high political pressure or national crisis, through agitation and mobilisation, the posters can incite discrimination, hatred, and violence against those labelled as "enemies" of the time – vulnerable victims, who were also viewers of such posters. By definition, these posters are not pure art or "art for art's sake" , but in their entirety they cover the whole scale from nearly pure artistic creativity to centrally directed conformity. The posters exhibited reflect this variety of content, messages, and new and old elements in terms of style and artistic influences: European War Time Posters; Nazi Propaganda; Expressionism or Art Nouveau; Japanese and Chinese traditional arts; contemporaneous comics and cartoons; as well as the influence of the historical circumstances under which they appeared. Calendar posters first appeared in China in the early 20th century. They enjoyed great popularity, being sold on the streets or given out by commercial firms. As everywhere in the world of advertising, many of them featured women. Art students returning from Europe increasingly adapted elements of Art Deco, prevalent in European advertising of the time. Woodblock paper prints on the other hand had been produced and circulated in China since the 7th century, first appearing as mass productions of Buddhist devotional art or in book illustrations. In the 1930s the Leftist movement rediscovered this artistic technique for propaganda purposes linking up with the global woodcut movement, particularly during the AntiJapanese War (1937-45). With the support of China's most famous writer, Lu Xun, in the 1930s, woodcut art further developed in the "liberated areas" controlled by the Communists during the Civil War, and hence strongly influenced further propaganda posters throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). In the early years after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, Mao Zedong called for a modern New Year's Picture Movement. Famous artists from across the nation joined in the production of modern New Year's pictures and touring exhibits made this Movement widely known. The modern New Year's pictures borrowed the styles of traditional folk art in order to promote new society and new thought. Main themes of the propaganda posters of this time were "Celebrate New China", "Fight America and Support North Korea", and "Land Reform". According to Jiang Feng
(1910-1982), who played an important role in art circles at the time, there were more than 800 kinds of New Year's pictures in China, (of which about 300 are collected in the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center). More than 10 kinds are presented in this exhibition, including works from the Hangzhou School of Art (the famous impressionist artist Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) being its former principal) and Shen Roujian (1919-1998), an artist from the “liberated areas” under Communist control. Propaganda posters were also strongly influenced by Soviet Union artists and the concept of Socialist Realism, after many students, who had studied art in Russia during the early years after the founding of the People's Republic, returned to China. The purpose of these posters was to spread Communist political views, call for participation in various political movements and campaigns, and to propagate correct behaviour. Mao Zedong, being both a poet, and a calligrapher, not only recognized the value of propaganda, but was also himself a practitioner of propaganda art. He also redefined the concept of Socialist Realism as a combination of "revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism", emphasizing the visionary, the positive, the triumphant and in this sense the "romantic". This romantic spirit is expressed in the smiles, visionary looks, bucolic landscapes and expressions of happiness, more often reflecting desires for a better future than actual realities. The posters likewise convey glimpses into the hardships, anxieties and pressures of the times. As such these posters become a benchmark to understand the ever-changing and turbulent times the people enjoyed or endured, and provide a unique viewpoint to decipher the real conditions of a particular era. 1949 to 1979 was the peak period of creativity of Chinese propaganda posters. These three decades of the Mao Zedong era can be subdivided into three main periods and themes: the early years after the founding of the People's Republic (1949-57); the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cold War; the Cultural Revolution and Red Guards Movement (1966-76). During these periods, political struggles became increasingly fierce, involving increasingly violent social struggles too, which are reflected in the tense, and at times, brutal language and imagery. Many of the artists creating posters during the Maoist period had been well known artists, were employed in the commercial sector during the Republican period (19111949), or were newly recruited talent from most reputable art schools. Some had already worked for the Communist party during the civil war. Their diverse backgrounds left their mark on the posters in different styles and techniques, using for example, graphic powder or brush pens for new artistic effects. During the Cultural Revolution, people turned to propaganda art, as this was the only possible route of artistic creation. Some of the most prominent and typical propaganda artists were students of one of China's most renowned painters of the modern period, Xu
Beihong (1895-1953). One example is one of the most famous and prolific propaganda artists Ha Qiongwen (1925-2012), several million copies of whose posters were disseminated and praised by many for their artistic quality. His pieces on display at this exhibition feature his original signature, which render them particularly unique and precious. Ha is also an example of those artists who carried on with his work through the Cultural Revolution (when he was fiercely attacked) into the 1990s. Since the late 1950s China has been through decades of political struggle and major campaigns against enemies within society, for which the Anti-Rightist movement (1957-1958) marked the turning point. During this time hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were accused and persecuted. The following Great Leap Forward was a period of further excessive political and economic ambition. Mao Zedong envisioned achieving the stage of Communism in a single great leap, by mobilising the masses and transforming the mainly agrarian based country through rapid rural industrialisation. Precipitated collectivisation, economic mismanagement and natural disasters resulted the in Great Famine (1958-1961) costing tens of millions of people their lives. Yet the posters displayed rich harvests, fat and highly reproductive pigs and celebrations of success of the campaign, carrying slogans like "One bumper harvest after another", "One Great Leap followed by the next", "Catch up with or Surpass England within 15 years". During this period, Chinese propaganda artists introduced new forms of technical skills, as represented by the artist Ha Qiongwen. Adopting traditional folk art techniques to more closely reflect rural life, various paintings show gigantic corn, rice paddies, and mountains of cotton, which today look absurd, and innocent happy faces with rosy cheeks, which seen against the background appear almost cynical. Yet the Great Leap Forward propaganda has also to be seen in the context of the tension of the Cold War between the East and the West. Apart from Chinese Anti-imperialist and Anti-American posters produced to expose the enemy in cartoon style, the excessive exaggerations of Great Leap Forward posters were also meant to reveal the true superiority of China over capitalist countries. The Cultural Revolution was another peak period for Chinese propaganda posters, and these are probably the most widely known to audiences abroad. The Cultural Revolution was the most turbulent period of recent Chinese history. Countless people organised themselves in factions to produce and disseminate posters and Big Character posters, which swept across the nation like a storm. Mao as the Great Leader or Great Helmsman became the most prominent and prevalent motif, as the result of a fanatical personality cult. By showing him rising above lakes and rivers, artists portrayed him as a red sun, shining upon the people turning towards him like
sunflowers — a style almost reminiscent of symbolism. Every piece of work was to be "tall, big, comprehensive" and "red, light, bright". Another main trend in the propaganda art of this time was the revival of red and black woodcuts made by young art school students. Main features were the Red Guard Movement, class struggle, or the huge campaign to send hundreds of thousand young students to the countryside to learn from the peasants. The visual language became highly coded, operating mainly with binary opposites of good/bad, light/dark, hero/villain etc. Under the extreme political pressure caused by countless campaigns with changing victims and targets, any political mistakes or incorrect messages could be fatal for the artists. For that reason, most posters of the period were meticulously crafted and published by collectives, schools, and groups, rather than signed by individual artists. In terms of quantity of production, the Cultural Revolution was certainly the climax of Chinese propaganda posters, yet the same time, with their often extremely aggressive nature, it also induced the end of propaganda poster production in China. After the Cultural Revolution, the "Opening and Reform" policy introduced by Deng Xiaoping gradually replaced the planned economy with a market economy. Artistic creation again became more diverse, and modern art practice started to flourish again. Socialist realism or its Chinese variants ceased to be the one and only dominant art form. As modernisation and stabilisation became the main projects of the newly formed government, class struggle and class background were abandoned as social concepts. This time saw the end of Big Character posters, including propaganda posters as an expression of political struggle and mobilisation vehicle for campaigns. Posters of the Cultural Revolution – now called Ultra-Leftist propaganda art – were recollected and recycled. The role of propaganda was to support the new government by propagating positive values. In a sense, as there were no obvious enemies to target, either within society or in the outside world, propaganda posters lost one of their crucial functions. In the 21st century, marketing strategies and commercialised advertising replaced straightforward political propaganda, with obviously less artistic flavour and ambition. Thus posters as a formerly ubiquitous mass art, decorating public streets and people's homes, have become rare items for individual collectors. Yang Peiming and Natascha Gentz April 2014