Indepth Arts News: |
"Picturing Power: Posters of China's Cultural Revolution"
1999-08-24 until 1999-10-03
Indiana University, Bloomington
USA United States of America
What color was the Cultural Revolution? What did it look like? What did people see around them as they went to work, to political meetings,
or to play? Posters were produced in vast quantities after the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Some were huge pieces of art and
propaganda produced for display outside in public places, but there were also small-format posters sold cheaply for display in people’s homes,
in schools, in meeting rooms, in factories, in clinics, in nearly every kind of building. The poster was an inescapable part of the scenery,
bringing the Revolution and its ideas into people’s homes and ensuring that the slogans ringing in their ears were linked to equally familiar
images. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution decade (1966—1976), a particularly intense period of political activism and
one that marked the pinnacle of influence for the poster as a form of mass media.
Most posters of that period, as in that immediately preceding it, had a political message, and this was often explicitly stated in the
accompanying text. Some were used for different purposes, such as to promote public health and other social campaigns and to encourage
people to behave like the model citizens portrayed: to work hard, study hard, and be thankful for the benefits of living in the New Society. To
reinforce this message, some showed the hardships of life before the Communists came to power. Others celebrated the struggle of
subalterns–the ordinarily oppressed–for liberation. The messages embedded in the posters, as well as the visual grammar these works
constructed, were also spread through a variety of publications and material objects that contained related or identical pictures and slogans.
Posterlike images can be found in and on everything from pictorial magazines to postage stamps to children’s building blocks and biscuit tins.
The posters in this exhibition were collected by Europeans visiting or living in China before 1980 and are now part of a large collection held by the
Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. In 1979, a small exhibition of Westminster’s posters was held in central London.
Since then, however, these works have spent most of their existence stored away in a dark cupboard, like the ghosts and demons of the 10 years of
chaos–as the Cultural Revolution era is now often called in China. A large selection from the collection is now being seen, for the first time, by a
very different public from the originally intended one, accompanied by a display of assorted ephemera that feature posterlike images from the same time
period. Unlike those who paint for posterity, the creators of these posters never imagined that their works would one day be displayed in a museum.
Yet the posters have become historical artifacts, as have the accompanying ephemera, which come from a collection held at Indiana University’s East
Asian Studies Center. Together, they provide us with a window onto scenes from a world that no longer exists, but that continues to exercise a
powerful influence on collective and individual memories and identities.
Contemporary spectators who did not live through the Cultural Revolution may approach the
posters with detached interest and enjoyment. Most of them are at least decorative, many are
striking, and even the really bad ones have the appeal of kitsch. Other viewers may feel
nostalgia for the excitement of the Revolutionary 1960s and early 1970s. This was a period
when China seemed to some to offer a way out of the impasse of U.S.-Soviet hegemony, and
when the words of Chairman Mao, the Great Helmsman of the Chinese Revolution, were
quoted on Western campuses.
What of those who were, willingly or not, participants in the Cultural Revolution? Until recently, the only acceptable political and social reaction was
to claim the status of victim. The excesses of the movement appeared to be the result of the mistakes
of one elderly leader who had been bamboozled by his wife and cronies. Recently, though, there has been renewed interest in the period and a
reassessment of its significance, accompanied by an acknowledgment of diverse experiences. The act of viewing these posters within their time cannot
be recreated, but the responses that they evoke–amazement, amusement, cynicism, horror, pleasure, disinterest–remind us that their intended public also
have reacted to them in a variety of ways. This is true despite the fact that every aspect of their theme, content, and style was carefully formulated to
exclude any unintended meaning.
The posters in this exhibition, which date from 1965 to 1977, show that even within the very strict parameters regarding acceptable style and content–which
were laid down by the culture group directed by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife–widely varied images and styles existed. We find here elements of Soviet realism as
well as of traditional Chinese forms such as New Year’s pictures (nianhua) and brush painting (guohua). Some posters are reproductions of officially
approved oil paintings by academy-trained artists. Most are works by less well-known artists, and many are unattributed. Paintings by amateurs (workers,
peasants, and soldiers) were encouraged at the time, but their submissions would be carefully vetted, and any errors, whether concerning unacceptable subject
matter or technique, would be corrected by professional artists before display or reproduction as a poster. In quite a few cases, the amateur was in fact a trained
artist who had been reassigned to a menial job during one of the campaigns of the Cultural Revolution, and was therefore relabeled a worker or peasant.
With the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Red Guards produced their own big-character posters and pasted them upon every available wall. The
theme of these posters and those made for mass production was struggle, with violent images of all kinds, often depicting counter-revolutionaries getting their
just deserts, and bombastic slogans. Stylistically they often resembled woodcuts, with bold and simple designs dominated by red and black. The muscularity of
the workers and Red Guards portrayed in these posters was so exaggerated that this style has come to be described as the one in which the fist is larger than the
A fragile order was restored in 1969. The posters from that era most often portray the people struggling to use Maoist precepts and to harness productive
forces in order to transform China’s agriculture and industry. The usual subjects of the posters from that period were peasants, industrial workers and soldiers,
and the educated youth–young people from the cities sent to the countryside to learn from and work with the peasants. The prevalent painting style for
posters in the early to mid-1970s was known as zhongguo hua, literally Chinese painting, a hybrid of dark outlines and flat surfaces following Chinese
tradition, and flesh tones modeled in the Western (Soviet) way.
Most of the posters are influenced by Mao’s call for a fusion of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism; everything seems a bit larger, brighter, and
better than life, as though the Communist utopia had already arrived. Many also conform to the san tuchu, or three prominences formula promoted by
Jiang Qing (according to which the good, better, and best are portrayed proportionally). The good–the masses–are the smallest figures; the figures representing
the model worker, peasant, and soldier are larger; and in the foreground the ultimate authority or model of correctness towers, or hovers, over the scene. Often
this figure is Mao, but it is just as often a worker from the Daqing oilfield, the great model for all industrial enterprises (or from Dazhai, its rural equivalent).
Throughout the Cultural Revolution period, portraits of Mao were ubiquitous, sometimes showing him as a dynamic young revolutionary, sometimes as the
adored leader, the Reddest Red Sun in people’s hearts. Such pictures had the status of religious icons, and artists had to be very careful not to inadvertently insult
their deity. In oil paintings only warm-toned pigment could be used for Mao’s flesh, and his face had to be smooth and to literally radiate light on people near
After Mao’s death in September 1976, political posters were still produced in huge quantities for several years, with no major changes in theme or style. Hua
Guofeng, the new Chairman, was depicted in the same way as Mao. Healthy young people continued to labor for the good of the country, always with a smile.
In that period, however, slogans extolling the Four Modernizations (of agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology) replaced those emphasizing
Mao’s mass line, and scientists and technicians were back in the picture (identifiable by their glasses and white coats). The terminal decline of the poster began
in 1978, which to some marks the real end to the Cultural Revolution, coinciding as it did with the replacement of Hua Guofeng with Deng Xiaoping as the
most powerful Communist Party leader.
This project was produced with the
support of the Centre for the Study of
Democracy, University of Westminster,
London, England; the East Asian Studies
Center and the Henry Radford Hope
School of Fine Arts at Indiana University;
and The Luce Foundation. All gallery
programs are produced with the support
of the Indiana Arts Commission and the
National Endowment for the Arts.
School of Fine Arts Gallery
Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts
Fine Arts 123
Bloomington, IN 47405
Tuesdays-Thursdays 12-4 p.m.,
Fridays 12-8 p.m.,
Weekends 1-4 p.m., closed Mondays