GETTYSBURG — Culled from Gettysburg College’s Special Collections at the Musselman Library, “Field and Factory: Chinese Revolutionary Posters” assembles an historic exhibition of propaganda posters from Communist China spanning the 1950s through the 1970s during the Mao Zedong era.
On the heels of the Communist takeover of China in the late 1940s, the role of artists in society changed dramatically. Recognizing the power of art to influence public opinion, the Communist government took control of personal expression by regulating what citizens were allowed to see, think and appreciate in both the private and public venues.
These cheaply made, mass-produced posters were displayed as decoration in homes, as well as on the street, transmitting messages of political policy. They became the most popular art form in China during that time. They served to either visualize the society in its new form or to vilify enemies of the state, both internal and external.
Mao was influenced by Joseph Stalin’s ideology and adopted the “Socialist Realism” style, then prevalent in the Communist movement. “Socialist Realism” sought to portray the new society created by Communism, glorifying the state and nobility of the working classes in an idealized manner.
Reflective of this style is “Learn from Dazhai in Agriculture,” a carefully composed, full-color illustration of a prosperous farming community. A smiling family is surrounded by the abundant fruits of their labors and a traditional landscape scene, which includes an electricity power tower signifying modernization on the horizon.
Continuing on the theme of economic well-being of the country within the posters, “Learn from Daqing in Industry” shows the first oil field in China. Smiling men are working together in a safe, clean industrial site, exemplifying power and strength of the emerging Chinese industry.
Unfortunately, both images are fictionalized.
“The people’s communes are good: our Great Leader Chair Mao was on a tour of inspection to the North and South sides of the Great River in the year of 1958 during the Great Leap Forward” is another fictionalized depiction of Mao surrounded by an abundant field of wheat, celebrating the collectivization of agriculture during the Great Leap Forward. Ironically, during this time millions of Chinese were starved to death.
In contrast to “Socialist Realism,” simple woodcut prints used a limited palette and worked within detailed instructions handed down from the Cultural Revolution Small Group, which was an organ of the Chinese Communist Party. Designs were required to be bright, cool colors were to be avoided, with an emphasis on the color red. Mao is to be highlighted as a central figure, even as a source of illumination or as prescribed to be “red, smooth and luminescent.”
The posters resulting from these formulas show the face of Mao in a sun-like position over various scenes. In “All Reactionary Forces are Paper Tigers,” Mao hovers over a group of soldiers standing on their defeated enemies. “The Proletarian Classes of the World United and Overthrow American Imperialism” again shows the face of a smiling Mao over figures representing the oppressed peoples of the world.
The image of Mao is said to be the most reproduced image in human history; he has become a cultural icon. From silk screened prints by Andy Warhol to contemporary Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi, his image is instantly recognizable worldwide.
The method of using the simple wood cuts in red and black, continued even after Mao’s death. Political propaganda posters continued to be created by subsequent regimes. “Four Thieves Steal the Fruit” from 1976, mocks the “Gang of Four” who lost power after Mao’s death. It is a cartoon-like image of the four chopping down a tree of prosperity.
The style of these propaganda posters has also been appropriated by popular artists like American street artist Shepard Fairey and Chinese “political pop” artist Wang Guangyi. These bold images served to not only shape political opinion, but have to influence the art world on a global scale. Visiting “Field and Factory” serves to not only offer the audience a history lesson but also an art history lesson as well.
“Field and Factory: Chinese Revolutionary Posters” is on display at the Schmucker Art Gallery until Dec. 6. A gallery talk will be held at 4 p.m. on Dec. 6, followed by a closing reception from 4:30-6:00 p.m.
The Schmucker Art Gallery is located on the main floor of Gettysburg College’s Schmucker Hall, located at the intersection of North Washington and Water streets in Gettysburg. Admission is free, as is parking in visitor lots on campus. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For further information visit: www.gettysburg.edu/gallery
Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent much of their 20 years together travelling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.