Friday, May 24, 2013

Chinese Propaganda Posters: From the Collection of Michael Wolf by Anchee Min, Duo Duo, and Stefan Landsberger

Alluring visions of a false utopia
There is more than one book with the title Chinese Propaganda Posters, so let me start by clarifying that I am reviewing the 2011 edition of the volume published by Taschen with the subtitle “From the Collection of Michael Wolf.” The original edition was published in Germany in 2003. This 2011 edition features side-by-side text in three languages: English, German, and French.

Even if you don’t agree with the ideology of a particular regime, looking at its propaganda art can be a moving experience. That is made abundantly clear in this gorgeous book that reproduces over 300 propaganda posters from Communist China, ranging roughly from the 1950s through the 1980s. These powerful and attractive works of popular art deliver imagery that is rarely seen in the art galleries of capitalist countries. Only in the occasional work of public art or community murals might we see portrayed such uncynically positive imagery—paeans to agriculture, industry, labor, and technology; celebrations of natural beauty and the human spirit; and illustrations of the benefits of hard work and diligent study. Of course, in the case of China under Mao Zedong, most of the utopia that’s depicted is a lie. Yet, the artists of America and Europe—where it seems art must always be reacting against something—could learn a lot from the art of socialist and communist societies—where the purpose of art is to promote a better world, even if the reality falls far short of the ideal. Those who enjoy representational painting will appreciate the style of socialist realism in which these posters are painted. For the most part they are quite skillfully executed, even when the “realism” doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.

The dual feeling of admiration and disgust inspired by these images is aptly expressed in two brief essays by Chinese writers Anchee Min and Duo Duo. A third essay by Stefan Landsberger, a collector and scholar on the subject, gives an overview of the history of the propaganda poster in China. Beyond that, the text of the book consists entirely of captions and brief quotes from Mao. The captions, for the most part, are strictly translations of the Chinese text in each image, along with the name of the artist, date, and print run of the poster. In rare cases there may be a footnote identifying a person, place, or concept depicted in the poster. The book would have benefited greatly from more of such supplementary historical context. Despite providing a brief historical chronology, the editor assumes a level of knowledge in Chinese history and culture that the typical American or European art lover is unlikely to possess.

Taschen, the publisher, is known for producing sumptuous art books, and this one is no exception. Each and every image is beautifully reproduced, though they are frequently cropped to fit the page. Any deficiencies of the book are simply the low points of Wolf’s collection. The posters depicted in the book are almost all four-color reproductions of color paintings. With the exception of one image on page 9, no coverage is given to the Chinese tradition of block printed posters in black and red. Wolf has an evident fondness for depictions of cherubic children, a subject matter which unfortunately does not evince the most aesthetically pleasing results. The lovable little imps are often endowed with clumsily rendered, almost adult faces, the repetition of which produces an effect similar to a creepy doll collection. Overall, however, this book is a welcome feast for the eyes to those who enjoy this brand of imagery. Though some additional interpretive text would have been welcome, it is an excellent collection of images.

Qiu Baiping and Chen Zhenxin, Carry out the Four Modernizations of the Fatherland, 1981

Zhong Zhaolin, Spring Rain, 1975

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