Ashmolean Museum Presents Cultural Revolution State Graphics in China

The Ashmolean museum in Oxford presents Cultural Revolution: State Graphics in China in the 1960s and 1970s on view now through 3rd July 2011.

The Ashmolean has in its collections the finest representation of modern Chinese art anywhere in the western world. The collection has continued to grow over recent years and now includes a body of material which bears testament to the use of visual images in the era of Chairman Mao. The display includes posters, papercuts, woven silk images and more ephemeral items such as matchbox covers, all with bold colours and striking iconography for which modern Chinese art is so well known.

The visual world of China during the 1960s and ‘70s was largely state-controlled, and even images without overt political content were produced within state-owned publishing houses, factories, and work units – all run in accordance with political directives. Images of Mao Zedong abound, with other subjects ranging over revolutionary figures bearing slogans; industrial and agricultural achievements; and scenes from the revolutionary operas controlled by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Images also played a part in public educational campaigns, promoting literacy and health, with Soviet ‘socialist realism’ art as a clear source of inspiration.

However, many Cultural Revolution images owed a debt to more traditional Chinese artistic roots. One of the most widely circulated images – Mao as a young man, on his way to Anyuan to lead a miners’ strike, first printed in 1968 – shows Mao wearing the robes of a traditional scholar, against a vast classical-style landscape. Images produced in the folk medium of papercut, might show figures wearing the armbands of Red Guards within decorative borders of the type seen on Ming porcelain. The names of artists associated with these images are regularly those of painters well known before (and sometimes since) the Cultural Revolution. They had worked in the traditional ink landscapes that continued styles first used in the Song period in the 11th-century AD and which evolved through generations of artists right up to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Artistic production in this period was a collaborative enterprise, with individual authorship discouraged by political authority. Papercuts are never signed by the maker, while posters might be attributed, amongst the publishers details, to groups such as the ‘May 7 Cadre School’ or ‘Jiangsu Arts Committee’, or groups of artists.

To run concurrently with this display, the Ashmolean will also show CULTURAL REVOLUTION: ART IN CHINA IN THE 1960S & ‘70S in the Chinese Paintings Gallery (11). It will display paintings by those artists who produced posters as well, with works by their associates and contemporaries, alongside selected woodblock prints of the same period.

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