Posters of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
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 nearly every kind of building. The poster was an inescapable part of the scenery, bringing the Revolution and its ideas into people’s homes in their ears were linked 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 form of mass media.
The posters in this exhibition, which date from 1966 to 1976, show that even within 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 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.
With the lunch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Red Guards produced their own big-character 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 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 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 traditions and flesh tones modeled in the Western (soviet) way. Most of the posters are influenced by Mao’s call for fusion of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism; everything seems a bit larger, brighter, and better than life, as thought the Communist utopia had already arrived. 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 Sun in people’s heart. Such pictures had the status of religious icons, and artists had to be very careful not to inadvertently insult their deity. After Mao’s death political posters were still produced in huge quantities for several years, with no major changes in theme or style. 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 Guo-feng with Deng Xiao-ping as the most powerful Communist Party leader.
Most of the posters in the exhibition are now part of a large collection held by the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in London, others were donated by private collectors.
Stephanie Donald
Harriet Evans
Anna Johnston