Monday, November 22, 2010

Victoria art gallery takes a great leap forward

A worker can't wait to get to work on repairing tractors, as depicted in a propaganda poster titled, 'Struggle to speed up the realization of agricultural mechanization.'

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 22, 2010


All hail the glorious artworks of the Cultural Revolution!

No to the running dog lackeys of imperialism!

Yes to solidarity with the workers, peasants and soldiers!

Down with the revanchist critics! Resolutely oppose abstractionism! Down with bourgeoise modernism!

All hail Socialist Realism!

All out to support the opening on Friday of the exhibition of Maoist propaganda posters at the Art Gallery of Victoria!

You don’t have to be proletarian to appreciate “Communist Paradise,” a show based on the collections of a gallery curator and a professor.

The posters depict prosperity for peasants and achievement for workers, all under the beneficent protection of soldiers.

“It’s an image of an ideal world,” said Richard King, an associate professor at the University of Victoria. “It’s an image of a world that never quite was, but that was supposed to be. An image of a world of abundance, of unity, of loyalty, of achievement.

“This is a picture of socialism as it ought to have been.”

The reality, needless to say, was harsher.

Instead of reflecting the “terrible, terrible tales of Red Guard violence,” the images show wholesome youth reading the works of Chairman Mao beneath fluttering red flags.
Prof. King studied in China for two years at the end of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, a violent and unpredictable time.

He recalls a few months in 1976 when a government campaign denouncing Deng Xiaoping was halted after Mao died and the Gang of Four was overthrown. Posters were torn down and replaced. The new message: “Down with the people who were ‘Down with Deng Xiaoping.’ ”

The posters were designed to be posted in public places for a population including many illiterates. They were manufactured in vast quantities on inexpensive paper. Few kept such political posters in their homes, where one might instead find an image of Mao.

The political posters were ephemeral, so some today are rare despite having been produced in mass quantities. On eBay, posters in mint condition extolling the glories of Chinese socialism command bids that test the purse of a plutocrat.

Born in Willaston, a village in northwest England where his father worked as a large-animal veterinarian for the University of Liverpool, he took Chinese studies at Cambridge. In 1968, a year of student protest around the globe, he thought revolutionary China offered a vision of the world’s future. He decided to tackle a most difficult language at a time when there was little likelihood of his ever being permitted to visit China.

Later still, he learned the harsh truth about life there.

“By the time I found out I was fooled, it was too late. I was hooked.”

He arrived in 1975 to study language at Beijing and, later, literature in Shanghai. He spent time in a village and a factory. One of 14 foreign students at Fudan University, he shared rooms with Chinese classmates who, he later learned, were obliged to spy on him.

There were few pleasures available.

“One of the things that there was for us to buy were these beautiful, colourful, dramatic posters,” he said.

Over two years of study, he bought about 150 of the posters, many for as little as 20 fen, about four cents each. These were mailed home to Canada. Twenty-five will be on display at the art gallery, alongside posters belonging to Barry Till, the gallery’s curator of Asian Art.

Among his collection is a 1962 poster titled, “A Rest in the Melon Grove,” showing “charming and willowy ladies” draped over a tractor, an old man with a huge melon, and a fat baby, “all of these symbols of abundance and prosperity at a time when the greatest famine in human history is happening.”

Another poster image on display shows a beatific young woman with a toothy smile in spotless blue overalls holding a wrench. The legend beneath the image: “Struggle to speed up the realization of agricultural mechanization.”

As an image of female empowerment, it is reminiscent of American posters of the Second World War featuring Rosie the Riveter.

Other posters express hatefulness towards the “Four Old Evils” (old ideas, old cultures, old customs, old habits), and include denounciations of British and American imperialism.

Political power grows not only from the barrel of a gun, but from the bristly end of a paintbrush.

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