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The Art of China's Cultural Revolution

Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong declared that art should serve the people. In determining what forms of art would best do so, artists debated between two aesthetic directions: the Soviet socialist realist style, based on European oil painting traditions; or guohua (“national painting”), the modernization of traditional Chinese ink painting. Until the mid 1960s, both approaches were allowed to coexist in art training and practice, as long as works of art served the masses and did not criticize the state.

Everything changed during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. Forced to serve political and propaganda purposes under enormous pressure from guidelines of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, led by Mao’s fourth wife Jiang Qing, works of art were expected to foment revolution and, in her words, be “red, bright, and shining” (hong, guang, liang), like Jiang Qing’s revolutionary operas. The Cultural Revolution pitted young people against older generations so that many revered artists and artistic traditions suffered humiliation and destruction, as did untold numbers of people perceived to be bourgeois. Political woodblock prints and the Soviet socialist realist style, but with Chinese characteristics, provided the sanctioned models for the proliferation of posters, paintings, and Mao badges that would fuel revolutionary fervor and the cult of Chairman Mao and his thought.

In 1981, on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, an official statement of party leaders summed up this chaotic decade as the worse setback for the party, state, and people since the founding of the PRC, and laid blame squarely on Mao Zedong. The repercussions of this decade of turmoil can be seen in the propaganda posters of the Four Modernizations period of the late 1970s and ’80s, and lingering effects continue to inform the works of contemporary Chinese artists who lived through it.

This exhibition includes recent gifts to the Museum from Wan and Andrew Kim, whose collecting of Cultural Revolution paintings and posters helped many émigré Chinese artists to pursue their work outside the PRC. The Museum is grateful to Cornell professors Ding Xiang Warner and Thak Chaloemtiarana for their loans of Mao badges and billboard paintings, respectively. Together, these gifts and loans provide a glimpse into the propaganda art of the Cultural Revolution, its origins and impacts. Thanks also go to curatorial assistant Elizabeth Emrich, intern Ariel Conant, and registrar Matt Conway for their contributions to the content of the exhibition.

Ellen Avril
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art