Voices of the Revolution
Cultural Revolution posters from the collection of Asia Institute—Crane House
The Cultural Revolution
In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party called on the
revolutionary masses to “bombard the headquarters” and purge dissidents at the top levels of the party central committee. Before long, people were criticizing not only the party, but also their neighbors and coworkers. This was the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous period of class struggle that lasted until Mao’s death in 1976.
The early years of the Cultural Revolution saw posters produced under the watchful eye of Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, and the Cultural Revolution Small Group. Like plays, ballet, and theater, these art works had to meet the standards of “model”
revolutionary art. These works would venerate Mao, encourage criticisms of intellectuals, and celebrate heroes like the revolutionary martyr Lei Feng.
The posters in this exhibition were produced in the latter years of the Cultural Revolution and are full of soft representations of party power: village life, peasants in the field, children studying, and ethnic minorities and traditional culture. These depictions convey a grand optimism and venerate the wisdom and righteousness of the Communist party.
The artistic style of these works is Socialist Realism. The subjects are portrayed as representatives of class rather than individuals, but the artist captures the details of the environment with intense fidelity.
In socialist realist works, the laboring class is venerated and revolution is romanticized.
“Feeding Lambs” —This poster attempts to demonstrate solidarity with ethnic minorities in China. The poster shows Mongol children happily feeding lambs. A power line in the background signifies progress.
“Spring Hoeing” — This poster represents an example of the peasant style of painting Socialist Realism brought over by art instructors from the Soviet Union. The people are all class idealizations, not depictions of actual individuals. The hard-working people in the field are happily harvesting an abundance of crops.
“On-the-Spot Meeting” — This poster depicts the idealism of a commune in China. Notice the abundant pigs, wheat, crops, and bicycles.
There are running themes throughout the collection: fat and happy children learning by reading books, which in the hyper-realism of the posters, are actual books of the time, often about famous socialist leaders and role models; softer representations of power, as in the smiling and happy party officials in the background in several of the posters; and advancement and prosperity in modern industry.
Written by David Harryman