China’s propagandistic artThey weren’t subtle, and they weren’t supposed to be.
From an image of Mao Zedong incorporated into a temple’s facade (Mao as a deity) to a communist revolutionary blocking a rifle’s barrel with his body, post-revolutionary Chinese woodblock printmakers marked the height of propagandistic art.
Some of the most striking examples are on display in “Half a Century of Chinese Woodblock Prints” a touring exhibition currently at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gyeonggi province.
Woodblock printing ― a commonly used tool for spreading Socialist ideals and educate the illiterate peasants in the rural China ― is a medium that clearly conveys its messages.
Woodblock prints can be reproduced inexpensively using the most basic materials: a knife, paper, ink and a piece of wood. The prints don’t require complex mechanical presses, which aren’t available in the countryside.
Lu Xun, a revered modern-era writer who participated in the communist movement through his writings, said in one his essays that woodblocks were used extensively in revolutionary times because prints can be made in haste. Due to the technical advantages of the medium, both monochromatic and polychromatic woodblock printing was favored as a popular art form among the communists of China and the socialist realists of the Soviet Union. Later, the technique was also adopted by the artist-activists during the Korea's democratic movement in the 1980s.
Perhaps it’s this sense of urgency that makes the viewing of the exhibition “Half a Century of Chinese Woodblock Prints” so captivating. The prints serve as striking documentation of Chinese history from the communist revolution to the open-door policy (1949-1998) and highlights the role of visual artists as cultural mediators.
More than 100 woodblock prints are on display, many depicting the intensity of the leading artists of the day, including Wang Qi, Li Hua, Zhao Yannian and Huang Xinbo. Many of the socialist ideals espoused in these works were voiced in propaganda campaigns that celebrated China’s soldiers, workers and farmers and vilified the landlords, the Kuomintang, the Japanese and the United States.
“We are asked to confront a different concept of art, one that reflects society, but also takes part in shaping it: art as communication,” said Galia Bar Or, the director of the Museum of Art Ein Harod in Israel, where the show opened last year.
“The exhibition contains work that is quite remote from the intimate and autonomous modes of expression in Western art,” Ms. Bar Or said. “It presents, instead, a complex dimension of artist-society relationships.”
As Ms. Bar Or notes, the selection of prints on display poses a great challenge to people who are accustomed to seeing art as the personal extension of the artist as opposed to a tool for enlightenment.
The images require a deep understanding of Chinese culture since they are historical and propagandistic ― far from presenting an exotic display of “Oriental” images that we usually see in 19th century European art, such as in the paintings of Gauguin.
It's also interesting to note the titles of each work, which sometimes read as propagandistic slogans. They serve a clear purpose, elaborating the hidden contexts of the images and cultural symbols that viewers might miss.
Some of the expressions used in the titles are so raw and powerful that they almost read as a satire: “Socialism is Good” by Song Enhou, “All Four Seasons are Spring” by Zhao Zongzao and “The East is Red, The Sun is Rising” by Niu Wen.
In “Marxism is the Most Lucid and Lively Philosophy” by Li Yitai, a work introduced in the 1970s, the artist depicts Mr. Lu with a book cover reflecting the image of Karl Marx. In 1998, long after the Cultural Revolution had ended, Yitai loaded the same print onto his personal Web site, but changed title to simply read “Lu Xun.”
Now is a particularly interesting time to see these works. The war in Iraq has focused the world’s media on a single event, and the result both informs and propagandizes (albeit in a more sophisticated format) in a manner that is similar to what the Chinese woodblock printers did half a century ago.
by Park Soo-mee
“Half a Century of Chinese Woodblock Prints” will be on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art through May 5.
To get to the museum, take subway line No. 4 to Seoul Grand Park, exit 4. Shuttle buses run between the subway station and the museum every 20 minutes. For additional information, call 02-2188-6000