Chinese Posters at University of Westminster

A review of the China Poster Collection, University of Westminster (London, UK).

Tucked away on the fourth floor of the University of Westminster’s Wells Street building sits a unique archive. It isn’t an archive like most of those reviewed on this website, with formal visitation rules and elaborate cataloguing systems, but its informality does nothing to diminish its importance. The University of Westminster’s China Poster Collection holds some 800 posters spanning the 1950s to the 1980s, in other words, the Mao Zedong-era and the early years of the reform era. The Collection also holds a range of other types of objects from the same period, such as puzzles and toys, badges, handkerchiefs, ration coupons, tickets and receipts, postcard and print sets, picture books (lianhuanhua), paper cuts as well as a number of books, both from and about the period.

There are no normal opening hours for the collection: admission is by appointment with the curator, Professor Harriet Evans. That was how I first came to visit the collection, in May 2011, when I was early on in my doctoral research. I’m looking at British engagements with Cultural Revolution objects, and so the collection has been a crucial source for my research. I am now working on the collection as a Research Assistant, cataloguing and digitizing the posters. I am compiling a full catalogue of all the posters, and we aim to make all of this information (with images of the posters) available online so that it can be utilized by researchers, journalist, students, and others with an interest in Chinese Communist aesthetics.

The Collection was founded in 1977 by the writer and journalist John Gittings, then Senior Lecturer in Chinese at the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL). It was initially called the China Visual Arts Project, and it was intended as a teaching and learning resource on the Mao era. Over the years it grew, with contributions from colleagues, students and friends who studied and travelled in China during the 1960s and 1970s. Key contributions came from John Gittings himself; Anna Merton, a research assistant who set up the original catalogue with Gittings; Paul Crook, who grew up in China; Harriet Evans, who lived in China in the 1970s; Ellen Laing, a scholar of Chinese art, and others. The Collection was originally strongest in posters from the Cultural Revolution decade (1966-1976), but more recently, a large number of posters from the 1950s, featuring in particular women and children, have been acquired. Katie Hill, then curator of the collection, set up the Collection’s first website in 2001, and a new website was launched in 2010, which continues to be developed.

While I’ve said that the collection is not a traditional archive as such, it does have a cataloguing structure that organizes the posters. The posters are organised into 17 themes, listed below:

A – Agriculture
B – Four Modernisations
C – Commerce and Industry
D – International Relations
E – Politics
F – Revolutionary History
G – National Minorities
H – Health, Education and Society
K – National Festivals and Patriotism
L – Arts
M – Children
N – Leaders
P – Personalities
Q – Women
U – Film Posters (from NFT Film Festival 1980)
Z – Niánhuà  (年画, New Year Posters)

As suggested by the categories, the posters reflect the political-spirit of the era, with socialist realism the dominant artistic style. Art from the Mao era is often rejected as just ‘propaganda’, with all of the negative connotations that word implies; however, a closer analysis of the posters allows more complicated readings. Personally, I’ve found that spending time with the posters, seeing them in large numbers as opposed to selected examples, highlights the often over-looked diversity of content and style of the Mao-era posters. Socialist realism was dominant, but within that, there was still room for artist expression. Themes were political, but what ‘political’ meant was broad. We often think of the red-dominated Red Guard style artwork as being representative of the Cultural Revolution period, but throughout the 1970s in particular, there was much variation.

As well having aesthetic interest, the posters are also unique historical documents because they contain so much information within them. As well as having an image and a slogan, most posters have production information, which can include the artist’s name or names, the place of production, the distribution centre (usually a New China bookstore), the printing factory, the print run (often numbering in the tens or even hundreds of thousands), the price, the size and the edition number.

As such, the Collection offers rich opportunities for research, and we welcome visitors. Visitors can request to see specific posters, based on the catalogues on the two websites; alternatively, we are open to proposals for larger and longer research projects. Previously, a number of masters and doctoral theses have been based on the collection, or drawn on it in some way. Many other types of projects are possible; for example, two films based on the Collection were made in 2006 by the independent documentary filmmakers Ai Xiaoming and Hu Jie, titled ‘Painting for the Revolution: Peasant Paintings from Huxian’ and ‘Red Art’.

The Collection has also been the subject of a number of exhibitions. A first exhibition of the Collection’s posters and woodblock prints was held in 1979 in the Regent Street building of the Polytechnic of Central London, entitled ‘Popular Political Culture in China’. The first large scale travelling exhibition, ‘Picturing Power: Posters of the Cultural Revolution’, curated by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Harriet Evans, took place in 1999, starting at Westminster, and then travelling to Indiana University and Ohio State University. The exhibition was accompanied by the edited book Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999) which remains a key text for critical analysis of the posters and their place in Cultural Revolution culture and society.

These first two exhibitions were largely introductory in character, aimed at introducing the audiences to the posters and the political and cultural context in which they were produced. Later exhibitions have been organised around themes, such as the 2004 exhibition ‘The Political Body’, which examined the relationship between gender and representation of the body between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. Two recent exhibitions have looked at the legacy of Cultural Revolution poster art. The 2010 Australian exhibition ‘China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art’ looked at the relationship between poster art and contemporary art work, while the 2011 exhibition ‘Poster Power: Images from Mao’s China, Then and Now’ juxtaposed posters alongside contemporary visual and material culture from China, using objects such as advertising hoardings, to illustrate the shared visual language.

Currently over 500 posters have been digitized, and high-quality digital reproductions are available for use in publications. Digitizing work is ongoing, and the Collection is currently exploring new strategies for digital archiving.

There are no reproduction facilities in the poster room, but photographs are allowed. High-resolution images of undigitized posters can be produced upon request, although the photography costs will be passed on.

Interest in the art and visual culture of the Mao years has increased in recent years. Instead of being rejected as simple propaganda, new research is investigating the complex and subtle messages inherent in objects like the posters. The Westminster Collection is one of the largest public collections of its kind in Europe, and as such is an important resource for those interested in Mao’s China and in the artistic legacies of the period. It has been studied by academics and students of visual culture, film studies, history, politics and international relations, and museums and collections, and we welcome proposals for future research projects.

Emily Williams
Research Assistant
China Poster Collection
University of Westminster

Doctoral Candidate
The London Consortium
Birkbeck College
University of London
emilyrwilliams@hotmail.com

Image: “Human Bridge” by Gu Yuan. China Poster Collection, University of Westminster.

 

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