Seeing Red


There’s Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse, and . . . Mao Tse-tung, identified by no less an authority than Andy Warhol as “the most famous person in the world.” That was 1972, the year that Warhol returned to painting with a thousand canvases and silk screens portraying the Chinese superstar.

Warhol’s garish portraits were a drop in the bucket. Unlike the living god Joseph Stalin, Mao was not portrayed as a character in epic movies commemorating his great deeds. He was a less remote deity. No corner of China failed to be warmed by his presence—ubiquitous star of a million propaganda posters and one of the great advertising campaigns in human history. Beaming is far too mild a word to describe the ruddy and round face that radiated benign energy from the walls of every Chinese school, public building, and home.

Chinese Propaganda Posters attests to Mao as a revolutionary trademark and the superheroic protagonist of a comic-book realm. Children, naturally, were charmed. “The posters had great impact on my life,” author and former Red Guard wannabe Anchee Min writes in her introduction. “They taught me to be selfless and to be loyal to Mao and Communism. To be able to feel closer to Mao, I filled my house with posters.” And, citing the “huge number” of propaganda posters that surrounded him, poet Duo Duo concurs: “From the day I was born in 1951, I was subjected to a visual education.”

Though it includes essays by Min, Duo Duo, and sinologist Stefan R. Landsberger, this oversized, glossy production is overwhelmingly visual. The 400 posters are all furnished by German collector Michael Wolf—as Duo Duo notes, they are now “expensive antiques.” They have been arranged according to the chapters of Mao’s Little Red Book, beginning with “The Communist Party” and proceeding through “Democracy in the Three Main Fields” and “Serving the People” to end with “Study.” The final image of “Study” suggests a chintzy Valhalla illuminated by a red-star chandelier, beneath which a score of grinning acolytes in various national costumes clutch their Red Books and cluster around a relaxed-looking Mao.

These posters, from the late ’40s to the early ’80s, have antecedents in Chinese calendar art—particularly the delightful big baby New Year’s cards, which are communized by the addition of red Young Pioneer scarves and model rocket ships. Others refer to traditional Chinese landscape painting, with delicate outlines and delicate washes that give even the grimmest industrial installation an ethereal quality. But mainly, the posters represent the last flowering of socialist realism, albeit distributed in a far more massified form than were the iconic canvases of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Optimistic and joyous, heroic to the point of hysteria, socialist realism is less a style than a magical incantation: “Together the workers and peasants sing the song of the plentiful harvest,” one 1975 poster is titled. Soviet theorists described socialist realism as “utopia in lifelike forms” or the naturalism that “dares to dream.” It projected an idealized world as a second reality—which is to say reality as we desire it to be and as it shall inevitably become. Only two moods are permitted—inane, affirmative merriment or healthy socialist determination. Everyone smiles except for those valiant types who have fixed their stare on the dawn of a new era. (Min, who was briefly recruited as a teenage revolutionary model, recalls the direction she received as “Look into the far distance with confidence.”) A variation is grim fortitude, as illustrated by the machine-gunner in the section “Dare to Struggle and Dare to Win.”

The religious iconography that disappeared from Western art around 1500 re-emerged in godless China. Every image is an allegory, although not all are as rich and obvious as “Through co-operation the electric light was fixed” (1957), which shows a uniformed party cadre on a step ladder surrounded by smiling children and an elderly Confucian gentleman who strokes his beard in bemused admiration. Every detail of every poster has its ideological nuance. In one 1969 item commemorating the “revolutionary and comradely friendship between the Parties and peoples of China and Albania!” a sallow Enver Hoxha, most unfashionably dressed in a baggy brown suit, clutches Mao’s hand in his two paws and bows slightly.

Hoxha, Europe’s leading Maoist, has been lost in the mists of time. And as the Red Atlantis has sunk beneath the waves, the meaning of these images floats free. Who can interpret “A warm welcome for our favorites” (1961), in which a group of Peking Opera artists, mysteriously performing on a tropical beach, vault forward to meet a gleeful People’s Army delegation, complete with tank? Like children, the soldiers grin and clap for joy. Which of these groups is more stylized? And who is welcoming whom to the sparkling shores of this enchanted isle?