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Politics becomes art in exhibition of Chinese propaganda posters
Hongyingbi (Red Eagle Brush) unit of the Airforce Unit of Nanjing Military Region. Published by Shanghai People’s Fine Art Publishing House. We Shall Liberate Taiwan!, 1969. Offset printed poster. Collection of Shaomin Li.

NORFOLK, VA.- Examine China’s political and social realities over time in The Art of Revolution: Chinese Propaganda Posters from the Collection of Shaomin Li. On view at the Chrysler Museum of Art from March 2 – June 24, 2018, the exhibition will include more than 20 propaganda posters, as well as sketches and other artifacts from Shaomin Li, an artist, internationally recognized economist and dissident from China. Li, now an Eminent Scholar and Professor of International Business at Old Dominion University, has long been a collector of Communist Party propaganda posters, amassing approximately 250.

Li produced propaganda posters as part of his military service during the Cultural Revolution in China. In 1982, he began graduate studies in the United States and became an advocate of democracy and free markets in China. He was imprisoned in China in 2001 for promoting democracy in Hong Kong. “Shaomin Li’s collection really traces how the Communist Party penetrated all aspects of life in China during this period, and he brings unique insights because of his life story,” said Lloyd DeWitt, Ph.D., the Chrysler Museum’s Chief Curator and Irene Leache Curator of European Art.

When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, his actions led to the elimination of all traces of Chinese history and culture. Instead, propaganda posters became the main form of art in the lives of most Chinese people. “I lived among revolutionary posters. They were in our bedrooms, our classrooms, on the streets and buildings and in farm fields. As an artist serving Mao, I drew them. They left an indelible imprint on me,” Li said.

Li could only design posters using approved imagery given in model books. Several of those model books are included in the Chrysler Museum’s exhibition along with Li’s sketchbook and his drawings of an interrogation room and prison cell. Also included is a photograph of Li painting the official portrait for Mao’s funeral in 1976, a great honor at the time.

The exhibition is organized by themes, including the Cult of Mao, Glorifying the Military, The Eight Model Plays, Everyday Heroes, Propaganda as Educational Material and China after Mao. Visitors will certainly recognize the iconic image of Mao in posters like Chairman Mao leads us Forward of 1968. Also iconic is the strident girl promoting the model play The Red Lantern in I want to live like her (Carry on the Revolution to the End).

“The Americans have an urgent need to learn about China and especially about its revolutionary past. For without understanding its past, we cannot comprehend its present and where it is going. This exhibition will help the audience to experience the power of propaganda and the way Mao and his Communist Party used art as a propaganda tool to command the people to ‘carry the revolution to the end.’ Today, while the ‘end’ may have changed its meaning from Mao’s vision, the role of art as a propaganda tool continues,” Li said.

The Chrysler has a superb collection of Asian art, including the kind of traditional Chinese art whose influence Mao sought to overthrow through the Cultural Revolution. In an age when the validity of political messages is constantly challenged, these propaganda posters are a sobering reminder of the power of art to create a vision of the present and future, at times far divorced from reality.

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