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“Poster Art of Modern China” is up and running on Chambers Street until the 12th July. There is propaganda and then there is propaganda: this exhibition is funded by the Confucius Institute for Scotland, which, just to be clear, is a cultural mission which is partly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. The Confucius Institute surely encounters cynicism wherever it goes, but let us agree to take its remit to promote Chinese culture at face value. “Poster Art of Modern China” is one of the most exciting exhibitions to be staged in Edinburgh this summer. Add to this the fact that entry is free and that the venue is Edinburgh University’s elegant Adam House, and the exhibition is pretty much a must.

All of the posters are on loan from Yang Peiming’s Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, and we get to see 133 posters from the Centre’s 5000+ collection. History has naturally obstructed Yang in scraping together propaganda posters since these items could not be left hanging about once the policy or even the regime which they publicised was gone. This is evident in the 1953, 1956 and 1972 versions of “Grand Ceremony of Founding the People’s Republic of China,” in which the politicians in Mao’s appreciative audience are consecutively thinned and supplemented. Maybe the story behind the survival of the first two posters is unremarkable, but it is a shame that this context was never given. Some of these posters have been smuggled out of history and it would be nice to know how.

The exhibition is determined to marshal these posters into a history of modern China, but the career of the propaganda poster cannot be readily superimposed over this broader narrative. The earliest posters in the exhibition are not “propaganda” or indeed political at all, but they were distributed by Shanghai advertising firms. These posters are utterly lovely and their gallery of stylish, sensual beauties raises a standard which will haunt the remainder of the exhibition. A particular highlight is the China Fuxin Tobacco Company’s 1935 calendar poster of an aviatress, who looks like a Chinese equivalent of Evelyn Waugh’s Agatha Runcible, at once glamorous, liberated, and crackpot.

The appearance of Chiang Kai-shek was so unexpected that I didn’t recognise him the first time around. The inclusion of Nationalist posters from 1940, although they are safely anti-Japanese rather than anti-Communist, represents a concession that Mao Zedong had inherited rather than initiated the propaganda poster’s synthesis of art and politics. Nonetheless, when Mao had lectured Yan’an about art in 1942, he had lain down some ground rules:

The cadres of all types, fighters in the army, workers in the factories and peasants in the villages all want to read books and newspapers once they become literate, and those who are illiterate want to see plays and operas, look at drawings and paintings, sing songs and hear music; they are the audience for our works of literature and art.

For a regime which had wanted to forge a new revolutionary art, the poster was cheap to make and easily distributable. Mao’s China did not have the resources to erect anything like Hollywood and the 80% illiteracy rate in 1949 also put mass publishing out of the picture. A lot of the Yan’an lecture can be dismissed as Mao’s customary Machiavellianism, but his picture of an aesthetically-starved people who are salivating for artworks “which meet their urgent needs and which are easy to absorb” in itself licenses and explains most of this exhibition. Mao also declared, however, that “we oppose… the tendency towards the “poster and slogan style” which is correct in political viewpoints but lacking in artistic power.” This meant that his regime’s posters had to be good.

And, at least until the Cultural Revolution, they often were. The early artists keep an eye resting on the quirky “modern sketches” from the 1930s and their political ends are sometimes as unpredictable as their artistic means. “The East is Red” (1950) conjures up some children who appear to have literally plundered the 1930s of its jazz instruments. These children may be clowning with a broken-stringed banjo, but the poster nevertheless promises that, as adults, they would enjoy the affluence of old Shanghai. The children would, in fact, face the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and there is poignancy to our knowledge that they should enjoy the music while it lasts.

“Developing Production is of Benefit for Both Workers and Capitalists” (1950) seems to shoot wildly off message, in depicting an ideologically defective utopia in which workers are invited into the bosses’ office to celebrate industrial harmony. The otherwise bland, cloudy portrait of Mao and Stalin in “Our Bannermen of Great Victory” (1952) is enlivened by the fact that the artist had obviously never seen one of the jet planes which he has to show soaring overhead. The two statesmen thus appear to be supervising an invasion of flying phallic dolphins from another planet.

One feels obliged to try to identify correspondences between these posters and movements in Western art, but I’m afraid that many of the images have a slapstick merriment which reminded me ultimately of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The regime’s foreign enemies usually appear as tiny, bespectacled figures in national dress who are scampering away from irritated proletarian giants. In “Long Live the People’s Republic of China,” (1950) China’s enemies have been squashed under a podium, perhaps as Tom would have been had he taken on China rather than Jerry. The glorious “Go All Out and Aim for the Best, the Eastern Leap Forward Worries the West” looks like a scene straight from the Wacky Races. The huge Chinese dragon-ship sweeps past a tiny Western pirate boat which, to Uncle Sam’s dismay, is sinking like a sieve. A single Chinese boy looks back at the Westerners and pulls a face at them.

The propaganda gets ugly when bacterial “bandits and spies” are flushed out. Yet a 1951 poster of “American Military Aggressors” languishing under “supply difficulties” is hesitantly sympathetic. The two Yankees are bandaged cartoon-style, having been roughed up in their slapstick war, but they are by no means “aggressors.” There is appeal and sorrow in their eyes; they are victims of their own imperialism.

The propaganda gets even uglier when it aims for beauty. There are garish tableaux of peasants with glowing faces and aimless smiles, which look like illustrations from some inept 1950s children’s book. It is regrettable that this generically absurd socialist-realism is used to advertise the exhibition, presumably because they had calculated on it having a kitsch appeal. Yet the artists soon made their own great leap forward and achieved some wondrously beautiful imagery. Several of the best posters in the exhibition, such as “Long Live the People’s Commune” (1959) and “Resolutely Carry Out the “Eight Words Constitution”…” (1959) are pastoral in all senses of the word. These posters feature far more pink and yellow than red; and their figures, although still theatrical, lack the melodramatic stiffness of the urban or militant posters.

Curiously, one of the most iconic images from revolutionary China, Liu Chunhua’s “Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan” (1967), which was allegedly reproduced 900 million times, is omitted from the exhibition altogether. Perhaps the organisers are sick of this image, but it is rather like a Da Vinci exhibition without the Mona Lisa.

The whole genre begins to register distress during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). There is a dull, bright red splashed everywhere, which ultimately signifies neither joy nor socialism, as the artists had intended, but rather Mao’s stultifying omnipresence. The workers are now stiff and clunky, at times shooting into frame with the weightless physicality of Ariel, but usually with swinging arms and fists moulded from concrete. They have intensely unblinking eyes and firm, tight little mouths. Their laughter could only be cruel. The arresting “Model Opera – Red Women’s Detachment” (1971) captures the general tone. Poster artists would have previously had fun with this battalion of synchronised ballet-dancing snipers, but here the girls are remorseless and po-faced. They look genuinely capable of murder. The later “Beat the Gang of Four” (1978) is evidently nostalgic for a confidence and stylishness which the regime’s art seemed to have lost somewhere. Yet its vision of grim-faced children capering with spears is the most likely of all these pictures to upset visitors.

Soon Mao had gone and his stage army of workers and peasants had gone with him. Although this exhibition never alludes directly to the One Child Policy, the poster “Carry Out Birth Control for the Revolution” (1974) seems to sinisterly presage this forthcoming initiative. A lady in an apron is apparently preparing to administer birth control, whilst in contrast to her photographic realism, a crowd of what might be the unborn flock around her in cartoon form. The masses were being watered down and they are now less and less welcome in the posters. There are airy, allegorical tributes to science, panoramas of illustrious buildings, and portraits of China’s new leadership, looking comparatively lonely without workers and peasants pouring ardently around them.

But there is still fun, here and there. Two beautiful posters from 1978 and ’79 depict babies flying around the universe in a Jetsons-style “space shuttle,” whilst feudal princesses regale them from the moon. This is presumably intended to symbolise a reconciliation between the ancient and the modern, but unfortunately, it looks like those implementing the One Child Policy have fired some unwanted children into space.

The propaganda poster was gone with the wind, departing as an exclusive mass artform along with Maoism and Mao’s ideals for revolutionary art. By the time of Mao’s death, China’s illiteracy had been dramatically reduced, which inevitably made the propaganda poster of much less consequence. If this exhibition does not refer to the events in Tiananmen Square, it equally fails to acknowledge the artistic liberalisation which had preceded 1989 and the resort to “cynical realism” which had followed. Yet if one visits Beijing or Shanghai today and experiences China’s twenty-first century majesty, it seems that, ideologically at least, there has been a complete revolution. The wheel has turned full circle and the earliest, most glamorously feminine images in the exhibition may now portray China at its most modern.