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Swimming stamp (1976)
In the early years of the People's Republic, artists were encouraged to employ socialist realism. Some Soviet socialist realism was imported without modification, and painters were assigned subjects and expected to mass-produce paintings. This regimen was considerably relaxed in 1953, and after the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956-57, traditional Chinese painting experienced a significant revival. Along with these developments in professional art circles, there was a proliferation of peasant art depicting everyday life in the rural areas on wall murals and in open-air painting exhibitions.

“During the Cultural Revolution, art schools were closed, and publication of art journals and major art exhibitions ceased. Nevertheless, amateur art continued to flourish throughout this period. Following the Cultural Revolution, art schools and professional organizations were reinstated. Exchanges were set up with groups of foreign artists, and Chinese artists began to experiment with new subjects and techniques.

A woman named Men Sonfzhen made a career of airbrushing out comrades who fell out of favor from Communist party photographs and taking grainy black and white photographs of Communist leaders such as Mao Zedong and retouching and painting them into heroic color portraits. "We never asked question," she told Newsweek. "We just did what we were ordered to do...We were under lots of pressure."

Chinese Social Realism

Social Realism dominated the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. It appeared on paintings hoisted in public squares and on posters splashed all over cities and villages. Social Realism has been defined as "concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary accordance with...ideological training of workers on the spirit of Socialism." Subjects in the works including spirited workers, heroic soldiers, uplifting leaders. Posters of "shock workers" (people who worked tirelessly for Socialism) showed handsome, muscular men with smiles on their faces performing some kind of menial chore in front of glistening factories.

TIME art critic Robert Hughes wrote: ‘socialist realism was the most coarsely idealistic kind of art ever foisted on a modern audience." It was "geared to a naive, not to say brutish mass public barely literate in artistic matters.” One man who lived through the tough times in the 1940s and 50s told the New York Times, "Art back then was only a reflection of beautiful dream---not of the slave labor of collective farmers or those who dug the canals, mines and built factories.”

A typical Social Realism painting from the Cultural Revolution shows Red Guards on horseback looking across a plain in Inner Mongolia as workers labor to build an aqueduct and miners set off sparks in a black shaft.

Social Realism kitsch is very much in demand today. An auction house in Beijing has sold masterpieces of the genre like “People's Apples” for $17,000 and “Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in the Heart of the Revolution” for $37,000. Posters of the latter used to hang on hundreds of factory walls and appeared on millions of postage stamps.

Mao Portraits and Sculptures


Art in the Mao era was dominated by Mao portraits and propaganda posters showing a smiling Mao standing before happy peasants and factory workers. One painter told the Los Angeles Times, “Mao’s face must be painted extra red to show his robust spirit. It can not be too yellow, which would seem sickly, like he hadn’t eaten for days. You could be accused of being a counterrevolutionary.”

Painters of Mao portraits and other Communist art were not allowed to put their names in their works. A painter of Mao portraits told the Los Angeles Times, “We were told not to think of ourselves as artists. That’s a stinky idea of the bourgeoisie. We are “art workers.”

Mao portrait painters often created their works from simple black and white photographs of Mao. During the Mao era they were kept busy around the clock with orders from all over China. When the Deng reforms kicked they often went weeks without anything to do and made ends meet by doing advertising work.

Mao's portrait hung in practically every shop, every house and every major public area in China. According to one government statistic there were 700 million portraits of Chairman Mao hanging on Chinese walls at the time of his death in 1976. That number was close to the population of China at the time of Mao's death.

Most Mao statues feature the leader waving to the people or standing impressively dressed in an overcoat. Other poses are relatively rare.

Mao Portrait in Tiananmen Square


The portrait of Mao that hangs over Tiananmen Square stands nearly three stories high and is regarded as more than a painting. It is considered a representation Mao himself and an object of adoration and worship. The portrait first hung in 1949 showed Mao wearing an octagonal army hat and course uniform. The next year he appeared without the hat in a Mao jacket. The image today is basically unchanged from the one in 1950. In May 2007, a 35-year-old unemployed man from Xinjiang hurled a burning object at the portrait and damaged it. Authorities cleared Tiananmen Square and the man was arrested.

Exposure to weather damages the Tiananman Square Mao portrait. Every year, usually in the middle of the night in late September, the portrait is taken down and replaced. Two paintings are used. The one that is taken down is fixed up or painted over in a workshop in a quiet corner of the Forbidden City, encased in metal for protection and prepared for the next year. The name of the painter who makes the portrait is a carefully guarded secrecy.

The spirit of Mao era art remains alive among some artists working today. The sculptor Wang Wenhai wants to glorify the Long March with a 426-foot-tall statue of Mao in Yenan, the final destination of the Long March, and place 25,000 small statues of Mao along the 6,000-mile Long March route. The performance artist Qin Ga is retracing the Long Match route with a map of the route tatooed on his back.

Red Art Collections and Exhibitions

Liu Debao is known in China as "The Red Collector". His private collection of materials from the Mao era (1949-1976) includes thousands of posters, films, newspapers and other media materials. Liu has a strong revolutionary and patriotic lineage. His mother was an anti-Japanese guerilla fighter. Born in 1951, he was 15 when the Cultural Revolution broke out, and became a Red Guard. He has been collecting since 1968 and sometimes present some of collection at film festivals.

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penetrate the countryside
In the summer of 2011,to mark the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, there were three red art exhibitions running simultaneously at Beijing's major museums: the National Museum of China, the National Art Museum of China and the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution. "We are trying to turn a politically charged art exhibition into a visual feast that is also thought-provoking,"National Art Museum director Fan Di'an said [Source: Zhu Linyong, China Daily July 2, 2011]

The National Art Museum teamed up with more than 10 provincial and municipal museums and galleries to stage Glorious Path, Grand Picture, a comprehensive art show featuring more than 300 ink works, oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures, woodblock prints, New Year pictures and picture-story books created between 1938 and 2011. Divided into three parts, the exhibition illustrates: 1) the rise of the Communist Party of China (CPC) between 1921 and 1949, 2) the trying and eventful years between 1949 and 1978, and 3) the new era since China's opening-up and reform spearheaded by CPC leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping.

To mark the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China over 1,000 artists from across the country were recruited to make new works inspired by China’s revolutionary period in a Ministry-of-Culture-sponsored program valued at about 100 million yuan ($15.47 million), according to the Ministry of Culture. Many artists have paid visits to sites associated with the CPC's early history to gain inspiration. They included Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi province, where Mao Zedong formed the Red Army; and Xibaipo in Hebei province, where CPC leaders, such as Mao and Zhu De, guided the People's Liberation Army in major battles against the Kuomintang army from 1947 to 1949. "It's like a pilgrimage to the mecca of Chinese revolution," recalls Li Qingke, an artist from Sichuan province who visited a string of revolutionary sites in Hunan province before creating his ink work Long March. "Through field study, I have readjusted my viewpoint of Chinese revolutionary history and feel connected to its traditions," he said.

Red Art from the Period of Rise of the Communist Party of China between 1921 and 1949

Among the best-known works from rise of the Communist Party of China (CPC) between 1921 and 1949 are Autumn Harvest Uprising, Torches in Yan'an, marble relief pieces for the Monument to People's Heroes, the best-selling picture-story book Red Ribbon on the Earth, stone sculpture Hard Times and ink portrait Premier Zhou Enlai and the People. [Source: Zhu Linyong, China Daily July 2, 2011]

Other eye-catching showpieces include oil portraits of American journalist Edgar Snow (1905-1972), who made the earliest exclusive interview of Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1936; Canadian Norman Bethune (1890-1939) who fought against Japanese invaders along with the Eighth Route Army in North China; and a woodblock print that depicts illiterate peasants in Yan'an, Shaanxi province, attending a democratic election using beans as votes.

Red Art from the Revolutionary Period Between 1949 and 1978

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Subjects of works from the Revolutionary Period Between 1949 and 1978 include CPC founders, such as Li Dazhao, Mao Zedong, Zhu De and Zhou Enlai, war heroes and heroines, and ordinary Chinese who fought for freedom and democracy in the first half of the 20th century. Portrayals of revolutionary figures are often larger than life and look like gods instead of humans. They are rendered with exaggerated bright red tones to express their enthusiasm for revolution and hopes for a better society. [Source: Zhu Linyong, China Daily July 2, 2011]

Some artists were forced to change the original versions of their works for political reasons. In 1953, master oil painter Dong Xiwen (1932-1973) created a grand work depicting the moment when Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic on Oct 1, 1949, on the Tian'anmen Rostrum. He was told to erase former Chinese leader Gao Gang from the painting in 1954 and to take out former Chinese leader Liu Shaoqi from the work in 1972, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The work regained its original look only in 1979 when CPC leaders led Chinese people into a new era of opening-up and reform, and began taking a more liberal and tolerant approach to artistic creations.

"These red art classics have become an integral part of our history and are sources of strength and inspiration for people today," says Wang Yanni, daughter of master painter Wang Shikuo (1911-1973). In her view, the older generations of artists, including her father, "were expressing in their works their heartfelt appreciation and admiration of the New China led by the CPC".

To create the critically acclaimed Blood Stained Clothes - a huge pencil drawing that depicts a scene during the land reform process in the 1940s - her father made countless field research trips to rural areas. He produced 370,000 sketches of peasants from 1950 to 1953. The hardworking artist died of a heart attack when doing a sketch of a peasant in 1973, in Gongxian county, Henan province. The sketch was for an oil version of his masterpiece Blood Stained Clothes, commissioned in 1972 by the National Museum of Chinese Revolutionary History (now known as the National Museum of China).

Image Sources: 1) Mao and pre-Mao images: University of Washington

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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