I find propaganda posters fascinating – it’s true when they say a picture says a thousand words or, in this case, control a nation. Although used to suppress the masses, these cleverly designed picture messages are both a window into history as well as magnificent works of art. I’ve recently seen them in situ in North Korea where no advertising or images exist apart from paintings, mosaics and posters shouting revolutionary spirit over struggle, but in China, these have been long-lost in the forward-thinking drive to prosperity and are nowhere to be seen… except for in an apartment basement in Shanghai.
Tucked away in Building B at the President Mansion apartment complex on Hua Shan Road is the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre – a preservation of historical artistic documents from the Maoist era. The museum is tricky to find but worth the extra effort in navigation from the Shanghai Library metro station.
Once you arrive at the complex the security guard will usher you in and give you a small credit card sized piece of paper directing you to the right apartment building. You almost feel like you are stumbling upon a secret and the journey to the random basement gives a slightly adventurous feel to the experience.
It’s a small gallery but houses thousands of posters from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Neatly arranged in a timeline, each era includes a historical introduction and background to the poster designs and the styles used to portray the political climate; a journey from the war efforts and the liberation of a new China, the early days of rural collectivisation and the heroic workers of mass industrialisation to the red and black images conveying the shift to a violent and militaristic time.
In the modernisation and economic growth of China, these posters were nearly destroyed but were saved by Yang Pei Ming, the Director of the Museum, who decided to put them to positive use as an education tool to ensure that China’s history is not forgotten. I had the opportunity to speak with him to find out how the posters came into his possession, how his museum came about and his thoughts on showing these historical artefacts to the world.
Where did you find the posters? Did you have to pay for them?
I found these posters all over China, but mostly in Shanghai which was the printing centre in China for many years. During the late 1980s and early 1990s (when the planning economy was shifting to a marketing economy), all the propaganda materials including the posters were thrown out from government organisations, museums, libraries and other cultural centres. I was lucky that I had a small amount of money and was familiar with the dealers who were able to supply me with the posters; of course, I paid a good price for those posters to come into my possession.
What did you think when you found so many?
The more posters I collected the more I had a desire to find better ones. Propaganda posters were introduced from the west alongside communist ideas. However, how to make them in a Chinese style was a big challenge for the Chinese poster artist who spent every effort to make them successful and ensure communist ideas were realised in China. The posters capture the human spirit of optimism and the power of industrialism. No other country has produced so many and such beautiful propaganda posters as China did.
Was it always your intention to open a museum?
I’ve found that my collection is the best one in the world – many posters in my collection are the only ones which still exist. I needed a place to showcase them and share their beauty with more people.
Do you still look for posters that still exist or have they all been destroyed now?
It is very difficult to find them now. I did find a couple of pieces in New York last year and some others in Hong Kong a few years ago but most have been destroyed.
What are the thoughts of local people on these posters? Does it upset some people that a turbulent past is displayed?
Different people have different thoughts when they see the posters, just as there are different viewpoints towards the recent Chinese history which is very complicated. My principle is to guide the visitors to view history through an art point of view as art, rather than the politics and materialism of the time, lives forever.
Are they allowed, legally, to be displayed? Are there any restrictions on this type of history being shown?
We have obtained the legal and official license to be a private museum of propaganda posters earlier this year. I have never been told by anyone that any of the posters cannot be displayed.
How important do you think it is to keep this history alive for future generations?
No history, in my opinion, has been described in such detail via pictures as the Mao era – this is a unique happening. The history is still something of a mystery and the art that came from that is unbelievable. I feel very proud to have done something nobody has done before which is to provide a visual feast that evokes deep thinking for the coming generations.
For further information or to purchase original posters and prints visit the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre website. Or make sure it’s on your must-see list when you head to Shanghai!