The visual stimulations of China's agitprop

Although the term is normally associated with times of hot or cold war, we're all exposed to propaganda on a daily basis - from political campaigns, to advertising and corporate press releases, to such dedicated government operations as the briefly proposed and quickly abandoned (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) Office of Strategic Influence. But in terms of large-scale, overt, peacetime propaganda, we tend to think primarily of communist countries as the master practitioners of the art, and Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages offers an impressive survey of one nation's official self-portraiture.

The product of more than 20 years' work, Landsberger's personal collection of state-sanctioned art includes more than 1,700 posters, spanning from the earliest days of the communist regime to recent works dedicated to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Chinese space program. (His images dedicated to the latter have been enjoying a higher profile since October's Shenzhou VI flight.) And while the online corpus may not encompass Landsberger's entire collection, it's still extensive - and housed on a site that's basic in design, but visually as bright as the posters themselves.

With links to the main exhibits located well down the home page, the site first takes visitors through a few paragraphs of orientation - punctuated with sample posters and salted with links to specific pages chosen to introduce the visitor to the art of Chinese propaganda. Also included in the opening essay is an offsite account of the unique experiences and techniques involved in obtaining the posters, and a ... problematic ... note about displaying the posters' original captions (more below). The bottom of the home page features access to an extensive collection of recommended links, and alphabetical listings of the artists featured on the site - complete with biographical information and consolidated subsets of their works.

The core of the online exhibition is divided into more than 30 categories, with images gathered under such headings as Visualizing the Future, People's Liberation Army, Heroes and Villains, and Iron Women and Foxy Ladies. There are also sections devoted to specific aspects of communist China's early and recent history - such subjects as Cultural Revolution Campaigns, The Mao Cult, the Falun Gong, and Reunifications (featuring Beijing's views on the territories of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

Each section is accompanied by a detailed commentary, providing both an artistic and cultural framework for the images - though there is little doubt that many visitors will simply pass over the text and spend all their time with the posters. Full of bright, saturated colors, crisp contrast, and modestly superhuman subjects (even when that subject is a tractor driver), the posters draw the eye by sheer force of basic visual stimulation. Equally striking is the fact that even through half a century of new creations and changes in subject matter, the images are still part of an easily recognizable whole. In fact, only the most recent works use photographic imagery or exhibit the early stages of an 'international' look. (International in one case being the inclusion of a very NASA-looking space-walker on a poster promoting the Chinese space program.) While there are no links to full-screen images, those posted are large enough for a fairly thorough inspection.

In fact, more unfortunate than the lack of large images is the lack of easy access to English translations of the posters' text. The site theoretically reveals the captions of selected posters on mouseover, if you're using an Internet Explorer browser, though I couldn't get them to appear in either Explorer or Mozilla/Netscape on my computer. If they're not popping up on your screen, the only options left to inquisitive minds are either opening each page's source code to scan for "Alt Tags," or turning off the browser's auto-load images option and viewing each image placeholder's text description (or portions thereof) before loading the images themselves. Clearly, neither is a practical solution, and a few lines of text below each image would be a substantial help.

While the lack of labels may not seem a significant omission if you don't know what you're missing (perhaps I shouldn't have said anything), and while most captions are admittedly innocuous, some are nothing short of theatrical. Legends like "...thoroughly smash the rotting counterrevolutionary revisionist line in literature and art" and "All peoples of the world unite, to overthrow American imperialism! To overthrow Soviet revisionism! To overthrow the reactionaries of all nations!" can easily be argued to be as much a part of the artwork as the imagery itself, and it's a shame that most visitors won't see them.

That said, sufficiently curious surfers can get a sample of Chinese copywriting at The Chairman Smiles, hosted by Amsterdam's International Institute of Social History. Complementing Landsberger's site - and drawing heavily on his collection - this exhibit of 145 famous and obscure propaganda posters includes not only works from China, but Cuba and the Soviet Union as well. While the site design itself may not be as eye-catching as the "Poster Pages," it does offer translations of each work's title and a bit of specific historical context for each illustration. And where Landsberger's commentaries resemble that of an expert gallery guide, those in The Chairman Smiles are closer to that of a history teacher - offering an additional perspective from which to view the works at both sites.

The images at the Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages are certainly distinctive, and while I can't say that I'd want a copy of "Advance victoriously while following Chairman Mao's revolutionary line in literature and the arts" hanging on my wall, I'm glad that I have the ability to view it and its kind online. Over the years, a recurring theme in these reviews has been the website which makes obscure artifacts of history and culture available to the world simply by placing them online. Landsberger's collection is a prime example of this phenomenon, and the simple visual appeal of the images ensures that scholars won't be the only ones taking advantage.

Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages can be found at http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/index.html.

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