From Propaganda Art to Cynical Realism A Reflection of Contemporary China

From Propaganda Art to Cynical Realism

A Reflection of Contemporary China

Travelling between the cultures already for a few years, I take the liberty to say that China can only be understood from the inside. This counts for the big questions as for small daily things.

This is not a political statement nor a taken-side try of whether or not western systems are better. China as a society already exists for about 2000 years, as the Han-Chinese have always cultivated and cherished their heritage as a nation.

Compare this with any of the western societies and you might get the picture and a partial understanding of how far this goes into depths.

When in Mid-Europe the Barbarians where still housing in the woods and trying to fight off the Romans, China was already building canals from north to south for their economical rise. Of course, for the most part China was ruled by Emperors and Kings.

Nowadays, and that is a huge change, art has become more and more liberated since it was used as a political instrument during the cultural revolution.

This article is trying to show how the arts have become free of governable guidance what should and shouldn't be created. 

Klaus | CEO & Founder | ARTMO

Klaus @ Summer Palace | Beijing

The slogan says "Long live the triumph of Chairman Mao's revolutionary line of literature and art!" and the background shows the town of Yan’an, where Mao Zedong declared that all art and literature should serve politics first and art second | Jiasheng Ding; Shanghai Theatre Academy (est.1945), Characters from the revolutionary operas, 1974

The propaganda art of China’s Cultural Revolution

During China’s Cultural Revolution traditional artists were condemned as counter-revolutionaries and their work destroyed.

In their place the government attempted to create a new visual culture: one that celebrated workers, soldiers, industrial progress and Chairman Mao.

In 1966 Mao Zedong, the Communist leader of China, started a political campaign that became known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Mao called on China's youth to help him purge capitalist influences and bourgeois thinking in government, teaching, the media and arts, and to reinvigorate the revolutionary spirit.

A new style of art was required that supported the Maoist line and served the worker, peasant and soldier.

These images permeated all areas of everyday life and were reproduced on all manner of objects including matchboxes, which before had usually shown images from Chinese folklore.

The predominant colour of new artworks was red, the colour of the revolution.

A portrait of Chairman Mao takes pride of place on the Great Hall of the People | Cultural Revolution Group Painting Collective, The Great Historical Documents, 1976

Landscape paintings now incorporated symbols of modern industrial achievement such as this railway bridge crossing a river.

Wei Zixi, Heaven’s Moat will become a thoroughfare, 1974

The Emergence of Cynical Realism

After the post-1989 gloom that followed the initiative undertaken by Deng Xiaoping and the students, a small number of Beijing painters began creating works in response.

Infused with irony, humor and satire, these paintings reflected on the country’s rapid growth and ambiguous political ideology.

Zhang Xiaogang | Bloodline- Big Family No. 3, 1995 | Image via

Fang Lijun | Two group, No 2. | Image via dominickmanco.wordpress

Although lacking a unifying aesthetic, Cynical Realist works share the same tone of satire and humor, depicting the psychological fallout felt by the population and the artists themselves.

Their views are without a doubt critical, however they also employ the ironic feel and even self-criticism to soften the impact.

Apart from Social Realist elements they borrowed for the sole purpose of mocking them in return, the artists also leaned on the notions of Symbolism and even Surrealism, perhaps best reflected through clown-like figures and makeup.

Cynical Realism was one of the first Post-war art movements in China to achieve success on an international level, thanks to three major names whose paintings sold for respectable prices.

But apart from Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang, we shouldn’t neglect the contributions of Liu Wei and Wang Jinsong.

Wei, for instance, is often called the enfant terrible of his homeland, due to his paintings that combine abstraction and figuration to depict a naughty sense of humor.

Yue Minjun’s iconic scupltures  | A-maze-ing Laughter | Image via vancouverstreetblog

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