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The art of influence: Asian propaganda

The art of influence cover

The art of influence: Asian propaganda will be published next Monday by the British Museum Press.

Revolutionary art generally means propaganda – art with a political message that is intended to motivate or persuade. However, propaganda is not just a sinister manipulation, as inferred in the West since the early twentieth century.

In revolutionary and wartime societies, propaganda is considered a vital part of education and political participation. Propaganda encourages or condemns; reinforces existing attitudes and behavior; and promotes social membership within nation, class or work unit.

The art of influence: Asian propaganda by Mary Ginsberg draws on the British Museum’s wide-ranging collection of Asian art to explore the use of political propaganda in Asia from about 1900 to 1976. This fascinating and provocative catalogue features over 100 works of art from countries such as China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea and India. Posters, cartoons and ceramics are among the art forms that Ginsberg uses to illustrate the power of propaganda in twentieth century Asia.

The art of influence: Asian propaganda is published to complement an exhibition at the British Museum opening on 30th May, which presents a selection of the British Museum’s rich collections of unpublished and rarely seen political art from Asia.

Ahead of publication, we’ve included here an extract from the book in addition to several striking artworks.

From the introduction:

This catalogue focuses on the twentieth century in Asia, an era of almost continual war and revolution with ever-evolving styles and techniques of propaganda. The account presented here takes the relatively neutral position that the main goal of propaganda – and propaganda art – is to create involvement. Not all propaganda is bad; it is not always lies. Propaganda aims to inspire action and belief in a common cause. It builds nations and defies enemies. It informs as well as persuades; promotes and admonishes; includes, excludes and shapes identity politics. It motivates obedience or resistance using a host of methods and modes of appeal.

Page 77

Dawn of Victory, Liu Lun. China, 1941. Woodcut, ink on paper, 24 x 15.5 cm. Purchase funded by Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund.

Liu Lun (b. 1913) is a native of Guangdong province, where he trained in printmaking, actively worked in the wartime resistance movement, and taught for many years in higher institutions of art. The British Museum has nine of his works, eight (including this one) from the Thompson collection and one from the international exhibition organized by Jack Chen. Almost all his works are realistic; one print (fig. 16) records the carnage from an actual battle in 1942.

This remarkable patriotic print – heroic cavalry-men charging through the air on a cloud – is unlike any other by Liu Lun. It is rare to know the exact circumstances of a work from this period, but Liu Lun still remembers making it. It was created in 1941, during the second United Front between the Communists and Guomindang. Liu Lun was arts editor for the Creative Committee for the number 4 war district in Guangdong. The Committee published a magazine called New Construction, and this print was made for its cover, to promote resistance and inspire the public. This was the only wartime print he made in what he calls the romantic style, inspired by contemporary Western pictorals.

Page 70

Plate, 1930s (probably), India, Bamboo, split and coiled, and lacquered, Diameter: 15.2 cm.

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869 – 1948), one of the leaders of the Indian independence movement, was committed throughout his life to principles of non-violence (ahimsa) and Indian self sufficiency (swadeshi). In the long campaign for self-rule (swaraj), Gandhi promoted boycotts of foreign goods (mainly British and Japanese) for both political and economic reasons.

His tool was the spinning wheel (charkha), with which he is depicted here. India exported ever-increasing amounts of raw cotton, but would not become a net exporter of cloth piece goods until the 1940s. Gandhi exhorted villagers – especially women – to revive the rural economy by spinning cotton yarn to supplement household agricultural income. The yarn production also supported the carders, weavers and dyers of the cloth. Gandhi’s charkha became the symbol of swadeshi and appeared on the flag adopted by the Indian National Congress in 1931.

This small plate was made in Burma (possibly Pagan) by the laborious and expensive shwe-zawa technique using black lacquer and gold leaf. Many Indians settled in Burma in the colonial period.”

Page 138

Long live Marxism, Lenism, Mao Zedong Thought.  Late 20thcentury, China. Papercut, 16.3 x 27.6 cm. Given by Andrew Bolton.

Papercuts were traditionally made in China as decorations for festivals and rituals. This was an art of the common people, for holidays, weddings and marking the seasonal activities of village life. Particularly at the time of Spring Festival (New Year), farmers and craftsmen made ‘window flowers’ to invoke blessings for the coming year. Among the earliest surviving examples are the ninth-tenth-century flowers found in the so-called Library Cave (Cave 17) at Dunhuang, now in the British Museum.

Communist arts policy transformed this centuries-old folk art into a progressive tool. Decoration for its own sake was anti-revolutionary, but traditional crafts were to be encouraged, their content altered in the service of politics. Gu Yuan and other trained artists at Yan’an produced papercuts during the Resistance War. They were an attractive, comprehensible vehicle to promote production, literacy and support for the army. Propaganda papercuts are still made today.

Papercuts are made with scissors or with knives. Knife-cutting is used for production in large quantities, and professional artists execute topical sets for domestic and foreign consumption. There is nothing left of the bold, colourful folk style in this group portrait of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao – where Mao is nearest to the viewer, and just a bit larger than the others.

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

For further information on The art of influence: Asian propaganda and to look inside the book, please visit the British Museum online shop.

Mary Ginsberg will be speaking about The art of influence: Asian propaganda at The Telegraph Hay Festival on Sunday 2nd June.

Category: Art, Art History, Spring 2013

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