Touching the Taboo – Chinese Cultural Revolution Banners at Kaminski Auction

Chinese Cultural Revolution Banner, Lot 4030 of July Estates Sale at Kaminski Auction
Chinese Cultural Revolution Banner, Lot 4130 of July Estates Sale at Kaminski Auction

On July 25, 2009, Kaminski is going to auction two Chinese Cultural Revolution needlework banners. I have not been looking for such items in auction houses before because they are neither of aesthetic values nor extreme rarity in my mind. Born at the (tiny) tail of the Cultural Revolution, I remember those “Litter Red Books” of quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong when I was little. In the early of 1990’s, when I visited my relatives in countryside, there were still walls painted with slogans praising the People’s commune in which everything was shared. In a period of social upheaval and economic degeneration, almost everything became scarce except the posters, banners and other publications. But such items showing up in an American auction house still brought up my interest in the topic.

If the subject matter attracted me at the first place, a close look at these two lots shocked me because of the crude quality. Big-character posters played an important role in the Cultural Revolution not only because of the relative large-sized font, but also of accessible images which could be understood by people with different educational background. The icon images  of Chairman Mao with a few other important leaders were symbolic and could allow no mistakes. But the average working class people were also rendered in general ideal physiques and countenance par excellence. The proletariat were called the owners/leaders of the communism country and their portraiture reflected a nation’s aesthetics of the period. The alpha-male characteristics include squared face, bright and big eyes, thick eyebrows, broad shoulders and most of all youthful and optimistic countenance.

Chinese Cultural Revolution Banner, Lot 4031 of July Estates Sale at Kaminski Auction
Chinese Cultural Revolution Banner, Lot 4131 of July Estates Sale at Kaminski Auction

None of the features can be found in these two banners. In fact, the tilted slim eyes, the sharp nostrils and other squeezed facial elements on neckless shoulders remind me of the caricature images that the western countries used to mock and offend Chinese. Should have such needle works been released to the public, the creator may have been sent to the labor camp for the reason of intentional degrading the working class.

There are other factors that lead me to doubt the authenticity. For example, the faces of Chairman Mao and Premier Zhao in lot 4131 were very unsuccessful. There is a mistake in the sentence written in front of the front girl in lot 4130. The rural area in Chinese is 农村,but the word was written opposite as 村农. (Isn’t it rare for an American to say sidecountry instead of countryside?) And the last two words of the slogan at the bottom of the lot 4131 were printed awkwardly that were unlikely to appear in a public poster.

But my serious suspicion came from the content of the lot 4130. The sentence in the black area said “it is necessary for young intellectuals to the countryside to receive re-education from the peasants”, a quotation from Chairman Mao.  But it was not until the December of 1968 that Chairman Mao started the famous “Down to the Countryside Movement” with that famous slogan which created a lost generation who wasted their youth in the field. This poster with the year of 1967 would not be possible unless it was created much later as a pastiche.

The banners, regardless of their authenticity, lead me to think of the collectibility of Chinese Cultural Revolution propaganda publications. In comparison, Americans began to commemorate the Civil War around the turn of the century when much of the bitterness of the war had faded away and national heroes retired from the central stage. Nowadays, Civil War related antiques such diary, letters or medals become a staple in Americana sale. Almost 35 years passed after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Asia Society opened the first-ever exhibition on “Art and China’s Revolution” last year, showing the first sign that scholars and art historians in the west began to examine art in a period of art vacuum in China. And the grand children of the lost generation are now  in the colleges where the taboo topic of their grand parents has become archaic and irrelevant. The lost direct connection to the pain may bring scholars in China to revisit the period with renewed energy and different perspectives.

But the cultural revolution didn’t ended with a winner like the Civil War and the Chinese government is less likely to ruminate the errors. It is fairly to say that it may take 50 years for Chinese to be able to study the period with neutral attitude and objectivity. (That’s about the time when the lost generation bring their bitter memory into the tombs.) Therefore my guess is by 2025, the post-cultural-revolution generation would feel the necessity to explore the Cultural Revolution and examine the roles of their parents without feeling being pressed by their stern eyes. If so, starting collecting now could possibly beat the market because there are still a lot of items available which can be acquired directly from the first owner with their fresh yet painful account.

PS: each of the banners is estimated at $1000 to $1500.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

3 comments

Thanks for raising the authenticity question. I cannot really judge the items in question – not having seen them – but your reasoning is fair, and everybody can know many items sold nowadays are fakes. Buyers, beware.

Thank you for your comment. I cannot really judge either although I think it is more likely to be fake than real. Also the auction house plays safe here. The description is “Chinese cultural revolution banner with needlework design of Chairman Mao”, but it did not say it was made in China during the cultural revolution period.

The two banners sold under the estimation. Lot 4130 sold for $650 and Lot 4131 sold for $600 plus premium. It could be the case that I was not the only one who had doubt about the banners’ authenticity.

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