• Creatively Asian

Chinese Pop Art: How Artistic Ingenuity Defined a Political Era

What do bright colors, a mid-century communist regime, Coca-Cola, and Andy Warhol have in common? If you guessed Chinese Political Pop Art, you are correct! This movement, inspired by signature Western ideals enacted by Asian artist-activists was and is a fascinating look into one of the most unique historical, political, and creative climates.

To understand this movement one must understand the origins of Pop Art. Pop Art emerged simultaneously in the 1950s in America and Britain. Notable artists include the aforementioned Andy Warhol, as well as Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, and David Hockney. The trademarks are saturated colors, bold lines, elements of pop culture, logos, with themes of capitalism, politics, optimism, and affluence, especially in the post-World War society. Pioneered by young artists who questioned traditionalism, they integrated Hollywood movies, advertising, product packaging, pop music, and comic books into their imagery for fellow young people.

Now we’ll explore the politics that created the niche of Chinese Political Pop Art. China’s 20th-century politics can hardly be covered in a paragraph, from the civil war, Great Leap Forward, One Child Policy, and many other events that still have an effect today, their history is fascinating and complex. For today, the focus will be on China’s history in relation to Pop Art. Although the Chinese Pop Art movement began in the 1980s, the catalyst for this movement was Chairman Mao’s reign. 1966 marked the beginning Cultural Revolution, a set of government instituted regulations and practices that changed China forever. Schools were used as forums for political propaganda, books were burned while “Little Red Books” were distributed everywhere in their place. Mao called on the nation to purge the “impure” elements and “Four Olds” of Chinese society to revive the “revolutionary spirit” that had led to victory in the civil war 20 years earlier and the formation of the People’s Republic of China. The Cultural Revolution continued in various phases until Mao’s death in 1976, but it's tormented and violent legacy would resonate in Chinese politics and society for decades to come.

The following artists each have their own unique style and take on Pop Art, but they all were born and grew up in this pivotal reconstructive period of Chinese politics, economics, and culture. Their generation is centered during a huge shift in China: between the 1960’s era when the Chinese government favored hostility towards foreign countries and the new age of the 1980s and 1990s when China began engaging in international trade allowing Western ideas to permeate the culture. In other words, Yu Youhan, Li Shan, Wang Guangyi, and the other artists (soon to be introduced) were born during the Cultural Revolution, indoctrinated into the Mao regime, and began making art as China’s economy evolved into its more global view. They used Mao’s politics as a call to action and as inspiration to cope with the rapid change and modernization of their country.

Here are some artists and their art I found particularly interesting:

Yu Youhan, born in Shanghai in 1943, known for his fusion of Western expression and Chinese iconography.

The Life of Mao:

Mao Voting:

Youhan’s Mao/Marilyn: Warhol’s Marilyn:

Li Shan, born in 1942 in Heilongjiang Province who is best known for his portraits of Mao Zedong in which he is often accompanied by a lotus flower.

Wang Guangyi, born in 1957 repurposes and appropriates historical Chinese propaganda into the flat, colorful paintings of Pop that poke fun at the intersection of China’s communist history and the rise of Western influence. His “Great Criticism” series (1998) depicts the integration of Chinese workers and Western brands in a socialist-realist style.

Fang Lijun, born in 1963 in Handan, is a painter and printmaker best known for his work that tackles the issues of human rights, morality, and 20th century oppression through colorful, surrealistic imagery. His paintings feature a shaved head motif, representative of the apathetic followers of the communist government.

Art is a reflection of what is going on in the world. As humans and as creatives it is our strongest tool. In China, these artists combined socialist realism with tropes of Western pop art questioning the social and political climate. Political Pop Art was not only a humorous take to poke fun at political figures; it juxtaposed pop’s semi-ironic approach and predictableness to capitalism with current propaganda images from the Mao regime challenging the prevailing attitudes to art in China. These works serve as a testament to China, and our world at a critical time. It is the epitome of Asian creativity, and how art can be a tool that gives people the power to share a message that can extend across oceans, through countrysides and cities, and into the hearts and minds of people.

Written by Meghan Wiktor and Edited by Roshini S. Patel