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Art: The People’s Art

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Fine art has long served propagandistic purposes. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, for example, glorify the Catholic Church, and his David was conscripted into conveying civic pride. The artist created the statue to decorate the roof of a cathedral, but Florence’s leaders poached it for the Palazzo Vecchio, their main government building. Renaissance Florence, an independent city-state, constantly battled would-be conquerors, and so Florentines identified with the underdog who defeated Goliath. Their politicians therefore adopted Michelangelo’s David as Florence’s mascot, which it remains today.

Michelangelo’s works, their use as promotional vehicles for church and city-state notwithstanding, still are viewed first and foremost as artistic masterpieces. Likewise, some of the more subtly propagandistic prints and other items from Mao Tse-tung’s 27-year reign over China are considered works of art—at least by Justin Schiller, co-owner of Battledore, a gallery located 90 miles north of Manhattan in Kingston, N.Y. “The variety and high quality of production was remarkable under his leadership,” Schiller says. “He mesmerized 600 million people who considered him the last emperor.”

The women climbing an oil rig in 1964’s Scale the New Height symbolize China’s industrial strength after the souring of Sino-Soviet relations. 

Schiller’s inventory includes items that were made in China during the Mao era and after the chairman’s death in 1976. Among the post-Mao creations is Chen Bu Lun’s Sun Rock (shown above), a wood-block print from 1998. The artwork celebrates coal—the jobs it provides, the industries it powers—by depicting a miner holding a chunk that outshines the lamp in his helmet. “Our agent traveled half a day to visit Chen, and we bought most of what he offered,” Schiller says, noting that Sun Rock is available for $2,500.

Scale the New Height, a wood-block print from 1964, promotes the notions that China could run its industries without help from Russia (which withdrew its technical assistance after the Sino-Soviet relationship deteriorated in the late 1950s), and that women could succeed in jobs that men traditionally held. The print, which is priced at $7,500, shows two female employees fearlessly climbing an oil-rig ladder. “There’s no Little Red Book, no badges, no Mao,” Schiller says, citing details that recur in Chinese Communist propaganda. “It’s much more subtle.”

In addition to these prints, Battledore offers original posters, including one that was printed in 1964, two days after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. (The alleged attack on two U.S. destroyers by North Vietnamese naval ships drew the United States into the Vietnam War.) The poster features a trio of Chinese citizens who are armed, angry, and positioned above the words, “To Attack a Friendly Neighbor of China Is to Attack China.” The gallery also has first editions of Mao’s Quotations (aka the Little Red Book) and the set of propaganda-laden billiard balls featured in this issue’s Robb Design Portfolio (“Little Red Ball“).

Mao-era material is only one of Schiller’s obsessions. He began his career in 1959, at age 15, dealing in children’s books, and he established Battledore in 1988 to acquire and sell original children’s book illustrations and other items that interested him. (A battledore is a paddle from a game that predates badminton.) Schiller added Chinese propaganda to Battledore’s scope in 1998, two years after he visited Hong Kong and purchased a $1,300 textile portrait of Mao as a souvenir. As he continued traveling to Asia and acquiring similarly themed objects, his pursuit evolved into a specialty.

In April, at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, Schiller sold more than $200,000 worth of posters, Mao books, and other propaganda items. “The majority of buyers of Chinese material in April were new clients,” he says. “Several are prominent in the world of rare books, and I would have never expected them to necessarily be interested in our Chinese propaganda.”




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