Augustus Stahl

Equinox Staff


The Thorne gallery is one of the more unappreciated parts of Keene State College, with year round exhibitions of modern and historical art.  It shows art from both globally acclaimed artists and students at Keene State.  With dusty dollar bills filling the donations box, the atrium to the Thorne Gallery was populated by a few Chinese exchange students and a grinning curator.  It was 5:30 on the dot Friday night when the doors opened and the small but eager crowd was admitted to the exhibition.  The opening was for China Modern: Designing Popular Culture 1910-1970, a collection of advertising and propaganda images that narrated China’s volatile political history.  The gallery opened to the small population of art goers in Keene with images from the end of the Qing dynasty to show the history of visual art in China.  With vivid colors the woodblock prints told a story of China untouched by the western influence that would prove disastrous for the country at the turn of the twentieth century.  Styles two thousand years old were easily discernible from the images as children played in traditional Chinese dress and a god was depicted in the middle of the print.  A complete upheaval of style was illustrated in the jump from the end of the Qing dynasty to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1913.  Gone were images of traditional China, as the section Cosmopolitan Capitalism: Shanghai under the Republic illustrated through its population of cigarette advertisements and western style portraits. The focus on commercialism was powerful, and the amount of cigarette ads was staggering.  The images depicted both English and Chinese posters with aggressive color choices that foreshadowed the pop art movement in the 50’s in America and England.  One such piece, entitled ‘Great Wall Cigarettes,’ had a bright yellow and red background that stole the eye with a simple colorful image of cigarettes in the middle.  The advertisement was done by the Nanyong Brother’s Tobacco Company for Shanghai in the 30’s.  The other half of the cosmopolitan section was portraiture; and the movement away from traditional Chinese portraits of one elder to slightly more modern composition involving two or three subjects from different generations.  The effect of European imperialization is breathtaking when one sees a portrait of a Chinese woman in the early 20’s dressed in London’s finest fashions. The next section of the exhibit was a change in not necessarily style but subject.  Again, gone were the images of a China westernized, replaced with propagandist images of the people of China working for the good of the state.  The section, titled “Revolution in Culture: Designing the People’s Republic 1949-70” was filled to the brim with bright red propaganda about the strength of the working class.  Visual art was incredibly important during the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s Great Leap Forward because the literacy rate of the population at the time was around twenty per cent.  Because of this statistic, most of the propaganda of the period was strongly visual, utilizing little to no text and portraying positive societal messages.  These were some of the most interesting and disturbing images in the gallery.  One such poster in the latter category depicts a Chinese man dressed in an army uniform, smiling and cutting a young boy’s hair.  The child, also madly grinning is holding a rifle. The piece was entitled “The Army and the People are One Family” a lithograph done in the 60’s by Han Guanxun.  Another image entitled “Sir, Please Return This to the Original Owner” illustrates the ideal of the Revolution that everyone is working for the status of the state.  The lithograph shows a young girl smiling and handing a pen to a police officer in a beautiful garden in Shanghai, clearly taking the moral high ground by returning a pen.  The rest of the section was populated by similar lithographs, all depicting happy people working for the greater good of the People’s Republic of China.  The final section, entitled ‘The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: the 21st century’ illustrates the china that is known by the younger masses today.  The section is filled with bright color and influences from the past hundred years.  Images of children dressed traditionally are reminiscent of the woodblock prints from the Qing dynasty are thrown into settings of rocket ships and social change.  In the 70’s advertising and art in China became more privatized, allowing artists to expand and move into commercialism.  This resulted in a crazy blend of the entire exhibit on the back wall.  POPIL, a graffiti artist and graphic designer recreated an old propaganda poster in 2009 to promote the band PK14, involving influences from the cosmopolitan era and modern Japanese anime.  The result is interesting, prying the eye away from any other piece that’s close.  The China Modern exhibit is up until December 11th in the Thorne Gallery, and is presented by the Pacific Asia Museum.

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