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11 January 2001

China in Heidelberg: The Cultural Revolution Revisited on Neutral Ground

Exhibition "Pictures of Power — Art and Propaganda of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)" opens at Heidelberg University Museum 1 February 2001 — Symposium 22 to 24 February 2001

35 years after the advent of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" in China (1966-1976), three exhibitions of propaganda posters from the period 1963-1980 on loan from the collections of the University of Westminster (London) will be starting up in February 2001 at three different venues: Heidelberg University Museum, Budapest and Berlin. The Heidelberg exhibition opens its doors for the first time on 1 February 2001, 6 p.m. and closes 28 February. The University Museum is located at Grabengasse 1, 69117 Heidelberg.

Propaganda in pictorial form has always been a prominent feature of everyday life in China and reached its high-point during the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Politically motivated pictorial messages were to be found not only on posters but also on timepieces, calendars and tea-bowls. The posters in the exhibition are accordingly complemented by everyday utensils of various kinds and also by music and video material.

In their design the European exhibitions are inspired to some extent by the American "Picturing Power" project on show in autumn 1999 in Bloomington and Ohio. Each of the three exhibitions will be attempting to give a thematic twist of their own to a part of the poster material exhibited in the United States, highlighting different aspects of these posters and objects in a national and international context. The emphasis in Heidelberg is on continuities at the artistic level before, during and after the Cultural Revolution, while the Berlin show foregrounds the wide range of different communicative functions performed by propaganda posters in areas extending from power politics to everyday culture.

Symposium in Heidelberg: Was the Cultural Revolution a "Deviation from the Norm"?

In cooperation with the University of Heidelberg International Science Forum, a symposium linked to the exhibition will be taking place in Heidelberg from 22 to 24 February 2001. It is designed to take up the themes presented by the exhibition in visual and oral form and point up their ubiquity in other fields of (utility) art. In Chinese and Western secondary literature alike, the Cultural Revolution is uniformly assessed as a political, economic and social disaster. Cultural historians also typically refer to the period as one of cultural stagnation.

Why the enthusiasm in China?

The discrepancy between this judgment and the enthusiasm sparked off in China itself by the art and culture of that period could hardly be more pronounced. Since the mid 1980s the so-called "model plays" have been regularly revived and the most popular arias from them sold in CD formats. The hymns of the Red Guards have found their way into rock songs and Mao motifs are omnipresent in the idiom of Chinese avant-garde art. What explanation is there for this interest in the art and culture of a period that for most Chinese is bound up with traumatic memories? The aim of the Heidelberg symposium and exhibition is to recover the culture of the Cultural Revolution from its status as a "deviation from the norm".

Lectures on various art forms and the way they are rooted in the ongoing everyday life of the period will demonstrate that the radically politicised culture of the time can be readily seen as an integral and organic part of the development of Chinese art and culture since the early 20th century. The point here is that the culture of the Revolution takes up stylistic, theoretical and artistic features that were not themselves a product of the Cultural Revolution and thus retain their relevance for contemporary artistic endeavour in China over and above that period itself.

For ideological reasons, such an integration of culture-revolutionary art and culture in the ongoing evolution of art in modern China cannot be expected to take place in the People's Republic itself. The aim of the symposium and its combination of lectures, round-table discussions and art appreciation sessions is to examine these phenomena on "neutral ground" and thus to help enable Chinese and non-Chinese scholars to find new ways of contemplating the art and culture of the Cultural Revolution. Thus the symposium and the exhibition may serve as an impetus in drawing on interdisciplinary exchange to open up new research avenues in the engagement with a topic of such political volatility that it can only be addressed outside China itself.

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Barbara Mittler
Department of Chinese Studies, University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/547657, fax: 547639

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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Updated: 22.01.2001


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