I’ve always had a thing for Asian illustration and design. While this originally was confined to the Japanese interpretation of the art, my time spent in China has exposed me to a vast array of old school publications, pamphlets, books, propaganda and even modern day wall murals (most of which are also propaganda) to discover an appreciation for this country’s illustrative practices.
When I read that there was to be an exhibition called Shanghai Illustration at the Xuhui Museum of Art, I jumped on the opportunity to visit and wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.
On a rainy afternoon I found myself exiting Line 1’s Changshu Road Station and finding myself in the middle of the Former French Concession – the city’s hip artsy area that’s home to bespoke shops, fancy bars and eateries, and wannabe bohemians – for a brief 5 minute stroll through a nice drizzle to my destination. The frigid winter cold was heightened from the rain and overcast skies, which led nothing hidden as the tall buildings surrounding the station turned to old lane houses and new chic stores with leafless trees jutting their way into the streets and covering the area, making it feel a little cozy walking along in the open.
The Xuhui Museum of Art was a small two story structure that would be hard not to notice if not for the humble sign over the doorway announcing the name on an awning over the entrance, surrounded by plain tan walls and an even plainer tiled roof. The museum was more modest compared to the art museums I had encountered in the city center and in other cities throughout the country. Once inside, though, everything opened up and even with the crowds of people, quietly shuffling from one exhibit and piece to the next, some snapping shots but most contemplating what they were seeing in silence, was welcoming and warm.
The exhibition occupied two floors of the complex, with small cases spanning from 1900 and the end of the Qing Dynasty to the 1990s, after the country, now under new management, opened up to foreign trade and the West. The walls featured varying posters from a wide range of eras, from 1980s sports propaganda to movie posters to more propaganda and advertisements.
As I walked through, taking the time to look at the materials in the different cases, it was interesting to see the changes in design over the centuries in which illustration played a major part in Chinese daily life. The designs from the Qing and Republican Era had a distinctive Western influence, with some materials copying Western drawing techniques and others adapting them but adding a little local flavor and design elements, like an old map whose cover depicted a rising sun surrounded by a frame of dragons.
Things begin to change with designs from 1949 onwards, with inspiration clearly coming from Soviet propaganda and design, from Brutalist posters championing the PRC’s newly budding transportation network to posters for Western movies like Jayne Eyre, with the protagonist taking on a particularly Russian appearance in the promotional poster.
The posters and promotional materials from the 1970s and 1980s see a change in perspective, as elements of Chinese artistry make it into some of the posters, a prime example being the poster for the film Furong Zhen, which features larger black brushstrokes reminiscent of the methods of a skilled calligrapher using a larger brush, with another poster making a lighter use of paint to emphasize depth and perspective, similar to techniques I had witnessed at work in Chinese landscape paintings from the Wu School.
The second floor was dedicated to later works from the 1950s to the 60s, and some works from the 80s, giving it more of a free pop vibe and reminding me of the stuff Plastered 8 churns out in Beijing. Interesting here was the pop of the colors present in many of the works and the themes involved: propaganda becomes lighter and friendlier, with posters depicting a Chinese circus and children during Lunar New Year, plump and happy, perhaps a metaphor for change that came from the opening of the country, new beginnings and wealth. Standouts from this section were the diverse advertisements, cartoon characters and even the White Rabbit candy packaging, which were released in China in the 70s.
All in all, the Shanghai Illustration exhibition was a feast for the eyes and an interesting look at the different perspectives of design that influenced China from the 1900s to 1990s; a true look at illustration with Chinese characteristics.