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The Art Of Influence: Asian Propaganda At The British Museum
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The Art Of Influence: Asian Propaganda At The British Museum

Picture of Stephanie Chang Avila
Updated: 26 January 2016
The Art of Influence: Asian Propaganda at the British Museum documents the history of images used to persuade and influence public opinion during the tumultuous 20th century in Asia, which was wracked by tumultuous revolutions, civil and regional conflicts. The British Museum exhibition is free and runs through the 1st of September.
Drawing of a large skeleton head against a Japanese sun-flag, with small figures drowning; Amsterdam; 1930-38; Jack Chen; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum
Jack Chen, Drawing of a large skeleton head against a Japanese sun-flag, with small figures drowning; Amsterdam; 1930-38 | © Trustees of the British Museum

Curated by Mary Ginsberg, the exhibition focuses on propaganda art between 1900 and 1976 from Asia, particularly from China, India, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, including many never before displayed artefacts. Not only showcasing overtly political posters and prints, the exhibition also features everyday ephemera infused with propagandic messages such as printed kimonos, sculptures and home ware. By showcasing such everyday objects, the exhibition challenges our accepted notions of propaganda, which is often seen as inherently negative and state-sponsored. Instead, we find that propaganda can be so deeply integrated into the social and cultural fabric of a time that it becomes inextricable from the daily life and worldview of a generation.

Vietnam war poster
Japanese kimono covered in a montage of pictures relating to Japan’s occupation of Manchuria | Photos by © Trustees of the British Museum

The curators hardly shy away from showing the insidious side of propaganda as a state instrument of manipulation through censorship and the propagation of outright lies. One of the core highlights of the exhibition is a comparison of the propaganda art of Japan and China during the anti-foreign, anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900) — each country’s artists present their side as winning the battle; one side is obviously, undeniably, lying. In this case, it turns out that China’s portrayal of the Boxers winning the fight is pure construction; in fact, the Eight-Nation Alliance routed the Boxers, plundered Beijing, executed numerous Chinese suspected of being part of the rebellion and imposed massive reparations on the Chinese government.

Lu Shaofei propaganda
Lu Shaofei, ‘He says himself, hes already got a new appearance!’, 1931-38; Drawing, ink and slight colours on paper; Lu Shaofei (1903 to 95) was a leader among the resistance cartoonists during the Asia-Pacific War; the Japanese man holding the mask represents Japans aggressive policy towards China | © Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition also showcases the propaganda of wartime Japan and China (Asia-Pacific War from 1931-34) during which Japanese and Chinese societies were saturated with politically driven messages. Continuing on through the mid-20th century, the exhibition highlights the propagandic art that paralleled the founding of the modern Indian state, the propaganda of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (‘If it was art, it was propaganda.’), and the war of opinions during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The wartime posters are particularly harrowing; one poster from the Vietnam War depicts a fleet of helicopters as darkly menacing shadows. In the foreground, a child lies immobile while another screams within a gun’s target scope. Whilst the wartime posters employ visual shock tactics, other modes of propaganda on display, seemingly innocuous, are equally potent symbols of persuasion.

Sigmund Albeles
Sigmund Abeles, Fleet of approaching helicopters with two Vietnamese children in foreground, one of whom is lying on the ground and the other is viewed screaming within a weapon’s target scope, 1967; Sepia etching and aquatint | © Trustees of the British Museum

Artefacts on display include traditional propaganda prints and posters with characteristically brazen messages, badges that reflected the wearer’s loyalty towards Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, kimonos with patriotic wartime prints, New Year’s calendars promoting new marriage laws and more.

Chinese Chairman Mao badges
Chairman Mao badge; During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Chairman Mao badges were iconic markers of loyalty and political correctness; this badge was made in 1969 to mark the Ninth National Congress of the CCP; China, 1969; Stamped aluminium | © The Trustees of the British Museum

According to Ginsberg, ‘Art is potentially an agent of change everywhere. It reflects and is shaped by the political, social and economic circumstances of its production. The Art of Influence: Asian Propaganda attempts to contextualise the propaganda art of many societies in the throes of war and rapid change.’