The Varying Approaches of Navarro’s Poster in Cuba and Liu Chun-hua’s poster in China in Cultivating Revolutionary Thought

The intersection of Cuba and China does not stop with communism, charismatic leaders, or revolution, but extends into the art form used to perpetuate all of those elements and more: posters. Posters proliferated in Cuba and China as a means to access all members of the respective nations, yet the subtleties that make Cuba’s poster culture and China’s poster culture different suggest subtle differences in “the identities” of the artists and the citizens within the nation. Posters powerfully allude to the different wants of the leading bodies and the needs, or receptions, of the public. Much like an interview, posters, and all art targeted at a mass audience, are interactions between the artist and the viewer. The elements of these works of art therefore reveal the goals and motivations of the artist and the audience. Context—the power behind poster as an art form, the surrounding history of the nations, the reception of the artwork—integrates the analysis of this Cuba-China intersection within poster to provide a more dynamic understanding of this interaction. The comprehensive approach allows the similarities to appear as such and the differences to illuminate themselves. Context proves imperative because of the intense lack of readily available information on the artists themselves, which is in itself a quality of these interactions. Still, poster artists Navarro and Liu Chun-hua contributed highly impactful posters to the revolutionary movements. Navarro’s Cuban poster for the anniversary of the Castro revolution (1973) and Liu Chun-hua’s The Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (1968) Chinese poster show the language of revolution that a poster can convey and the common channeling of a cult of personality, or shift in consciousness, while simultaneously exposing the subtle ways those artists accommodate those artists accommodate the public.

To address the less blatant similarities and differences between these two specific posters, I must first address the most blatant similarity: the means of which this art is delivered, in poster form. Both the Cuban poster and the Chinese poster communicate to the public on the topic of the revolution, whether it be information or spirit, both posters target the people, the masses. Central to these communist revolutions was the involvement of any and all types of citizens—rich, poor; educated, uneducated; urban, rural. Central to these posters is the same concept: an extensive and accessible dissemination. The communist Cuban and communist Chinese officials wanted mass circulation that other art forms prevented. Fine art, the theater, and galleries alienated the poor, rural, and uneducated populations. Posters, however, could be mass produced and reside in public spaces. Cuba and China channeled the posters’ ability to ephemerally assert themselves over public spaces and cultivate a language of symbols. This language of symbols is not present in all posters, however Cuba and China cultivated this language in order to promote the cult of personality and create the shift in thought. This cult of personality, or use of mass media to epitomize certain figures or aspects of the nations, is uniquely communicated by posters. This essay will look at Navarro’s poster and Chun-hua’s poster to look at the subtle difference of the maintenance versus the creation of cult of personality—understanding the position, the context from which these artists are “speaking” is the first point of investigation.

Cuba’s context, intention for posters, and cultivation of a revolutionary language of images is relatively simpler and less calculated than those of China. Cuba’s use of posters began with the government’s deliberate focus to put art in the hands of the people. The ICAIC, or the Cuban Institute on Cinematographic Art and Industry, was the government established push from the cliché revolutionary images of workers and machinery to the expressionist symbolism of more contemporary artists. The true shift in posters from image-based to symbol-based, however, originated with the ICAIC’s revival of the Cuban film industry. The ICAIC capitalized on this new fervor for a more west coast US inspired poster style by holding contests for the main posters for certain events. Navarro’s poster was submitted in a contest for the celebration of the anniversary of July 26, 1953, the year of Castro’s revolution. The people of Cuba reciprocated this enthusiasm and artists took advantage of this—creating a sort of Easter egg hunt within the posters. Posters would be distributed in a series, each one feeding off the last, so that they became mental “collectibles” like kids’ toys in cereal boxes (Weill 341-344). This allowed for synecdoche, or the use of a part to represent the whole, to become a main tool employed by poster artist—images speak a thousand words, but symbols do the same and whisper even more. The intense proliferation of posters featuring Che Guevara or Castro’s image are evidence of these cults of personalities that developed around images. Navarro’s poster is the output of this relatively conformist technique that artists used at this time to appease the Cuban needs.

26 poster, by navarro. ICAIC. 1973.
26 poster, by navarro. ICAIC. 1973.

Navarro’s poster is chromatically simple: black, white, red, orange, and yellow are the only colors present. Further still, the red, orange, and yellow colors are consolidated into the depiction of a sunrise so they appear even simpler as their own entity. The overwhelming color is black. Black covers more than three quarters of the image—hinting at an overpowering darkness that was pre-Castro Cuba. The small sunrise in the top right corner, an image artists and authors often use to invoke revolutionary ideas of new beginnings, can even further be interpreted as a representation of Castro himself. Castro’s synonym-like relationship with the Cuban Revolution was a part of the already created cult of personality that Navarro played upon. The white “26” that radiates upon the black is a reference to the date of the Castro’s takeover. Navarro channels this creation of a cult of personality in the simple presence of the number “26” on his poster. Castro’s seizure of the Cuban government occurred on the 26th of July in 1953. “26,” other than the artist and organization, is the only word/number present on Navarro’s poster. Navarro’s “26” comments on two aspects I have earlier touched upon: the use of symbolic language and the accessibility of the poster’s elements in order to perpetuate the revolutionary spirit of Castro’s takeover. Navarro must not show anything more than “26” for the audience to understand his reference to the date of Castro’s revolution. At the same time, this cements the number “26” as a singular symbol necessary to convey the bigger meaning of the date. The simplicity also allows a wide audience to understand the poster itself, considering Cuba’s high rates of illiteracy at the time of Castro’s revolution, it was advantageous for Navarro to minimalize the use of too many words or phrases (Supko). Navarro’s use of poster to contribute to the cult of personality is thus two pronged: he invites the audience to feel part of something bigger, as if they are all understanding some sort of “secret” code, and he also asserts the connection of that date with his image of some sort of “rising sun” that is illuminating the darkness of pre-Castro Cuba. Navarro is able to use extremely simple graphics to convey a powerful revolutionary sentiment: the charismatic and powerful Castro is the bearer of the new light upon Cuba—he is Cuba’s revival and that is a national “truth” of sorts. Understanding Navarro’s poster within the context of Cuba’s direct attention on the distribution of posters emphasizes to his poster being a part of a ICAIC contest (Weill #). Navarro’s poster has the sole intention of celebrating the anniversary of Castro’s rise, and he does so powerfully by playing on his understanding of the audience’s established knowledge. The fact that Navarro used one number, “26,” to convey this implies that his audience will be able to discern meaning. Navarro’s poster becomes a mind game in which he invites members of the cult of personality into “the know” by creating a code, and also reaffirms the peoples’ sense of being a part of the revolution by instilling confidence in their revolutionary language, and thus consciousness. Navarro’s poster is fueled by the revolutionary spirit already instilled in the people; turning attention to Liu Chun-hua’s poster of Mao, Chun-hua’s motive to fuel the revolutionary spirit is more evident.

From the start of Mao’s rule, he invited artists into the government to allow his image to dominate China. Posters in China, while also employing symbolic imagery, does so in a more detail-oriented matter. These posters, instead of Cuba’s shift in attention from image to letters (or numbers, in this case), employed compositions to draw the attention to the image instead. This stems from the need to create the cult of personality that Cuba had already self-created. Mao used a consistency of poster style to “authenticate” communism—or show its stability and longevity within China. As his image continued to appear, the artificiality of the images increased—the government formalized guidelines for his depiction and his wife ordered the depictions of Mao to be “red, bright, and shining” (Guffey). What resulted was a series of intensely altered depictions of Mao that consisted of vitality, magic-like auras, and strength. The smaller details of these depictions all cultivated a greater symbol, and near-religious icon, of Mao. Liu Chun-hua’s poster, The Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan, like Navarro, followed the strict procedure of creating a poster in his nation.

The Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, by Liu Chun-hua. 1968.
The Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, by Liu Chun-hua. 1968.

In Chun-hua’s poster, Mao stands in a windswept gown atop a mountain with a clenched fist, a worn umbrella, and a youthful exuberance. The caption, “In autumn 1921, our great teacher Chairman Mao went to Anyuan and personally kindled the flames of revolution there,” appears direct and informative. While immediately the viewer of this poster can discern the elevated status of Mao, the specific details are all conveying specific messages to the people. Reflecting upon the poster, the artist himself broke down the elements. Chun-hua explains Mao’s far-sighted, but advancing pose and look; the clenched fist implies his determination to carry the revolution; the gown, which is traditional Chinese scholar dress, is the revolutionary storm that he bears; and his worn umbrella showed his will to travel in any weather across any terrain to promote his cause. Chun-hua’s poster’s success comes from his access to those outside of the cult of personality—in simply preserving and perpetuating Mao’s manipulated appearance—and to access those within the cult of personality by making subtle nods to Mao’s widely agreed upon character. The caption, while corroborated by the Anyuan workers, becomes insignificant other than granting the image and creation of the story validity. Chun-hua’s dynamic poster was not only successful, over 900 million distributed to a population of about 700 million at the time, but was self-perpetuating (Guffey). Other posters began to include Chun-hua’s depiction as a symbol within their own posters. This contributed to the icon-like role of Mao’s image, but it also speaks to the assertion of ownership that the people took over Mao, his image, and what he stood for. Chun-hua’s poster became instrumental in solidifying “mass culturalization” in China, or the furthering of an ideology through the material consumption of symbols or images. Chun-hua’s interaction with the public then becomes about moving these symbols further and cementing their power as a binding agent for the revolution. It reveals that the audience trustingly fed off of the information spread by the revolution and those that worked for it. Liu Chun-hua’s poster seeks to satisfy the goals of posters in a more complex way. Liu Chun-hua’s poster plays on the realisticness of Mao’s portrayal to convince the masses of Mao’s youthful revolutionary power. The simplicity of the image’s meaning, which is Mao’s power, is conveyed through small details and intricacies to the image that lead the audience to make that “simple conclusion.” The fact that it is a poster is crucial to understanding this mass effect the People’s Republic of China’s officials hoped to have in creating a cult of personality, less so about reinforcing the cult of personality—which is what Navarro’s poster sought to do. China’s top-down approach is the glaring difference in artist-audience interaction from Cuba’s bottom-up approach.

Navarro’s simple graphics and coded speech directly oppose Chun-hua’s complex imagery and blunt speech. This difference in approach is less about artist style and more about the interaction of the government and the people. In both cases, the posters are under intense government oversight and scrutiny. Castro and Mao’s positions as charismatic God-like figures came from the people’s reception of them as speakers for all people and thus their political posters had to invoke the feeling of this intimate leader-to-individual interaction. Navarro does this by inviting the viewer into a code that they understand and feel empowered for having understood. Chun-hua does this by asserting his depiction of Mao and using smaller messages to target the cult of personality. Navarro and Chun-hua do so by employing the exact prescriptivist methods that their respective governments asked for. This reveals the deep understanding that Castro and Mao had for their citizens.

The combination of the poster as an art form, the relationship of the governed to the government, and the creation and maintenance of a symbolic language of revolution allowed for posters in Cuba and China to find the same place in history. The way they directly access this spot—as nurturers of a collective mind—is what Navarro and Chun-hua demonstrate. Navarro reaffirms and Chun-hua states. Navarro teases and Chun-hua unloads. Still, both Navarro and Chun-hua’s posters function as not only conveyers of messages, but sculptors of the public psyche.

Works Cited

  1. Guffey, Elizabeth E.. Posters: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2015. Print.
  2. Supko, Ruth A. "Perspectives on the Cuban National Literacy Campaign." (n.d.): n. pag. Arkansas State University, Sept. 1998. Web.
  3. Weill, Alain, 1946-. The Poster: A Worldwide Survey and History. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985. Print.