Visiting Research Fellow
Print publications and the artworks they contain are an unparalleled conduit for grassroots responses to global societal trends. However, the global aspect of these artworks often becomes lost in the local context of their creation, and the shared resonance between artworks from disparate locations is often similarly overlooked. Dr Elizabeth Emrich-Rougé’s book project, titled Paper Trails: Mapping Transnational Socialist Aesthetics in China, 1931-1945, aims to address those blind spots by first, analysing a local instance of ‘socialist aesthetics’ in prints, drawings, photography and film from China between 1931 and 1945, and second, mapping out the understudied efflorescence of this shared aesthetic around the globe. As part of this project, Dr Emrich-Rougé is analysing journals, magazines, film and newspapers from the early twentieth century, not only as sources of images and text, but also as material objects with histories of their own, and as connecting nodes in global intellectual and artistic networks.
During the first half of the twentieth century, strikingly similar-looking prints from locations as disparate as Argentina, Mexico, Germany, India, Singapore, China and Japan, created from the 1920s through the 1950s, communicated artists’ social concerns and used affective imagery to move their audiences to action. These prints, however, are only one part of a larger aesthetic pattern that stretched across media in various locations, something Dr Emrich-Rougé has termed a ‘socialist aesthetic’. Identifiable through their portrayal of ‘political emotion’, a sense of veracity and their representation of collectivity, these images were also metaphorical images onto which the public could map their own experiences and anxieties, rather than being indexical representations of reality. Circulated through print publications and public spaces, this visual media moved across national borders and embodied themes that crossed political boundaries. (Works by Adolfo Bellocq (1899-1972) in Argentina, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (1915-1978) in India and Jiang Feng (1910-1983) in China provide concrete examples of formal resonance across both space and time.) While other recent publications have focused on the transnational Left, its representation in literature and its fraught relationship with race, colonialism and nationalism, they have largely eschewed a sustained conceptualisation of formal or thematic aesthetic links between art and cultural media, either within or between these geographically-separated spaces. Furthermore, they often approach this topic from a top-down perspective, emphasising the Comintern’s role in disseminating cultural guidance, rather than the choices of individual artists. In comparison, this project invigorates the study of transnational leftist work through its close focus on Chinese visual media as a representative example, and its aim of complicating the historiography of political Right versus Left in mainland China’s cultural production during the 1930s and 1940s.
Image: Huang Shiying, Life’s Outcry (Shenghuo de Huhao), Cover image of Cartoon Life (Manhua Shenghuo) 1, No. 1, September 1934. Source: CNBKSY, Collection of Shanghai Library.