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Between Toil and Toile: Socialist Ornament in Printed Cotton Design from the Cultural Revolution

Date: 4 May 2023 (Thursday)
Time: 4-5:30pm
Venue: CPD-2.42, Centennial Campus, HKU
Speaker: Dr. Angie C. Baecker


This paper takes up the question of socialist ornament, looking specifically at the design of printed cotton textiles produced from the late 1950s into the early 1980s in the People’s Republic of China. Through close examination of a collection of printed cotton quilt covers in the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the authors seek to understand how industrial designers interpreted new state policies and industrial development projects as decorative motifs on printed fabric. If, as Oleg Grabar argues, the defining function of the ornament is to improve upon the object it adorns, how do the patterns and design programs of Maoist era printed cottons participate in the construction of the cloth’s visual interest and material value? Through close examination of the cotton boll as a design motif, the authors argue that the ornamentation of consumer goods such as printed cotton implies an economy of labor, cost, and use value that is itself signaled by the presence of the ornament. By putting the decorative function of these textiles into conversation with their material and historical context, we seek to bring an art historical theorization of the sensory appeal of the ornament into conversation with a growing body of scholarship examining the materiality of everyday culture in the P.R.C. The resulting pastiche of decorative motifs and political iconography combined to create a highly inventive sort of high socialist toile, testifying to the experimental and distinctive nature of applied art and industrial design in Maoist China.

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