The idea that sex sells is hardly a concept inherent to the liberally minded 1980s and 1990s.
In 1920s China, commercial artists began creating series of advertisements, which, while promoting everything from cigarette smoking to personal hygiene, revolved around the female form in much the same vein as auto-part calendars do today.
For almost 30 years these deco posters, as they are now referred to, adorned walls and bestowed the merits of this brand of smokes or that brand of soup the length and breadth of China.
Disappearing from public sight very shortly after western-style decadence and imagery was banned under Mao Zedong's (
And while modern reproductions of deco posters sell for as little as US$5 in flea markets and tourist emporiums throughout China, originals fetch a far heftier price.
According to Norwegian national and avid deco poster collector, Trond Lovdal, original commercial deco artwork dating from between the 1920s and 1930s varies in price from between a reasonable US$50 to a staggering US$3,000.
Although Lovdal has personally never paid thousands of dollars for a single poster, he has amassed a collection of 500 original deco posters dating from 1920 through 1940, 80 of which will be on display from this coming Wednesday at the Taipei County Cultural Affairs Bureau Art Gallery (台北縣政府文化局藝文館) in Panchiao.
It was the commercial artists employed by Western companies such as British American Tobacco and Lever Brothers who first began experimenting with stylized and Westernized images of alluring Oriental women in order to woo potential customers. Their efforts gave rise to the popularization of a style of art that, while far-removed from traditional Chinese painting, has come to epitomize early 20th century Chinese art.
What: A Retrospective of Classical Chinese Posters
Where: Taipei County Cultural Affairs Bureau Art Gallery (台北縣政府文化局藝文館); 62 Chuangching Rd., Panchiao City, Taipei County (台北縣板橋市莊敬路62號)
When: Wednesday, March 6, through March 20
Many of the poster artists used images of well-known actresses and singers of the day. One of the most popular of these images was that of the sultry screen starlet of the 1920s, Hu Die (胡蝶), or, as she was more commonly referred to, Butterfly.
Unlike today when the use of celebrity images is a closely monitored and costly business, in 1920s China neither artist nor multinational needed to seek permission or pay royalties to the starlet whose image they used. According to Lovdal, actresses such as Butterfly were simply happy to be given free publicity.
While it is the cigarette posters adorned with tantalizing images of females that have become the most sought after of the deco commercial posters, not all artists of the day used curvaceous women and smidgens of suggestiveness.
Artists such as Hu Boxiang (胡伯翔) created the same stylized artwork but with families and children as the centerpieces. Many of these now appear rather far-fetched, especially those endowing the merits of cigarettes alongside family values.
Late last year Lovdal started his own Web site. Dedicated to deco posters, his www.decoorient.com has received over 300 hits since January of this year. And while the Norwegian readily admits that most of the hits he's received have been from friends and family, the Web site is one of the few sites in either Chinese or English dedicated solely to the history of China's deco posters.