Activating Images: The Ideological Use of Metapictures and
Visualized Metatexts in the Iconography of the Cultural Revolution

By Francesca Dal Lago

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 167-197

This article analyzes a particular visual strategy found in certain posters of the Cultural Revolution, in which “model” images are cited within other images and slogans or written messages appear within the space of the pictorial frame. Such quotations of model images and/or slogans–visualized within the poster as banners or dazibao (big character posters), for example–serve to reinforce the poster’s overall ideological function.
Analyzing the relationship between subject matter and composition, I suggest that the message propagated by such posters is constructed through the active engagement of this particular type of iconography. Self-standing texts included within the image in the form of banners, dazibao, or words written on walls provide another instance of the same phenomenon: a message that can be reinforced though the repetition of words and/or images within the image’s pictorial space.
Borrowing W. J. Thomas Mitchell’s concept of “metapictures,” the essay shows how these meta-references are used to initiate a pattern of echoing resonances between the space represented in the image and the space occupied by the viewer. This process produces a circular effect that combines, amplifies, and exponentially reinforces the overarching ideological narrative of the principal image.