Painting the Walls Red
A passionate collector, Burtt Ehrlich, walks us through his latest obsession of Chinese political propaganda
Photographs by Hulya Kolabas
Collecting is an almost inevitable aspect of human nature. As George Carlin said, “We all like our stuff.” We start with dolls and teddy bears and action figures, or Harry Potter and Narnia in a row on the bookshelf. If the bug bites we continue, perhaps to a favorite china pattern or vintage hats or souvenir salt shakers. It’s a pleasant and personal diversion, a Saturday morning stroll through the flea market. But there are collectors with a capital C, those who are mysteriously and obsessively drawn to a particular genre and will move heaven and earth to obtain the finest examples. Which is as good a description of Burtt Ehrlich as any. “Part of it is the lure of the chase,” he says. “The thrill of the hunt.”
His latest passion has nothing to do with the nostalgic joys of childhood, as did his earlier collections. Today he collects the propaganda posters that were produced by the Chinese government between 1949 and ’79. So far he has amassed approximately 550, and his collection is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive of Mao-era propaganda posters in the United States. The appeal, apart from the strong and boldly colorful art—heavy on the red ink, as you would expect—is the politics underlying the art and the fact that these posters are considered rare survivals. Mass-produced in the tens of thousands and cheaply printed, they were tacked up in factories, government offices and homes. Their purpose was to educate—visually—the primarily illiterate citizens of the People’s Republic of China with the lofty ideals of Communism. In cities, they brought color and drama to a monotonous landscape of blue pajamas and bicycles and cinder-block buildings. From the beginning the posters were a large part of the culture, along with ceramic busts of Mao and all those little red books.
“I was in Mongolia with my wife on a tourist trip, five years ago, and on the way back from Mongolia we stopped in Shanghai. Never been there before,” says Burtt. “My wife found a little squib in a newspaper about the Shanghai Propaganda Art Poster Center. And I wanted to see it. So I walked in, met the man who owned it, Yang Peiming, who speaks very good English. I thought the posters were decorative and interesting, so I bought a couple. And he started e-mailing me and I decided I wanted more. Some of the prices seemed a little high but it’s not a very well defined market.”
This is the third time I’ve interviewed Burtt, who describes himself as “a semi-retired financier and entrepreneur looking for the next opportunity.” In 1990 it was for his world-class collection of lead soldiers from Britains Ltd., made for the enjoyment of little Etonians back when the sun showed no signs of setting on the empire; regiment upon regiment of tiny Hussars and Coldstream Guards and the Household Cavalry, all beautifully detailed and in mint condition, and no fun to dust. A few years later he was on to American Folk Art toys, iron banks that swallowed pennies in fanciful ways, rare African-American figures dressed in fragile clothing that danced jigs, pounded podiums and amused. (In between the toys and the posters he collected large-gauge European toy trains manufactured between 1895 and 1929, which he sold for a staggering —and off the record—sum to an English collector.)
Burtt is something of a rarity himself in Greenwich: a die-hard Red Sox fan in Yankee country and an unrepentant left-wing Democrat. Among the silver-framed photos of family weddings and celebrations on a library table in the family room is one of him chatting with a young Chicago congressman named Barack Obama. “You could feel the charisma from across the room,” he comments.
Since we last met, Burtt and his wife, Francine, have moved from a stately Colonial off Round Hill Road to a sprawling newly built house with Arts and Crafts-style interiors, in the farthest reaches of the backcountry. With over 500 Chinese posters in his collection, would the new house resemble something decorated by the Red Army? But all is discreet. Burtt estimates that only twenty-five are framed and on display throughout the house, in a series of mini-galleries on both sides of a long hallway off the soaring foyer and up the main stairs to a wide landing.
The tour starts in the hallway with the first poster Burtt bought that day in Shanghai. “It’s from 1978 or 1979 and it’s the end of what I collect,” he says. “After ’79 China opened up, the politics changed. This poster shows how the Chinese wanted to see themselves: space shuttles, space labs, helicopters, ships and trucks. This is how they saw their world developing and I thought it was interesting. There’s a lot of content.”
Americans in these posters are always portrayed as menacing and heartless villains, brandishing fistfuls of dollars as they stomp throughout the world to oppress country after country. “I don’t read Chinese,” he says of the lettering on the posters, “but I have friends who do and it’s all written down, all cataloged. You have to remember,” he adds, “that most people in China couldn’t read so this was the only way of teaching them the politics. In many of the posters, they would put the Chinese title in phonetically spelled English letters. It was easier for the Chinese people to learn twenty-six English characters, than 3,000 Chinese characters.”
The titles include such sentiments as Resist America, Aid Korea and We Must Give the Warmongers an Even More Serious Beating and Lesson (1951), U.S. Imperialism Out of Our Country’s Taiwan Territory (1960), American Imperialism is the Common Enemy of All the World’s People (1964), and People of the World Unite, Defeat the American Aggressors and Their Running Dogs (1970). Not exactly subtle and the art is often harsh, even ugly. “It’s propaganda,” he says with a smile. “It’s not supposed to be subtle.”
In one poster, the “Ugly American” looks amazingly like Groucho Marx, right down to the flapping tailcoat, mustache and noticeable nose. “This is typical of an anti-American poster,” says Burtt. “The Americans always seem to have big noses. Some people say it’s to reflect what they saw as our anti-Semitism but I don’t know if it’s true or not. And they were big on racial equality—or racial inequality—which is why many of the figures are black. Not that there were any black people in China,” he adds drily.
Naturally, the posters from the Vietnam era demand that the United States get out of Vietnam, with which China shares a border. Bombs drop around a mother and her baby, an American in a Jeep shoots down the dove of peace, Lyndon Johnson is shoved out of an airplane and his broken parachute strings wrap around his neck to strangle him. “To the Chinese, we were all over the world in countries we shouldn’t be in: they wanted us out of Africa, out of Suez, out of the Middle East, out of Korea and Taiwan. And as a liberal,” says Burtt (who majored in history and government at Columbia), “this is part of my raison d’ être. Plus the posters show an era of history that we’ve forgotten, before the Chinese became our great friends.”
The bulk of the collection is housed in a spacious second-floor loft overlooking the family room, in two large architect cabinets, the drawers labeled by year and every poster sheathed in museum quality acid-free acetate sleeves. A distinct contrast to the political posters are those produced in the 1960s and early ’70s displaying what Burtt terms the Mao cult. The colors are creamy and tend toward the pastel, the peasants are all rosy-cheeked and smiling, dressed in fine clothing with flowers and balloons and fireworks, and Mao beams down from the sky like a benevolent god. “They’re all happy families, going fishing, having parties, all looking like life was wonderful then when in fact it was horrible. These don’t interest me as much as the U.S. posters,” he says frankly. “The artwork is stronger in those.
“As I understand it, the Chinese are somewhat embarrassed about the Cultural Revolution, so they’re really not that interested in these posters in China,” he continues. “Very little interest. Well, it was a dark period in their existence and they don’t want to remember it. But this was the art of the times. And this was the only chance for an artist or illustrator to make a living, doing these posters for the state.”
In February, a show of fifty-six of Burtt’s best was mounted at a gallery owned by Donald Rubin, founder of the Rubin Museum of Art on 17th Street in Manhattan. “It’s a wonderful museum,” he says. “They specialize in Himalayan, Tibetan and Indian art. I met Donald Rubin and I told him that I had this collection—he had interest and he had space, in this gallery down the street from the museum. So I thought it would be fun to show them. The show was up for two months and I’m told about 1,400 people came through.”
Chinese propaganda posters range in price from $300 to $5,000. “The good posters now? The rare ones are $1,000 to $3,000, the really rare ones four to five—the rarest are the earliest of course, from around the late 1940s when Chiang Kai-shek and his group landed in Taiwan. That’s why I’m collecting them!” he adds enthusiastically. “It’s a collectible that nobody has really discovered yet. You can still buy them at reasonable prices before the world finds out. Chinese poster art has been overlooked so it’s a great opportunity, although I’m hearing through the grapevine that the Chinese are starting to look a little more seriously at the era. They’ve even started reproducing some of the happy families Maoist posters for the tourists, for two or three dollars.”
Burtt’s second floor landing serves as a gallery for some of his pieces.
All the posters were produced at state-run art institutes and publishing houses under the umbrella of the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. “Absolutely, the government. That’s all there was,” Burtt confirms. “Most were printed in Shanghai. And don’t ask me how they were distributed all over the country because I have no idea. But most didn’t survive because the paper was thin, they were outdoors. As the politics changed, as the Cultural Revolution started, you had to be very careful—people were terrified, they were sent to the countryside. So I assume some of them were hidden, maybe in homes. But I really don’t know.”
Every collection comes to a point when it’s finished, when there’s nothing more to add or you simply want to move onto something new. Shortly after we covered Burtt’s lead soldier collection, he donated it to his alma mater, the Buckingham Browne and Nicholls private day school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “They kept them for a couple of years and then they auctioned them off. I had the world’s greatest collection of toy soldiers. I never should have gotten rid of them. They’ve gone up in value; I was well-known in the field. But,” he sighs, “life moves on. I had fifteen thousand and we were moving up here, and I just couldn’t see moving them. Plus they had started to disintegrate a little and it was time to let go. But I sold the toys and I sold the trains, which was a very fine collection. Times of financial need,” he says honestly.
“I’m always collecting unique things,” he says. “I’m interested in things that other people don’t seem to have an interest in, and have to say I’ve been right. When I started with the soldiers you could buy them very cheaply; now there are auctions and books, all kinds of interest. The prices have gone bananas—same thing with the trains.
“As for the psychology of collecting?” He laughs. “You have to be crazy. But it’s fun and you meet interesting people.” He’s been back to Shanghai again and Yeng Peiming has visited him in Greenwich several times. “Interesting guy,” he says. “Went through the Cultural Revolution, was shipped off to a canning factory for twelve years. Resents the fact that there’s the one-child policy, resents the fact that there’s a one-party system in China, and he’s willing to talk about it. He’s a real capitalist at heart. He has over 5,000 posters and his idea is to donate them to the Shanghai Museum at some point, as a memory of an era that should be remembered. It’s a lot like Germany in the thirties. Mao was a bad guy, just a bad guy, and millions of people died.”
Burtt admits that he was flying blind in the beginning but has gradually developed an eye. “I may go into the business of dealing these things,” he muses. “Get rid of some of the stuff I bought before I knew what I was doing. But I was captivated from the beginning. Not all of these posters are beautiful, but every one of them tells a story. It’s really about the content behind the art and not the art itself.”
And what sort of art did Burtt have on his walls before that life-altering trip to Shanghai? He looks blank for a moment, and then laughs ruefully. “You know,” he says, “I can’t even remember.”