To mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Bowdoin College Museum in Brunswick, Maine, has mounted a stunning exhibit of Soviet propaganda posters from 1917-World War II. The exhibit, which features nearly one hundred posters and vintage publications from the collection of Eric and Svetlana Silverman and has been curated by Kristina Toland, is big, bold, provocative, and timely. Most of all, it raises a significant number of issues about the intertwining roles of art and politics in world history.
Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters examines the dynamic relationship between ideology and graphic design in the period between the World Wars. Just as this was this a period of political and social turmoil following the 1917 October Revolution, the removal of the Tsar, and the ensuing civil war in Russia, so, too, did these upheavals produce bold new innovative approaches to art, film, and literature. Many of the aesthetics and techniques of this new avant garde are reflected in the posters, as artists were recruited to use their talents in the service of the new regime.
Many of the artists represented in the exhibition embraced the revolution and its ideals wholeheartedly, while others, like Gustav Gustavovich Klutsis, who fell from favor and was arrested and executed, had a more ambiguous relationship to the messages they depicted. Some may have gone to work for the government propaganda bureau to avoid persecution or to insure that they did not starve. Whatever their motivations, the images they created using mixed media that included traditional print graphics as well as photo montage and drawing were dramatic, eye-catching, and clever in their use of iconography, text, and color.
The underlying message of these posters was to glorify and uplift the new communist society, which continued to fight for its very existence in those bleak inter World War years. The images and the slogans exalted not only the heroes of the revolution – Lenin, Trotsky, later Stalin - but also the workers who were the very essence of the Bolshevik dream. They featured images of life in a dynamic, free, progressive, and comradely society, where struggle would produce rewards, and utopia could be achieved. The posters frequently staged images of ideal happiness – smiling workers, children, families – as well as satirical images of socialism crushing capitalism.
The posters, themselves, are, for the most part large in scale, designed to appear on the sides of buildings, inside factories, cafeterias, and schools, though the exhibition also features some of the smaller handbill sized posters designed for mass distribution in places like post offices and telegraph offices, as well as some beautifully crafted magazines of the day.
The exhibition is arranged in a loosely chronological manner with images grouped thematically. As such, it traces the developing style of the Soviet graphics from dramatic prints heavily influenced by both photography and modernist design that relied heavily on a vocabulary of new symbols, to large-scale photomontage posters that paid tribute to the influence of film, and finally to an increasingly realistic approach – albeit augmented reality- favored by the Stalinist regime. In all of them the slogans are an integral part of the entire design, as word and image hold equal sway in the overall impact of the work. Throughout the exhibit the artists’ palettes are largely dominated by black, white and red – the last of these the symbol of the communist revolution.
The first gallery is dominated by Vera Adamovna Gitsevich’s oversized photographic image of a woman with a bullhorn to her lips and a red staff in her hand against a background showing black and white images of classrooms, factories, sports arenas, and cities. She is the calm, empowered symbol of the struggle as she calls her fellow comrades to take their places in this new march of progress.
Then there are several beautifully atmospheric black and white images that enhance the photographic look by adding a touch of drama, mystery, or wonder. Photojournalist Dimitri Baltermants is represented by several stunning images. Four soldiers running off into the mist of battle mythicizes the heroism of the conflict; a young blond Soviet girl looking upwards into an optical device seems to be enjoying a vision of the future, while the four youthful, muscular Odessa construction workers creates an iconic image of proletariat strength and pride.
Other posters are more two dimensional and less wedded to reality than they are to refashioning that reality. There is Viktor Denisov’s print of a determined looking worker with raised fist looming larger-than-life above a cityscape of Western banks as the text salutes the “Rot Front” (the Weimar Communist organization) talks of crushing capitalism. Or there is the neatly symmetrical print depicting a peasant and a worker shaking hands center stage – the title “The Cooperation of the Workers and Peasants” with the text lauding how the new society will be built on the friendship of these classes. Another stunning graphic features an arm with clenched fist against a latticework representing a prison cell. Within the arm are tiny images of hundreds of oppressed prisoners, yet the defiant and symbolic raised fist suggests
liberation is at hand in the new society. Or there is the “Red Man” a solider who points his finger provocatively at the viewer. His expression is fierce and zealous and his gesture a call to arms.
Another wall displays a series of smaller, handbill-sized linocuts that were created for KOSTA – the Russian telegraph office’s use. Mass produced and distributed throughout Russia, they “read” like a cartoon strip with each poster illustrating an anecdote accompanied by a didactic caption as the entire series is linked by a single narrative thread.
By 1920 the poster style became heavily dominated by the technique of photomontage. Colossal images of famous figures such as Lenin or Trotsky, as well as photographs of ordinary soldiers or workers, were superimposed on carefully composed backgrounds whose symbolic and narrative content sang the praises of these new supermen and women. A huge image on a red background of three men of varying each carrying the symbol of his occupation upraised with pride, standing shoulder to shoulder speaks of the solidarity and strength of the movement.
Another section of the exhibition (as well as a small gallery display of the photographs of the photojournalist Baltermants) addresses the notion of “staging happiness.” The Baltermants photographs are subtler, more atmospheric and their black and white documentary look makes illusion seem truth. More blatant in their bold appeal to optimism are the huge posters of the Stalinist era depicting strong, youthful happy workers and families. A large image of a young man with goggles pushed up on his forehead superimposed on a background of bustling urban life, a slight smile of contentment spreading over his features is meant to laud the industrial progress the Soviets pursued. A striking linocut image of a woman with a gun reminds of Rosie the Riveter posters in America. Here she is a symbol of Russian determination and courage, as well as one of many images
throughout the display of woman standing shoulder to shoulder in equality with men.
With Russia so much in the news these days, these posters from a century ago seem oddly contemporary. Just as the Soviets manipulated the message to promote their cause, to win hearts and minds and loyalty, distorting the facts and creating “alternative realities,” we, too, currently live in an age where the lines between fact and fiction are conveniently blurred or disregarded outright especially by those in the highest seats of power. And perhaps, this is not really a new trend in visual and verbal communication? Did not the Catholic Church use art to shape its mythology and win converts? Did not the Egyptians, the Romans, the Assyrians; the French Revolutionaries glorify their rulers and their victories in painting and scultpture? Indeed, art and politics have often been linked and what has been called “history painting” can surely be re-examined as historical
perspectives rather than empirical fact.
So the ideological nature of the exhibition should not be a reason to devalue the work of the artists represented here. Aesthetically, they display strong design skills akin to some of the best graphic artists, borrowing from Japanese printmakers, French Expressionists, and even older iconographic sources like Byzantine hierarchical figures. In short, the images they taken on their visual merits alone fit convincingly within the parameters of Western art. That they stir controversial emotions is no surprise. In their day these artists and their works and the workers they championed stood at the vanguard of what they believed to be a new frontier. That subsequent history has not fulfilled that utopian vision should not detract from the moment in time that these works celebrate: a moment when hope and dreams were born in the crucible of revolution.