Great expectations

How Russian artists served the early Soviet state.

poster art 88 224 (photo credit: )
poster art 88 224
(photo credit: )
A wonderful new hardcover book Power to the People, edited by Alex Ward, curator of the Design Pavilion of the Israel Museum, is actually a fully illustrated catalog to the stunning exhibition of early Soviet posters he mounted at the museum in 1994. It could have been entitled "Great Expectations." Back in 1920-21, when these early posters were made, all was hope and optimism in war-ravaged Russia. Lenin had signed a separate peace with Germany. The bloody Russian civil war, Reds against czarist Whites, was pretty much over (the victorious Red Army was led by a Jew, Leon Trotsky, who was later exiled and then murdered on Stalin's orders). Artists of all types were at first delighted supporters of the Bolsheviks. In the brief period now known as Heroic Communism, large numbers of artists got together to discuss collective goals (the word collective would soon become one of the most feared in Russia). Anyone with some sort of an education or training could find a niche in the new system. In a new world, there was to be room for the newest in the arts. There were volunteers for poorly paid and even unpaid jobs. The artists and writers (and soon filmmakers) became willing agitators in a nationwide propaganda campaign. Agitprop became the new buzzword. Agitprop trains decorated with communist slogans and flags carried the word - and films - to the front and villages near the rail lines. Agitprop floats filled the streets along with revolutionary street theaters; and Agitprop boats sailed down the Volga. One of the early Agitprop enthusiasts was the Georgian-born Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), who came to Moscow with his family in 1906 and even as a young teenager got himself arrested by the czarist police. Mayakovsky, in his first call to the "Army of Art," exhorted artists to go out into the streets because "the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes." In 1920, he threw himself into the ROSTA posters project. ROSTA was the acronym of the newly formed Russian Telegraphic Agency, which published daily bulletins, not just news but also new decrees and more importantly, the rules and requirements of social projects, like mass vaccinations against smallpox. One poster reads: Beware your fate, those who do not inoculate! So rush to the station For your smallpox vaccination. Only a fifth of the Russian proletariat was literate, but not in literary Russian. The messages of the posters were condensed to simple rhyming couplets in spoken street Russian, printed below flat but striking images. Most were written by Mayakovsky, who also drew or designed many of the images. A graphic form of didactic comic strips, the daily ROSTA posters were produced overnight by teams of writers, artists and stencilers. The images were printed in editions of around 200 on available small-format newsprint, the most that could be made from a stencil. Each poster was pasted onto a large sheet of backing paper in the correct order, much like a comic-strip message, and posted at railway stations and kiosks, but mostly in places protected from the elements, like store windows, which anyway had nothing else to display. About 1,600 series of these stenciled posters were produced, some within an hour or two of receiving a report. Speed and the medium dictated the aesthetic nature of the results: Each image was highly formalized, as in a cartoon. A separate stencil had to be cut for each color, and the pigments were brushed on by hand. The solutions are ingenious and fascinating in their bravura simplicity; their character derives from cutting rather than drawing. The stenciled lettering served as the key to the register. The stencil method was peculiar to Moscow; in Petrograd the ROSTA posters were printed by lithography, while in Odessa, where paper was unavailable, the posters were painted onto plywood and later painted over as the wood was recycled for the next edition. News was flashed by Morse telegraphy. In Moscow, Mayakovsky's talents and energy made him the dominant poster production figure, although unlike his artists, Mikhail Cheremnykh (1890-1962) and Ivan Malyutin (1889-1932), he had no official position. After ROSTA, Mayakovsky, together with the famous Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko, a noted designer, painter and photographer, wrote and designed advertisements promoting nationalized industries. In 1923, Mayakovsky organized the Left Front of the Arts in an attempt to ward off the socialist-realist demands of Lenin's yes-men. In 1930, disillusioned with communism and disappointed in love, he took his own life. In Russia, he remains a legend. Cheremnykh, a trained artist and skilled political cartoonist, was one of the founders of Krokodil, the Soviet satirical magazine which survived for over four decades, as did the brilliant Cheremnykh. Malyutin, an equally accomplished artist, drew the first cover of Krokodil and worked for other satirical journals. All looked back on their ROSTA poster days as the most exciting time of their lives. The ROSTA posters told Russians how to sort and store their potatoes and called on peasants to pay their taxes to help those whose crops had failed. There is no hint of anti-Semitism in any of these posters and the capitalists do not look like Jews. Mayakovsky's messages are however, unabashedly racist. He attacks the Poles, Slovaks and Czechs as well as the Entente: The Entente has not given up the fight They are trying to incite Poland, Romania and other small fry. Under a series of drawings by Malyutin he tells Red soldiers to look after their equipment: Keep the barracks spotless and your rifle clean Of your coat take good care Look after your footwear. Later, Mayakovsky describes to the hard-pressed workers and peasants around Moscow the famine in the Volga region: So the coming anniversary celebration Will not be marked with a decorous demonstration. To mark our holiday, we'll the famine defeat And give those on the Volga something to eat. In October 1921, Mayakovsky drew and wrote his last 12-poster series. In several he wrote: The Red platoons came home and found factories and plants all wrecked to the ground In order to save our energy and not fail Let's first repair industry of the largest scale. Everyone here must think this over While our hearts rejoice for the Revolution of October. He was as free with promises as the party hacks: Delegate the best of your comrades and send them to the army training courses. As to their families, the trainees can be at ease The Republic will see to all their needs. These ostensibly good-natured posters sometimes contain barely veiled threats against tax dodgers, but in general they mask the tragedy of those who believed in the Revolution. This historic record was generously presented to the museum by collector Merrill C. Berman. It contains more than 600 individual posters from 64 different series. The vast numbers reproduced in the catalog necessitated reducing most of them to the size of large postage stamps. The original exhibition was given an unusual design by architect Michael Fieldmann.