Graphic Design’s Hammer and Sickle Revolution

The art deco architectural style of the Teien Gallery is one usually associated with the plutocrats and movie moguls of the 1930s. It may therefore seem a tad ironic to hold an exhibition of posters from Communist Russia at such a venue. But, while it lasted, the Soviet Union existed in a state of weird symbiosis with Western Capitalism, spurring the Space Race, the spread of internationalism, and the ascendancy of material values over spiritual ones.

The area of graphic design was also included in this equation. For generations, art students in the West, who went on to work in publishing and advertising, found inspiration in the bold strokes of avant garde design pioneered by Soviet artists in the years following the 1917 Revolution. This is why so many posters at "The Stenberg Brothers and the Russian Avant-Garde," have such a modern feel to them.

Sons of a Swedish father, Georgii (1899-1933) and Vladimir Stenberg (1900-1982), were part of the Constructivist movement which rejected traditional ideas of art for a new freedom and utilitarianism aimed at taking art directly to the people. The new Soviet government decided that cinema would be the perfect medium to reach its vast, semi-literate, linguistically-diverse population. Working closely together, the brothers, took advantage of the resultant cinema boom to produce movie posters in a new, populist, eye-catching style, using montage, strong geometric designs, and vivid colors.

Fragment of an Empire, a poster for a 1929 Russian film of the same name frames the screaming face of a man between a pair of simplified, black hands, giving it greater impact. This, incidentally, was a Rip Van Winkle story about a man who wakes up to discover the 'wondrous improvements' wrought by Communism.

The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) shows the use of another Constructivist technique, the interpenetration of matter and space. Against a backdrop of soaring skyscrapers, the body of a woman is suggested by the positions of her arms, legs and head as she seems to fall towards us. This poster is beautifully unified by the lettering arranged in spirals which echo the woman's arched figure while at the same time helping us look through her to the vanishing point in the sky.

The freedom and playfulness of these designs makes it hard to believe that this was a totalitarian society. But, before the rise of Stalin, Soviet society enjoyed a degree of freedom that even allowed Hollywood schlock like Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood (1922) to knock box office spots off such Soviet classics as Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). The latter, however, definitely had the better poster. Anton Lavinsky's intriguing design shows a Russian sailor in what appears to be a camp pose in front of the ship’s mighty guns.

Just as innovative as the film posters are the political posters, such as Dmitri Moor's Help (1920) from the famine-stricken civil war period. A raw appeal to our humanity, this shows an emaciated peasant with outstretched hands. Another potent image is Fighting Lazy Workers (1931) by an anonymous artist (see above). This shows three hammer-wielding red figures raining blows down on a thin wedge filled with drunken, lazy workers, hinting at the brutal extremes Stalin's Soviet Union was prepared to go to achieve its totalitarian goals.

The collage effect, so well used in many posters, is definitely misapplied in El Lissitsky's poster advertising a 1929 USSR-Russian exhibition in Zurich. Showing the forms of a young Soviet hero and heroine merged together, it creates a mutated monstrosity that can't help reminding the modern viewer of the failings of Communism that were so typified by the 1986 Chernobyl accident the precursor of the downfall of Soviet power.

Perhaps it was his background as an unsophisticated Georgian mountaineer, but in 1934, Stalin, who was then tightening his grip on power, decided to end the Constructivist era, proclaiming Socialist Realism as the official new art style. One year earlier, Giorgii Stenberg had been killed in a Moscow motorcycle crash. Believing that his brother had in fact been murdered by the KGB, Vladimir continued to do design work for the state, but in the conservative artistic climate of the Stalin years, he would never recapture the early genius he had shown with his sibling.

Colin Liddell
10th March, 2001
The Japan Times

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