In 1917, 101 years ago, the Russian Revolution changed the world. Not just the politics, but the art, the music, and the way we communicate in a modern society. At the Wolfsonian Museum-FIU, a summer exhibition of posters exploring its impact seems uncannily relevant.
With all the evil that Lenin and Stalin left across the globe, sometimes we forget that there was a Utopian idea behind the initial upheaval that created the revolution. It was the hope of a society without classes, where all would work for the common good. Experimentation would be promoted, the arts would be of and for the people.
The early Soviet propaganda posters highlighted in “Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters Between the World Wars” reveal some of this idealism, and also the art — and communication — that proved transformative. The images are simple, the short text declarations conveying easy-to-swallow propaganda.
Future dictatorships would copy this model. But it’s also not hard to see a relationship to 21st century social media — tweets and abbreviated sentences that have become the norm.
Of course, people weren’t staring at their phones in the 1920s, but the posters were plastered everywhere — at work and on collective farms, in train and trolley stations, on the walls of storefronts and apartment buildings. “Long Live [fill in the blank]. Down With [fill in the blank].” Modern propaganda began here.
The bold, brash examples that are hanging at the Wolfsonian — about 50 of them — are in their essence political and ideological tools. Along with the simplistic phrases, the imagery is also concise — only one or two figures dominate the frames.
This imagery relates to the evolution surrounding the revolution of 1917. It ignited an explosion of graphic design, where such movements as the increasingly abstract Impressionists gave way to Constructionists — often a graphic design showing construction, a metaphor for modernity — and Socialist Realism, at least in the new USSR. "Constructing Revolution" refers not only to Bolshevik politics, but to how artists were constructing a new way of expression.
Look for instance at Vladimir Mayakovsky, the famed poet and avant-garde leader of the Futurist movement; he made posters in support of the Soviet regime. His faceless two men fighting a cartoonish emperor in one image is decidedly modern, clean, and profoundly worrying in its exhortation to kill the enemy. There is also a remarkable early poster from 1920, with a simply sketched man — a somewhat stout “worker” — with the title referencing the first workers’ holiday, May Day. “May 1: If There is a Celebration, It is for All the People.” Whether or not it had to do with a disillusionment with the direction that the Soviet Communist Party started to take, Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930.
Although the overt propaganda can be disconcerting (even if you don’t read Russian Cyrillic script, you get the points quickly before reading the translations), the images in these posters are powerful. The color schemes are primary — no pastels here. Instead, they are bright green, black, and yes, red.
One of the pioneers of this new graphic visual language was Gustav Klutsis, who worked with the recently invented photomontage, which combined with stencil, drawing, and text. His “Working Men and Women — Everyone to the Election of Soviets” might be one of the most recognizable posters in the exhibit. It’s a large hand, with tiny hands crawling up it, surrounded by text and red coloring. It suggests going forward, along with following in line.
Working men and women are an interesting theme in these works. To a largely illiterate society trying to overcome feudalism, these posters again give us insight into how the new Soviet government wanted to emphasize progress. No longer would women be relegated solely to domestic tasks. One poster, from 1917 and from an artist unknown, pictures a woman holding a rifle. Another, from Valentina Kulagina in 1930, gives us a singular image of a woman working in a factory, with the title “International Working Women’s Day.” There is also a stunning image from another early Soviet artistic pioneer, Grigorii Shegal, with the text that needs no explaining: “Down With Kitchen Slavery.”
Because of the Soviet regime's expertise in minimalist propaganda, the posters of the early years reflect both optimism and an authoritarian bent that would soon prevail. As the Wolfsonian associate director, Jon Mogul, wrote for the exhibition, “These works speak to the paradox of the Soviet Union during its early decades, when Utopianism went hand-in-hand with manipulation. There is an undeniable sense of excitement, optimism and experimentation in these images, though they also convey the sanitized and one-sided version of the reality that contributed to the consolidation of a brutally repressive dictatorship.”
This exhibit, which was organized by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (in Brunswick, Maine), fits perfectly into the Wolfsonian’s mission: to showcase early 20th century experimentation and outlooks. The museum is also showing “Red and Black: Revolution in Soviet Propaganda Graphics,” which was culled from its own literary archives and explores how constructivism created modern design.
Along with these exhibits, the Wolfsonian has been showing Soviet-era films in conjunction with Miami Beach Cinematheque, called “Red, in Black and White.” Next up on July 8 will be the 1927 “Bed and Sofa,” which strangely enough was banned not in Russia but in the United States.
The posters, the books from the archives, and the films can seem like a retro flash to the past, but so much of what was created in those formative years are as contemporary as any other movements. Graphic design, and indeed propaganda, have not changed much, and maybe they were a little more artistically creative than today.
If You Go
WHAT: “Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters Between the World Wars.”
WHERE: Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
INFO: Through Aug. 12 (film series Sunday, July 8 and Saturday, Aug. 12, at 6:00 p.m.); www.wolfsonian.org.