Russian Revolutionary Posters
4 Feb 2020|Andrew Kahn
This blog is inspired by a recent donation of Russian Revolution posters by Bill Broadbent to St Edmund Hall.
An explosion of images accompanied the Russian Revolution. Posters were an important feature of the historical landscape: over 3,600 posters were designed and printed in millions of copies between 1918 and 1921, the period of Civil War when the Bolsheviks subdued counter-revolutionary insurgencies. During the Civil War, a period of economic devastation and destruction, somehow paper could be found for newspapers and for the lithographic production of posters. Artistic talent was mobilised from above to represent the Revolution unfolding in real time. Often highly stylized, posters were largely the work of trained poster artists and contain classics of early Soviet art. Boundaries between high art and mass-produced popular art, and art and propaganda, were fluid. The Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, an ardent supporter of the cause, oversaw teams of artists who created displays of posters in the shop windows of the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA). It has been argued that the political poster brought invention and imagination with the aim of appealing through the visual to the illiterate masses. Political posters had a pedagogic function in communicating a world view, sometimes with a practical purpose in mind. Poster artists strove to match images and social identities, as the historian Victoria Bonnell has shown in her book (Iconography of Power, 1997). They could also advertise recruitment to one side of the battle for or against the Bolshevik government.
The visual language of the posters has its origins in the lubok, cheap popular prints normally printed by woodblock as well as in the religious tradition of the icon. It has also been argued that British war posters exhibited in Petrograd in 1916 may have influenced drafting techniques Russian artists had recently developed. Adopting their techniques, poster artists emphasised outlined figures, sharply delineated visual symbols, sometimes with a verbal legend. Most artists used blaring, even shrill colours to create in-your-face pictures of the fight for justice and sacrifices made for a cause.
The posters that make up a generous gift to St Edmund Hall by our benefactor Mr Bill Broadbent are vivid examples of the genre. All in mint condition, their colours still unfaded, these posters carry a powerful charge. None could be more visceral than the poster with the heading 1917 October 1920 surmounting the unmistakable Red Army Soldier—very red indeed!—sallying forth from the bastion of the new state to kill off the dragon of counter-revolution. Texts could add to the visual rhetoric. The verses printed at the bottom (three quatrains in alternating rhyme) guide the viewer in reading the image: printed to commemorate the third anniversary of the Revolution), the poster and slogans congratulate the population (‘we shall never be slaves again’) and give keys to interpretation (the dragon is that of Imperialism smitten by the proletarian sword). Building the new state through lightning modernisation and industrialisation was a potent theme even as Civil War tore the country apart, and the second poster shows the Soviet (or All-Russian) proletariat uniting, men and women both, to forge a new reality. Printed to mark The First of May as a worker’s holiday, the poster gives the impression of ceaseless labour rather than rest, and flags everywhere in this landscape drenched in red mark the triumph of the workers’ state. Workers with hammers were standard figures (or tipazh). Both of these posters feature the Marxist exhortation: “Proletarians of All Countries Unite”. It was the job of Comintern, also known as the Third Communist International, to stir up global revolution in the aftermath of WWI and to advocate the federation of all communist parties, an aspiration vividly illustrated in the third poster and in English, Spanish, Italian, French, and German: “Welcome Third Communist International’ says the Red Flag.
These posters blare victory. Other images carried memories of struggle and losers. The third poster is more blatantly political and overtly on the side of the Bolsheviks. Nobody could mistake the picture of the Red cavalry officer charging ahead. ‘Join the Red Cavalry’, says the legend at the top in Ukrainian. The text at the bottom reinforces the recruitment message by listing the Ukrainian nationalists who fought against the Bolsheviks and names as an enemy at large General Wrangel, the commander of the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Southern Russia. The success of the Revolution was not a done deal, and the resistance of the peasantry proved to be a huge challenge to the Bolsheviks. Poster 5 menacingly urges the peasants to give up ownership of the land by forming collectives. The result of the policy of confiscation and nationalisation and resistance in the countryside was massive starvation. No image could be more haunting than the black and white drawing of a stricken peasant (Poster 6), something of an exception in a body of work that splashed the colour red very liberally. This is the work of Dmitry Moor (born Dmitry Orlov), a one-time law student who after the Revolution of 1905 set up a print shop only to find his work banned when censorship was imposed once again in 1907. After the Revolution he produced illustrations for Pravda and Izvestiia. His agitprop posters are full of Communist zeal and he became one of the most celebrated of Soviet poster artists famed as the creator of a number of classic works as well as a distinguished cartoonist. Moor worked for Litizdat, the publishing house founded by the Political Directorate of the Revolutionary Military Council. In the poster Help (1921), the one-word text provides the cry for help to this silent figure, a figure worthy of the work of the great German artist Kathe Köllwitz who may have influenced Moor. The peasant’s arms are raised either in surrender or in supplication. A single sheaf of wheat looks like a lightning bolt as it cuts through the skeletal figure of a figure blasted by famine and in urgent need of a political settlement.
All of these postures bear the traces of their historical moment, reflecting, sometimes vibrantly, sometimes starkly, a drive to seize meaning as an essential aspect of political culture. Their addition to the art collections of St Edmund Hall is an important donation to the teaching materials of a college with a strong interest in the history, politics, culture, and art of Russia and the USSR.