Mention Soviet posters and your mind will immediately conjure up images of hammers and sickles, workers struggling and the rising sun of the revolution. But posters can have different aims and objectives and, while some may be interpreted as symbolic representations of power and visual propaganda, others may also be employed to understand the evolution of certain images over time and the developments in fields such as culture, graphic design and technology. An exhibition currently on at the GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design tries to do that through the graphic art of Soviet film posters.
Entitled "Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen", the event is organised in collaboration with Antikbar and is co-curated by Elena Sudakova, Director of GRAD, and film critic and art historian Lutz Becker.
Soviet cinema lived its golden age between 1924, with the release of Lev Kuleshov's The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West, and the early '30s with films such as Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth, considered by critics as the last great Soviet film.
"Kino/Film" includes over 30 works by Aleksandr Rodchenko, the brothers Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, Yakov Ruklevsky, Aleksandr Naumov, Mikhail Dlugach and Nikolai Prusakov, with excerpts of famous films - such as Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), Aleksandrov and Eisenstein's October (1928), Pudovkin and Doller's The End of St Petersburg (1927), Pudovkin's Storm Over Asia (1928), and Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera (1929; famous for being known as "an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events, executed without the aid of intertitles, without a script, without theatre, without sets and actors") - projected across surfaces in the gallery to provide links for the visitors between innovative techniques employed on the big screen (montage, repetition and asymmetric viewpoints) and in graphic design. While the films were in black and white the posters advertising them featured indeed bold and bright colours, and dynamic typographical elements.
"Kino/Film" is a also good opportunity to rediscover that generation of directors - Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin included - who, in the early 1920s, a period of artistic ferments and cultural cross-fertilisation in Russia, committed themselves to a new art form and were keen to experiment and innovate.
What kind of selection criteria did you follow to pick the posters for this exhibition?
Elena Sudakova: We selected our material based on the visual parallels we wanted to draw between poster design and film-making of this era. Rather than starting with one piece, we began with a group of works which changed as the concept became clearer, and then we added the film clips into the mix.
Like in other countries, early cinema in Russia was considered as a novelty, a form of entertainment. Yet some of the scripts provided by Russian filmmakers were theatrical when it came to the plot and quite modern when it came to the narrative structure - think for example about Aelita. Would you say that the early Russian films were quite innovative compared to those of other countries?
Elena Sudakova: Yes, the Russian film-makers brought many innovations: from their use of montage to the way in which they challenged narrative structure; from their employment of untrained actors to their inventive use of the camera equipment itself.
In some cases, early films seemed to reunite different prominent artists who worked on the posters but on the costumes as well (the Stenberg Brothers for example), was this a unique characteristic of the Soviet film industry?
Elena Sudakova: This is not something that was happening among the artists involved in the GRAD exhibition. The Stenberg Brothers have a brief history designing costumes for some theatre productions, but not for the films whose posters they produced.
Which posters display more connections with Constructivism, Malevich's Suprematism, and the avant-garde? Which posters tackle instead the Soviet mystique of the machine considered as a way out of poverty and backwardness?
Elena Sudakova: Many of the poster artists studied at the VKhUTEMAS (from 1927 onwards named VKhUTEIN), one of the most important art schools in the USSR. This was the Russian equivalent of the Bauhaus, where they were taught by all the greats of the avant-garde. Naturally they were influenced by the philosophy of these movements, as well as by their visual representation. The Stenbergs produced a Constructivist manifesto, while Prusakov created an abstract, clearly Suprematist-inspired advertisement for the Second Film Poster Exhibition of 1926.
Does the exhibition explore also the way the government subsidised films and how the Party Conference on Cinema (1928) eventually turned cinema into an effective political weapon?
Elena Sudakova: The presence of posters in the exhibition produced to advertise foreign productions show how these were used to subsidise domestic industry. GRAD is producing a catalogue of the exhibition that will contain a scholarly essay tackling the political background more fully.
As art curators and experts on Russian art, what fascinates you about Soviet film posters in general?
Elena Sudakova: I find it fascinating how the artistic milieu of this period in the Soviet Union was so extremely interdisciplinary, and wanted to put together an exhibition focusing on both films and posters and their relationship. Many of the artists who created these posters also had a background in architecture, stage design or photography. There was a great creative effervescence and no medium was seen as too small or unimportant: art was moving away from the easel and into everyday life. This led to many talented young artists trying their hand at poster design and creating a whole new visual vocabulary based on the innovative on-screen techniques used by directors such as Eisenstein or Vertov. The designers eschewed Hollywood-style glamour featuring romantic narrative images for bold new designs using cinematic montage, repetition, asymmetric viewpoints, dramatic foreshortenings and bold colours. These factors led to the distinctive and highly influential style of Soviet film posters.
Contemporary graphic designers are rediscovering promotional posters of Soviet films, what do you think attracts them - their colours, typographic styles, photomontages, verticality, distorted images or avant-garde/Constructivist images?
Elena Sudakova: Avant-garde design and film making from this period have been highly influential for many generations of artists outside Russia, and they continue to be an inspiration. Both introduced montage as a new form of art and influenced such legendary figures as Hitchcock and Greenaway. The dynamism of the images and the juxtaposition of unexpected elements make these posters much fresher and more exciting than most film advertising today.
While working on an exhibitions curators often discover things they didn't know about certain artists or works, did you find out new elements on the cinematic techniques employed by early film makers?
Elena Sudakova: We learned much about the techniques used to produce the posters. Although many of the images themselves seem almost photographic, the printing techniques in the Soviet Union were not advanced enough at the time to use photographic stills on a large scale. The artists had to draw the posters by hand on the lithographic stone, and the Stenbergs used a make-shift projector to trace the photographic stills onto the lay-out. Changing the distance between projector and wall altered the image size, but more importantly, changing the angle of the projection produced effective distortions and alterations of perspectives. These processes helped to create their striking and pioneering designs.
Which posters among the ones that will be exhibited is the most popular one and which is the rarest or less known?
Elena Sudakova: The print runs for these adverts were often as high as 20,000 copies, however very few are still in existence today. The Stenbergs’ monumental poster for Eisenstein's October for instance, was made of nine segments pasted together into the final composition. We will be showing a rare single segment in the exhibition; the remaining parts are lost, presumed destroyed. The only known complete version is held in the collection of the Russian State Library.
Which is your favourite Soviet film poster and film and why?
Elena Sudakova: Of course some of the posters represent great masterpieces of cinema history, such as Battleship Potemkin, but others advertise more obscure productions. The Three Million Case for instance was a Soviet comedy based on popular American slapstick movies. Although the film itself has little artistic value, the poster design is extremely striking, with the heroine’s oversized head looming above two vignettes in which another characters scales a building, with disorienting effects. It speaks volumes about how talented these artists were that they had the ability to turn even average material into great design.
Will visitors be able to see clips of films during the exhibition?
Elena Sudakova: Yes, there will be montaged film sequences playing in the exhibition. The clips chosen are those from films advertised in the posters on display, in order to highlight the visual language shared by the two media.
"Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen", GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, London, until 29th March 2014
Image credits for this post
All images courtesy GRAD Gallery for Russian Arts and Design and AntikBar.
Stenberg Brothers, Three Million Case, 1926.
Stenberg Brothers, A Perfect Gentleman, 1928.
Stenberg Brothers, October, a film by Sergey Eisenstein, 1927.
Stenberg Brothers, The Screw from Another Machine, 1926.
Aleksandr Naumov, Oil, 1927.
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