A number of factors led to the collapse of the Soviet system 20 years ago. Artistic issues certainly weren’t the weightiest of them. But the disconnect between revolutionary political content and conservative aesthetic form did reflect some of the larger contradictions within the Communist project.
A new show at the Fleming Museum hints at how Soviet propaganda posters mirrored the gap between an ideology of emancipation and a reality of oppression. “Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons” only skims this theme, however. Organized by the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University, the exhibit is much more concerned with making a contrarian — and intriguing — argument for the artistic merits of Socialist realism.
Almost all of the 70 or so pieces on display project the visual appeal that comes with bright colors (mostly reds), bold figures (buff proles, porky capitalists) and immediately recognizable settings (city streets, factories, battlefields). And a few of the posters, especially those combining photocollages with hand-drawn images, do support the organizers’ claim that Soviet political art of the 1920s occasionally made subtle use of European modernist techniques.
The influence of constructivism, a geometric but representational style that arose with the Russian Revolution, can be seen in the agitated color contrasts of Dmitri Moor (1883-1946). Constructivism is also combined with Russian folk-art traditions in the lubki (cartoon-like prints) that were displayed in shop windows during the early years of the Soviet era. In this initial section of “Views and Re-Views,” the medium can seem nearly as exciting as the message: The day of liberation and social justice has arrived!
An introductory text panel acknowledges that Soviet posters typically presented crude dualisms. Bad guys (the United States, Nazi Germany, the priests and aristocrats of czarist Russia) are depicted as snarling beasts, while good guys (hyperproductive workers, Red Army soldiers, Comrade Stalin) smile reassuringly and strike inspirational poses. The organizers also relay the standard rationale for this good-versus-evil mindset. The Soviet Union was surrounded by enemies, they note, and simple stories had to be told to rally a largely uneducated populace to the Communist cause.
There’s an admission, too, that such an insistence on dividing the world into heroes and villains was prone to sudden, startling shifts. Yesterday’s icons could become tomorrow’s archenemies; old antagonists might morph into new allies.
Not nearly enough emphasis is placed on these troubling tendencies, however. That weakness may be due in part to the content of the private collection from which the show was assembled. It spans the years from 1920 to roughly 1980, but perhaps the anonymous source collected no examples of the nonconformist art that a few brave bohemians created in the decades following Stalin’s death in 1953. Instead, the show’s final section presents more of the same heavy-handed, one-dimensional work. For example, there’s Victor Koretsky’s (1908-1998) 1971 poster — “Get him out of Vietnam!” — that shows Uncle Sam as a rabid ferret being clubbed on the head with a rifle butt.
The organizers could have pointed out in text panels that Stalin crushed the spirit of artistic freedom and experimentation with his 1932 decree forbidding abstract, erotic and expressionist works. That’s what accounts for the lockstep Socialist realism style that dominates the show. That’s why the promise of constructivism gave way to mindless visual sloganeering. No “decadent bourgeois art” here!
Much more could have been said in particular about the sadly instructive case of Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938). A leading member of the constructivist avant-garde, he helped adapt to the Soviet context the photomontage technique developed by the Dadaists, and he worked in the ’20s as a professor of color theory at a progressive Moscow art school. He was also an associate of such artistic innovators as the painter/sculptor Alexander Rodchenko and the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The show includes one of Klutsis’ works from the 1920s in which photomontage is used inventively as a narrative device to celebrate Soviet achievements.
It appears, however, that by then Klutsis was well on his way to becoming a party hack. In one supersized poster from 1929, he arranges photos of happy workers and children so they peer upward in admiration at a striding, waving Stalin.
Allegiance to the cult of the great man didn’t prevent Klutsis from being executed a few years later, at the party’s order, for alleged involvement with a nationalist organization in his native Latvia.
Klutsis’ wife, Valentina Kulagina (1902-1987), meanwhile, stars in the section of the show on women artists. She, too, was a leading practitioner of photomontage, as seen in a poster that includes a shot of a revolutionary who’s been shot dead on a Moscow street. It’s strikingly similar to the famous image of a female Kent State University student genuflecting in despair alongside a Vietnam War protestor killed on the Ohio campus by National Guard troops 50 years later.
The organizers of “Views and Re-Views” pause to point out that some initial progress toward equal treatment of women did occur in the Soviet Union. The Marxist commitment to women’s rights collided, however, with Russia’s entrenched culture of male supremacy, notes a panel accompanying Kulagina’s work. In addition, the text observes, class always trumped gender in the Communists’ order of priorities.
Too bad the show doesn’t pay as much attention to some of the other contradictions inherent in Soviet art and society.