Soviet Film Posters of the 1920s Exhibition

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We have been really excited about the UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014 which will see a host of fantastic events going on throughout the year in the UK and Russia. One of the events on our must see list is the  KINO/FILM: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen currently showing at the Gallery For Russian Art and Design (GRAD).

Stenberg-Brothers-The-screw-from-another-machine-1926-Courtesy-Gallery-for-Russian-Arts-and-Design-and-AntikBarSoviet Film Posters of the 1920s Exhibition

 (left) Stenberg Brothers, The Screw from Another Machine, 1926.
(right) Aleksandr Naumov, Oil, 1927.
Images courtesy GRAD Gallery for Russian Arts and Design and AntikBar

Golden Era of Soviet Posters

The 1920s in the Soviet Union saw the emergence of bold, striking and creatively designed posters to promote the burgeoning silent movie industry. The period came to be seen as the “Golden Era of Soviet Posters” when avant garde artists were brought in, who saw fine art as bourgeois and without utility, to create what some have described as some of the most imaginative and startling films posters of all time and recognised as an important modern movement in the arts.

You have to remember that this was a time not long after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when ideas mattered, were important even dangerous. Ideas expressed in art were elevated from something remote and intangible to having the power to shape minds and society. In 1919 Lenin famously declared ‘“Of all arts, for us cinema is the most important.”

Movies in the early 1920s were seen as a perfect vehicle to disseminate information, educate or indoctrinate the illiterate masses. Movies and posters it was hoped could subscribe to being an art form and part of a culture designed for the people with huge sums of money spent on the cause by official Soviet patronage.

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(left) Nikolai Prusakov, The Second Exhibition of Film Posters, 1926
(right) Stenberg Brothers, Three Million Case, 1926
Images courtesy GRAD Gallery for Russian Arts and Design and AntikBar

The radical and experimental Soviet film posters were seen to complement the silent movies they would promote allowing artists great creative freedom. It was within a broader context of major shifts and change for graphic artists in Europe.

Isabel Stevens in the latest edition of Sight and Sound points out how Dziga Vetov‘s (the Soviet pioneering documentary film, newsreel director and cinema theorist) comment that “cinema must break out of the theatre and enter the arena of life” became a reality. ‘In the 1920s Russian designers revolutionised the art of the film poster, bringing new techniques and a dizzying dynamism to the form,’  said Stevens.

The Stenberg Brothers & Constructivism

Two of the most dynamic of the new posters artists were the Stenberg brothers Vladimir and George. The brothers were born in Moscow to a Swedish father and Russian mother and would remain Swedish citizens until 1933. Their work was based around Constructivist principles of which they were among the founders and which fuelled their creative method.  Constructivism was an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia beginning in 1919, which was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art with the movement in favour of art as a practice for social purposes.

The Stenberg brothers were prolific producers with their hands in a number of spheres of artistic activities from theatre design to architecture and had design commissions from everything from railway cars to women’s shoes. But it was really in the area of graphic design and specifically poster design that they were really lauded. The brothers had an evident love of the moving image and would go on to produce around an estimated 300 – 700 designs before George’s car crash in 1933.

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(left) Stenberg Brothers, October, a film by Sergey Eisenstein, 1927
(right) Stenberg Brothers, Sporting Fever, 1928
Images courtesy GRAD Gallery for Russian Arts and Design and AntikBar

Of course although the Stenbergs were among the most innovative and versatile posters artists working for the Soviet Cinema in the 1920s they were just part of numerous avant garde creatives in Moscow at the time. This included Alexander Rodchenko who although ultimately only created a handful of posters was seen as a founder and key member of Constructivism.

The current GRAD exhibition provides a timely opportunity to enjoy some wonderfully creative, playful, visually exciting and thought provoking Soviet Film posters which are undoubtedly works of art in their own right. To accompany the exhibition GRAD will host screenings to showcase the innovative techniques employed by the poster artists and film-makers of this era. Excerpts of seminal films, among them October, The End of St Petersburg and Storm Over Asia, will highlight the symbiotic relationship between the pioneering vision of directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin and the output of the poster artists engaged to promote them. Techniques such as cinematic montage, repetition, asymmetric viewpoints and dramatic foreshortenings were used in the creation of both the films and the posters, leading to the appearance of a distinctive and highly influential body of design. Mass produced during the 1920s, the posters were made for one use only and few originals survive.

Soviet Film Posters of the 1920s Exhibition

Stenberg Brothers, Death Loop, 1929
Image courtesy GRAD Gallery for Russian Arts and Design and AntikBar

Brave New World

The timely aspect partly, arguably, revolves around a more immediate association of the more overtly political propaganda that clouds our consciousness of poster designs from Russia when Stalin and co decided that socialist realism was the way forward and it all started to look and feel distinctly authoritarian.

But what the exhibition brings home was that there was a period after the Russian Revolution in the 1920s when movies, film posters and advertising, although still propaganda and political, were elevated to a noble cause, the art that the Stenbergs, Rodchenko et al produced was preoccupied with the creation and potential of a new Soviet Society and in doing so questioned the role of art in society and the role of an artist in society. Their work would be much copied, inspire and be influential to modern art movements of the 20th century.

KINO/FILM: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen exhibition is on till 29th March 2014 at the Gallery for Russian Art and Design (GRAD)

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