Constructivism on Display, Part One

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

The Years of Lenin

The word “Constructivism” was a Russian word that came from multiple sources in Russia and spread to Western Europe very quickly, as soon as the Civil War ended in 1921. In fact, the slogan of the 1920 Dada Fair in Berlin was “Art is Dead: Long Live Tatlin’s New machine art.” That same year, the term “Constructivism” was in circulation at the Düsseldorf Congress in May, where it signified a Bauhaus approach of using new construction materials rather than using conventional means of building and the Dada interpretation of anti-art or anti-traditional art. Constructivism in Russia, however, had an institutional home the job of which was to take the word from a name and an idea and to make the construction of a new art form a Soviet reality. That goal fell to the Vkhutemas, a new art school in Moscow, which sought to apply Constructivism to the Revolution and its needs. It was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) himself who established the Vkhutemas institution in 1920 and gave it his qualified blessing by visiting the classrooms in 1921. Fairly or not, the Vkhutemas, an acronym for the Higher Art and Technical Studios, is often compared to the Bauhaus in that it combined industry and design and art under one roof. Like the Bauhaus, the school was the result of a merger between two pre-existing institutions, the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts, but unlike the Bauhaus which was a very small school, the Moscow college had 2500 students compared to the 200 annual enrollment at Dessau. Like the Bauhaus, the faculty was distinguished, with artist Aleksandra Ekser teaching “color in space,” Alexander Rodchenko was in charge of construction, while Nadezhda Udaltsova presided over “volume in space.” Most famously, it was Varvara Stepanova who was in charge of the textile department. It was Stepanova, who stated the goal of her department and of the entire school succinctly as being “devising methods for a conscious awareness of the demands imposed on us by new social conditions.” However, Lenin was disturbed by the lingering presence of Futurism and Suprematism, evidence of a past era still present among the students and faculty. Seeking to reassure Lenin about the Vkhutemas, theorist Aleksei Gan (1893-1942) wrote Constructivism in 1922 a year after Lenin’s visit, stating that “Our Constructivism has declared unconditional war on art, for the means and qualities of art are not able to systematize the feelings of a revolutionary environment.” As the leading theorist and agitator, Gan was responsible for the phrases that would be linked to the post-revolution Constructivist movement and its anti-art stance. “Art is dead!” he insisted, “There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique, and organization!”

The Revolution in politics had acted like an earthquake on Russia, transforming the nation, and for a time, the new Soviet Union was a very good place to be an artist or a designer or an architect. For a few years, one could dream; one could create a new world; one had the freedom to create new objects for new purposes. In 1928, an American, Alfred Barr (1902-1981), active in the nascent New York art world, decided to visit Moscow to witness the new movement of Constructivism, where all disciplines intersected, giving birth to new forms. Upon his return, Barr, who would become the first director of the new Museum of Modern Art, wrote, “We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.”

To that end, Aleksei Gan set up the First Working Group of Constructivists, also known as “artists-engineers,” turning theory into application. In response to the need to honor Lenin, in Saint Petersburg—Petrograd–the Constructivist artist, Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) built the Monument to the Third International in 1919, a model for a structure that was never built. With his Constructivist experiments, Tatlin himself was the source of inspiration at At 1300 feet, the Monument, which was to have been the tallest structure in the world, was often on display, becoming the image of all that the Revolution aspired to. But this monument, like the unfinished project of the avant-garde in Russia, was never built and remains an unrealized requiem for unfinished dreams. In point of fact, while Western scholars toil to reconstruct the lost years of the avant-garde after the Russian Revolution, the present-day Russians themselves have a complex and ambiguous relationship with the past. The Russian schools hardly touch upon the Great War, now considered an imperial conflict best forgotten. Even in the centenary of the October Revolution of 1917, there is a gap between the sanctity Lenin and a respect for those years when he was in charge. This conceptual gap seems to be caused by the long reign of Stalin, during which he crushed the hopes and dreams of ardent believers in a social revolution during decades of terror. While evoking the memory of Lenin, Stalin wiped out evidence of his accomplishments, suppressing or killing the artists and architects he had promoted or supported along with unrelated political dissidents. Only recently have there been cautious and reluctant gestures towards what remains of avant-garde architecture still extant in Moscow and other Russian cities. These efforts, however tentative, are significant because little of the important movement of Constructivism remains today. Black and white photographs stand in for objects now lost and ideas never realized. Models of proposals exist but many plans remain on paper, preserving a poignant record of an artistic desire to change society. When one moves beyond the photographs and drawings and asks the pointed question—what has survived? Unfamiliar names emerge, standing alongside that of the leading Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin. One could argue that it was Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974), who left the most extensive record of the Constructivist and architectural avant-garde behind in a scattering of remarkable buildings still standing, and in the memory of his grand prize at the Paris Exposition of industrial design in 1925, won for the Soviet Pavilion. Like many of the Russian Constructivist movement, the architect Melnikov taught at the Vkhutemas school, but by 1925, he had separated himself from the institution. His desire to combine his dedication to the Revolution with his assertion that the individual should also assert him or herself in works of art led Melnikov to start the New Academy at the school as a separate program but he was marginalized when his department was absorbed into the Academic workshop.

In 1925, artists, Rodchenko, Tatlin, filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, and architect Konstantin Melnikov came together to display the Constructivist philosophy and practice at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1925. Now an independent artist, Melnikov became the architect for the Soviet Pavilion in Paris. It was here, at the heart of an Exposition that would later be thought of as the home of a new decorative movement, Art Deco, that Constructivism was manifested for the world in terms of a building, a workers’ club and a symbol of the Revolution. If the Constructivists had introduced themselves in the New Russia Exhibition in Berlin, their philosophy of new architecture was viewed and experienced by the thousands who attended the Fair, most of whom were seeing the Russian Revolution in action for the first time, alive and well at Melnikov’s remarkable Soviet Pavilion. The Pavilion itself was one of the first manifestations of what would be a short experiment in avant-garde radical architecture. Once Stalin was firmly established in power, those days of optimism came to an end to be quickly replaced with a very different vision of the task of architects. Writing in 1932, when Russia was in the grip of totalitarianism, Hans Schmidt explained in “The Soviet Union and Modern Architecture” what had happened after the Soviet Pavilion had won acclaim:

Unlike their Western colleagues, the Russian architects had no opportunity to acquire new skills by dealing with the problem of the working class dwelling or the middle-class house. The victory of the October Revolution brought to the forefront a number of young architects who identified with the aims of the Revolution. Taking up the cudgel in the fight with the older generation of architects, they apparently were bringing about the triumph of modern architecture. At a time when relatively very little construction could actually be realized in the Soviet Union, this young and technically inexperienced generation devoted all its energies to utopian projects, in many cases outstripping the real situation of revolutionary development by decades.

As shall be discussed in the next post, the Soviet Pavilion was a triumph of a “utopian project” build to display the designs of a new generation for their nation. But Melnikov’s was a fleeting moment and, in a very few years after the Paris Exposition, the plans for an avant-garde architecture would be halted. As Schmidt noted,

This defeat was rendered even more poignant in a situation which manifested itself by revealing an important difference between the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. In the West, the principles of free competition apply up to a certain point even in the field of the arts. In Soviet Russia, however, all ideas are expected to be subordinate to and integrated into the mainstream of the Revolution. As things stand now, modern architecture has gambled away its chance, at least for the time being. Even the broad masses and youth have joined the ranks of the general opposition. What is even worse, though, is the fact that the modern movement in architecture has presently run into a closed ideological front ranged against it.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Propaganda and Art After the Russian Revolution, Part One

The Russian Avant-Garde and Agit-Prop Posters

Out of “Art” and into the Revolution

In 1917, the Russian Empire, assaulted from within and without, finally crumbled under its own anachronistic weight, bending under the burden of the unheard demands of a people under the fashionable heel of an aristocratic boot. The Russian Revolution was a long process, unfolding during a years-long Civil War between the Reds and the Whites, ending with the Bolsheviks in charge and the Czar and his family gunned down in a basement and buried in a secret grave in Siberia. What the Communist regime, headed by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), inherited was a vast sprawling nation, nearly completely landlocked, weakened by a negligent monarchy, torn apart by the Great War and a revolutionary struggle. Having laid waste to centuries of autocratic rule, the people, led by a band of exiled intellectuals, who had come home to lead them, inherited their Slavic patch of the earth and gazed across the razed plain that had to be reconstructed from destruction. By 1918, artists and peasants alike had the opportunity—rare in history—to build a brave new world, one in which there would be economic and social equality. But there was a catch: the population of Russia was uneducated and illiterate. The proletarian masses and the huddled peasants knew they were downtrodden but, even after the new government came into power, outside of Moscow and Leningrad, there were millions, who had no idea that the Czar had been assassinated. Starting with that basic fact—the sheer ignorance of a blighted citizenry—and proceed with the hope and the resolve to help the people of Russia to rise from their knees and actualize themselves under the banner of communism then the question turned back upon Lenin’s seminal manifesto of Bolshevik philosophy: “What is to be Done?” The answer to the post-war challenge was contained within the 1902 document—the newly released Russians, the Soviets, would be re-educated. The Bolsheviks considered propaganda to be political education work, which involved agit-prop that would teach the people socialism. In his section on “Can A Newspaper Be A Collective Organiser?” in his long essay, Lenin wrote that

..the masses will never learn to conduct the political struggle until we help to train leaders for this struggle, both from among the enlightened workers and from among the intellectuals. Such leaders can acquire training solely by systematically evaluating all the everyday aspects of our political life, all attempts at protest and struggle on the part of the various classes and on various grounds. Therefore, to talk of “rearing political organisations” and at the same time to contrast the “paper work” of a political newspaper to “live political work in the localities” is plainly ridiculous.

Propaganda or the education of an entire population was both visual and verbal, and visual culture was the realm of the artists, who marshaled their considerable talents and skills and gave themselves over the government. Art was dead. The artist was dead. In the place of such bourgeoisie concepts, the engineer emerged full of projects and pictures and objects, all aimed towards propaganda. By the end of the Great War, an otherwise neutral word, “propaganda,” meaning persuasion or a spreading of a certain message, had morphed from a doctrinaire teaching of a received truth, such as that from a religious organization, or, on a lower level, the semiotics of selling a product, to a campaign to teach the audience to hate. During the War, vast and sophisticated machineries, based in the governments of the contending powers, cranked out posters, articles in newspapers, books, primitive films, even postcards, shaped stories and crafted messages with one goal in mind: to stir up the feelings and emotions of the people to hate the other side. In England, a nation without a universal draft, the messages were ones of shaming fit young men into serving in the military. In France, the content was simple, the Germans were barbarians. In Germany, the story was that the British Empire surrounded the world like a giant octopus. However, when the exiled leaders of the Russian Revolution returned to their homeland, joining those who had stayed behind to fight directly against the Czar, a sophisticated machinery had been honed through years. Aided by intellectuals and abetted by artists, all of whom came from the small middle class, the fight for the hearts and minds of the lower classes began.

The earliest posters were plastered onto the windows of the Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, located in cities from Moscow to Petrograd to Odessa and points beyond. ROSTA had its own Moscow-based art department until 1921 and its posters were the joint products of an artist, Mikhail Cheremnykh, and a journalist Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), who directed a project that eventually employed local teams beyond Moscow. Given that this endeavor existed for only two years and yet over two million posters were distributed. Although the founders of the program were sophisticated, the audience was working class and largely illiterate. To reach this audience, which needed to be informed of the latest news, the ROSTA artists appropriated the look of a lubok or traditional Russian folk art print was deployed. Avant-garde artists, such as Ivan Maliutin, were recruited to communicate with a public that had a horizon of expectations limited by a low level of literacy and a visual acuity trained by Russian icons. The Russian people could read images fluently and the simple narrative style of the ROSTA posters—rather like cartoon drawings—could be easily followed. The Bolsheviks needed to convince the people of the righteousness of their philosophy, one of empowering the working class, de-legitimating the ruling class, and establishing a centrally controlled economy valorizing the laborers. ROSTA text was kept to a minimum and the weight of the message rested upon simple but graphically effective images.

Vladimir Mayakovsky. Sowing Campaign: Let’s fulfill the decree!
“Everyone fulfilled the Soviet plan” (February 1921)

In an interesting article, written on the occasion of a 2014 exhibition at the Gallery Thomas Flor in Berlin, Alexander Roob, explained,

In February 1919, the painter and caricaturist Mikhail Cheremnykh in collaboration the journalist Nikolai Ivanov started an artistic campaign in the shop window of an empty confectionery with a visually designed news agency report. The campaign was to last three years, from the devastating period of the civil war to the introduction of a rudimentary market economy. The initiative was taken up a few weeks later by the popular revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had recently caused a stir with the publication of an anthology of his futuristic poems and the performance of an elaborate satire spectacle, the “Mystery Bouffe”. When passing by one of Cheremnykh’s ROSTA windows, it seemed he immediately grasped the potential of the initiative. If one can believe his own accounts and those of his hagiographer, Mayakovsky soon functioned alongside Cheremnykh as the spiritus rector of a constantly growing illustrated news collective.

These posters told stories, sent messages, taught lessons with images that would have been at home in a child’s picture book. The colors were bright and arbitrary, applied by assistants who would work from a basic linoleum block, allowing the strong colors to run outside the lines. The result was an image that was friendly and persuasive, sophisticated and amateurish at the same time, with the folkish charm selling strong political messages. In 1921, ROSTA was abruptly shut down by the new government, and its windows were closed so to speak, and the large brilliant posters disappeared. But the way in which the agency was run would be typical of propaganda efforts: workers would be radicalized or co-opted to the cause and there could be no deviation from the party line. The concise and consistent message would dominate and it was the task of the artist to become an engineer in the service of the permanent revolution.

Agit Prop Train

Following the civil war and the consolidation of power, the Communists then set out to transform and unify the vast Russian territories to knit them under the Soviet rule and way of life. The railroads, the one accomplishment of the Czarist regime became avenues of education as the new government reached out to the masses. Long agitprop trains, painted on the exterior with colorful designs that captured the eye and informed the mind traveled everywhere, pausing at towns and small cities. The populations would gather around to receive information, written, verbal and visual, on topics from best practices in health and the values of Communism. The workers, the peasants and the downtrodden learned that they were now heroes, enlisted in the great revolution of the Russian people, now powerful and in charge of their own lives. The visuals of these agitprop trains were closer to ROSTA posters than to the avant-garde posters of the cities, where the audience was more sophisticated. In the 1920s, there was still no set aesthetic for the Revolution and the avant-garde artists moved into the vacuum and gave their lives to Communism. But the story of the Russian avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia is nothing short of tragic. The artists, mostly from Moscow and Petrograd, had been politically left-leaning before the Revolution and most enthusiastically joined the new government with high hopes and good intentions. They willingly gave up the pretensions of “avant-garde” and happily become workers, engineers, and cultural producers, reinventing themselves in the cause of the workers and in the name of the Bolshevik creeds. For a few short years, these artists flourished and were appreciated, supported by the young government, but a revolution never stops, it is only paused from time to time. By the time it reached its natural end—the evolution of a strong totalitarian leader—Stalin—avant-garde art and artists were purged and silenced. Russian avant-garde graphic design and its fate were a case study of the trajectory from aspiration to suppression.

Mikhail Dlugach, Electric Chair (1928)

Containing the stylistic seeds of their own destruction, the avant-garde posters designed by the Russian avant-garde artists were everything the ROSTA posters were not. Rooted in Suprematism and Cubism and Futurism, rather than in folk art, borrowing the tactics of photomontage rather than simple block printing, these posters were complex, not simple, and often constructed on the strong diagonal, giving the images a feeling of dynamism and a sense of change and progress, they were more artistic than communicative, with an alienating aesthetic that put off the masses at which they were aimed. The artists did not help their cause by debating among themselves about which avant-garde style would be appropriate for the masses. Given that Futurism, for example, was Italian rather than home grown, the use of pre-war styles seems out of step with the main goal of the artists, which was to create a new visual universe, full of new objects, in which a new language would appear and communicate the meaning of the brave new world. The new language would be that of the proletariat. But despite the obvious complications, the artists proceeded along their own path to what historians John E. Bowlt and Olga Matich described as “the leftist artists and writers snarled relationship to power and language as the media of political control.” Indeed, as the writers continued, “the avant-garde artist can be seen as the politician’s rival who usually loses the battle to the more powerful opponent.” It is possible to make the argument that the Russian avant-garde ended for all intents and purposes with the end of the Great War, and, after that, the artists carried their memories and their styles from non-revolutionary bourgeois contexts forward with them into a revolution for which this language was profoundly unsuited. Yet out of this ultimately unsuccessful relationship came some of the most striking designs of the twentieth century.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part Three

Creating a Language for the Revolution

The ROSTA Windows

In 1917, Russia was a nation no longer a nation, but an empire unraveling, torn between a weak provisional government and rear guard resistance of the so-called “White Russians.” The Russian Empire collapsed under the unbearable weight of an un winnable war, resulting in a wholesale refusal to carry on under the weak and ineffectual Czar. This was the February Revolution, which, according to the new calendar happened in March, and it was a simple and spontaneous strike, a rejection of not just an unwanted war but also a failed ruler. Despite the will of the people who wanted to extricate themselves from the Great War, the Provisional government continued to participate, leaving the door open to continuing discontent and further rebellion. Even though the Czar abdicated, no doubt hoping for a peaceful retirement, another coup took place in October Revolution (November). The arrival of the “Reds,” or the Communists, under Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) pushed the temporary regime aside and established a new kind of revolution, the first Marxist government, led by the Bolshevik Party. Once Lenin had negotiated a withdrawal from the War–at great cost to Russia–making peace with Germany, a five year struggle for the soul of the new nation began with the Whites. This fight was waged militarily and politically, but Lenin, recognizing the power of the visual image, called upon artists to join the conflict as part of the propaganda effort to educate the Russian people on the merits of Communism.

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Comrade Lenin is Sweeping Scum off the Earth

At the time of the Revolution, “Russia” consisted of a few cities, located mostly in its western half. it was here in the municipalities and the urban centers, that culture, both high and low, was produced, mostly for a literate population. However, the new Soviet Union was a huge and vast expanse of land and forty five percent of its inhabitants were illiterate. The stupefying fact that half the people could neither read nor write was an outgrowth of an elitist system in which the upper classes spoke French and the vernacular Russian speakers, the middle classes, strove to produce a specifically “Russian” culture with Russian roots and history. Adding to that division between classes was the total neglect of the lower classes who were left to fend for themselves and remain uneducated. Under the autocratic and ruthless rule of the Czar, the illiteracy hardly mattered, but when the Bolsheviks came into power, they had to fight a civil war to consolidate that power. Part of the war, beyond actual fighting, involved convincing people–all the people–of the benefits of a revolution that promised the level the class system, eliminate all traces of elitism and former loci of collusion, including religion, and to redistribute the wealth and property of the aristocracy. It would be less a matter of convincing the people that this revolution would be preferable to the Czar and more a commitment to informing the people as to the progress of the Reds in their battle against the Whites.

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ROSTA poster

The solution was straightforward propaganda, an information campaign that would announce the new government and explain its new benefits for all. Lenin expressed the scope and urgency of the task, published in the Bulletin of the All-Russia Conference of Political Education Workers in 1920:

The transition from bourgeois society to the policy of the proletariat is a very difficult one, all the more so for the bourgeoisie incessantly slandering us through its entire apparatus of propaganda and agitation. It bends every effort to play down an even more important mission of the dictatorship of the proletariat, its educational mission, which is particularly important in Russia, where the proletariat constitutes a minority of the population. Yet in Russia this mission must be given priority, for we must prepare the masses to build up socialism. The dictatorship of the proletariat would have been out of the question if, in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, the proletariat had not developed a keen class-consciousness, strict discipline and profound devotion, in other words, all the qualities required to assure the proletariat’s complete victory over its old enemy.

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ROSTA poster

During the Great War, mostly due to German misinformation, the word “propaganda,” once a neutral and positive word, gained a negative connotation by the 1920s, but never in Russia. The Soviets used propaganda during the entire life of the Union as a vital tool to control public opinion. As soon as Lenin became the leader a broad strategy emerged called “agitatsiya-propaganda,” or political agitation and propaganda, or “agit-prop.” Agit-prop was dedicated to raising the consciousness of the people, in the Marxist sense, to inform the people of their exploitation at the hands of their masters so that their eyes would be open to the truth of their oppressed condition. In his book, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, José Alaniz noted that the earliest example of Civil War art was a series twelve posters showing the workers’ consciousnesses being “raised” when the peasant is freed from his blindfold and “sees the truth.” Alaniz described one poster, Once Upon a Time There Lived the Bourgeoisie, as resembling a comic strip with eight panels, a format that would become familiar to the public as a progression from one cell to the next. Once the readers understood that the Bolsheviks were their benefactors, the powers that had set the peasants free, the lower classes could be joined in solidarity against the enemy, whether the Whites or an outside threat. To achieve the proper level of communication and education and consciousness raising, agit-prop was deployed as theater, as trains, as posters, as art forms of all kinds form verbal to visual. The agit-prop efforts were especially intense during the war between the Whites and the Reds, from 1917 to 1922, when the activities were less controlled by the government and more in the hands of the artists themselves. After the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, the agit-prop activities were formalized and brought under the command of the victorious regime.

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ROSTA poster

From the very beginning of the propaganda campaigns, the question of the language of art came up in the form of a dialogue of sorts between artists and officials. Most avant-garde artists were enthusiastic supporters of the Marxist cause and worked hard to ensure the success of the new government, but their efforts did not always please the new masters. Artists and politicians are very different kinds of individuals with entirely distinct educational and cultural experiences. Artists such as Marc Chagall in Vitebsk celebrated the October revolution with his own fantastical version of traditional Russian luboks and Jewish imagery, but the authorities were not pleased with the green cows and blue donkeys, improbably flying through the air. The problem for the artists would be two fold: first, as in the case of Chagall, his or her imagination and singular perspective could interfere with what the government needed: a clear message to the people. Second, as in the case of Malevich, art that was too intellectually “advanced” or “avant-garde” was equally incapable of being recognized by the illiterate public as “art,” much less as communication. The artists were deeply sincere, willing to lay down their art in the service of the revolution, but they were also equally committed to their art and the logical outcomes of avant-garde art. This aesthetic outcome, as demonstrated by Malevich’s abstract Suprematism and Tatlin’s spectacular but unbuildable “monuments,” was not very useful to the government and its needs. As Raphael Sassower and Louis Cicotello pointed out in their 2006 book, Political Blind Spots: Reading the Ideology of Images,

..the avant-garde style of geometric abstraction typical to the experimental art of the pre-Revolutionary aesthetics..began to arouse objection from supporters of traditional representation imagery in both the artistic and government circles. Art historians associated with the government publication of posters for the military argued for realistic rather than abstract work. Workers, soldiers, and peasants drawn in squares, circles, and triangles were senseless images that couldn’t express the integrity of the revolution..Public decorations in the avant-garde manner, often referred to by Pravda reviewers as “the fashionable futurist style,” met with opposition as being incomprehensible and condemned as a mockery of the taste of the working class.

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ROSTA poster

The most successful art form dedicated to the Revolution was the production of ROSTA posters, an outpouring of artistic enterprise that cranked out thousands of lithographs. Only a few of these posters survive today but they are the best examples of art made on the fly, responding to the urgent need of the Revolution to communicate with the people. The English writer Arthur Ransome had traveled through Czarist Russia in 1913, acquainting himself with the culture, learning the language and collecting Russian folk tales. The publication of Old Peter’s Russian Tales, (1916) took place during the War and, in fact, Ransome spent the four years in Moscow, reporting on the war. After the Great War, Ransome’s long stay in St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, and Moscow was considered valuable to his newspaper, the Daily News, and he began reporting on the Revolution. His book Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 ccontained an account of his encounter with agit prop. Ransome noticed that posters were everywhere:

When I crossed the Russian front in October, 1919, the first thing I noticed in peasants’ cottages, in the villages, in the little town where I took the railway to Moscow, in every railway station along the line, was the elaborate pictorial propaganda concerned with the war. There were posters showing Denizen standing straddle over Russia’s coal, while the factory chimneys were smokeless and the engines idle in the yards, with the simplest wording to show why it was necessary to beat Denizen in order to get coal; there were posters illustrating the treatment of the peasants by the Whites; posters against desertion, posters illustrating the Russian struggle against the rest of the world, showing a workman, a peasant, a sailor and a soldier fighting in self-defence against an enormous Capitalistic Hydra. There were also-and this I took as a sign of what might be-posters encouraging the sowing of corn, and posters explaining in simple pictures improved methods of agriculture. Our own recruiting propaganda during the war, good as that was, was never developed to such a point of excellence, and knowing the general slowness with which the Russian centre reacts on its periphery, I was amazed not only at the actual posters, but at their efficient distribution thus far from Moscow.

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ROSTA poster

ROSTA stands for Russian Telegraph Agency (Rossiiskoe Telegrafnoe Aganstvo, or ROSTA) which was an organization that transmitted messages and the news across the nation. These agencies had windows which would be plastered with posters, changing hour by hour, “broadcasting,” as it were, accounts of the most recent events and the need to get medical vaccines and bulletins about the Civil War. The idea of the ROSTA windows being the ground for posters has been attributed to Mikhail Mikhailovich Cheremnykh (1890-1962), who created the first poster filled window. The images needed text and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), a revered poet, supplied the slogans and phrases needed to inform the public in a succinct and direct form. As Mayakovsky said, “A machine like speed was demanded of us; it would often happen that a report of some victory at the front would come in by telegraph–and 40 minutes to an hour later, the news would be hanging out in the street, in the form of a colorful poster.”

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

The posters were a collaborate production and most of the artists, such as N. Treschenko, O. Savostyuk and B. Uspensky, labored unknown or unsung, working under difficult conditions, using stencils and linotype to facilitate the speed of output to capture up to date news. These posters were widely distributed, flowing far beyond Moscow to the provinces, where there would be plastered in the windows of the local Telegraph Agency. The massive numbers and expansive distribution of these perishable art forms should be contrasted with the work of artists in Moscow, where photomontages by Alexandre Rodchenko and posters by El Lissitzky tended to remain in more or less elitist circles. The ROSTA posters were kin to the propaganda deployed during the Great War and cousins to the peasant art form , the lubok, but it is important to note that these posters were far less complex and were far more eloquent in their new stripped down easily readable language. According to Alexander Roob, writing in 2914 for the Melton Prior Institute,

The project was support with great effort by Platon Kerzhentsev, the new director of ROSTA. Kerzhentsev was one of the driving forces of the avant-garde Proletkult organization, whose aim was to establish an autonomous working-class culture leaving all traditional, bourgeois genres behind. The revolutionizing of expression, which Proletkult had hitherto sought mainly in the field of literature and theatre, could now be applied under the aegis of Mayakovsky to the area of graphic picture publishing as well. Mayakovsky selected the ROSTA news items and prepared them along with other poets and journalists for pictorial realisation.

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ROSTA posters

Robb noted that “the pictorial sign system” that was developed to reach the “mostly illiterate population” had to be “consistent.” He stated that “The grammar of pictograms established by the ROSTA collective over time is a novelty in the history of illustration. it had a decisive impact on the development of infographics.” Surprisingly, the ROSTA windows (Okna ROSTA) were filled with posters that were designed by artists educated in the most elite and avant-garde of circles and they combined the lubok with Futurism and Cubism with touches of Suprematism that laced these twentieth century comic strips with Western style. The accomplishment of these artists is that the texts engaged the reader in a dialogue that ran parallel to the attention grabbing bright colors and strong shapes. In fact the images in the posters were considered ideograms or hieroglyphs, picture writing accompanied with reinforcing texts that gave instructions on how to survive in terrible times. The posters told entertaining and sometimes horrible stories containing information with entertainment and were among the best examples of art being put into “production,’ in other words, art taken out of the artist studio, out of the galleries and out of the museums and placed in the middle of life itself, an ongoing historical situation that was changing by the hour.

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Exhibition of ROSTA posters

Mayakovsky stated, “Art must not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere–on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops and in workers’ homes.” Instead of heavy handed critique, satire from artists Victor Deni, was used to discredit the Whites and those who disagreed with Communism. The major achievement of the ROSTA posters was that of creating an efficient sign language, uniquely suited to the pouchier style of drawing and print production. Rushed from town to village by rail, the poster artists devised but a visual and verbal language which was able to communicate effectively with peasants without patronizing them. The tradition of the ROSTA posters came to an end with the Civil War and, under Stalin, this very bold and efficient mode of communication fell by the wayside to make way for a more traditionally illustrative tradition coupled with simple slogans. But in their day, the importance of the ROSTA posters and the vital role they played during the war is reflected in the warning: Anyone who tears down or covers up this poster – is committing a counter-revolutionary act

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Dmity Moor. Have You Enlisted In the Army?

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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