Propaganda posters are a fascinating genre in their own right. Early Soviet posters are graphically compelling, and among my favorite works of art. It is a topic to come back to on a later date. But let me just touch on it for the moment in response to readers who emailed to comment on the reproductions in the previous post.
The earliest, ranging from 1918 to 1929, were heady with exhilaration for the fledgling workers’ state, and the aspirations of Bolshevik internationalism. The monarchy had been toppled, tsarist Russia disintegrated, and the air was thick with revolutionary fervor. It is palpable in the posters of that first decade.
Soviet art began to flourish on posters in the months following the revolution. Initially, the Soviet agencies relied on publishing proclamations. Illustrations accompanied some of them, but there was little worth remembering. Midway through 1918, things began to change. The Red Army, founded by Leon Trotsky in April of that year, became a generous patron of graphic artists. Some of the finest work of that first decade was ordered by the military and dealt with military themes. Social motifs, such as literacy and health care, carried the same militant charge.
[It] had a seething mass basis and a perspective of world revolution; it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fiber, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick.
The poster was an ideal medium for reaching a population that was largely illiterate and suffering the after shocks of civil war. Few could read; paper and printing presses was in short supply. Posters were vivid, inspirational, the graphics fully intelligible apart from text.
Soviet art degenerated during the rise of Stalinism into the stock commonplaces of socialist realism. But that early generation of poster art remains stirring apart from politics. It radiates a certain martial beauty, estimable as art no less than as historical record.