Sunday 19 January 2014

Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen at London's GRAD

The Three Million Case, 1926, poster by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg,
 film directed by Aleksander Talanov
On Friday, I visited the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design (GRAD) in London's Little Portland Street. Stepping inside, I found myself in a world of striking, bold, colourful images from the 1920's as I viewed the 30 posters that constitute the current exhibition - Kino/ Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen.

Cinema was extremely popular in the Soviet Union during the 1920's. Lenin nationalised the film industry in 1919, saying "the art of film is for us the most important of all the arts" recognising the cultural and educational value of the medium and above all, its potential for propaganda purposes. An organisation called Sovkino was established to control the distribution of foreign films - included American films - with profits being used to subsidise local film production. This included films aimed at the non-Russian speaking populations in the eastern Soviet Union and the Caucasus.

Sovkino included a department called Reklam Film, responsible for the production of posters for both foreign and domestic films. Reklam was directed by designer Yakov Rukevsky who sought out and engaged several young artists to create pioneering designs, using strong colour blocking and experimenting with typography to communicate the message of each film. This contrasts with the films themselves which were of course silent and made in black and white.

This period of Soviet cinema which saw the production of classics such as Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and October and Vsevolod Pudovkin's The End of St. Petersburg also saw the development of techniques such as cinematic montage, repetition, asymmetric viewpoints and dramatic fore shortenings. These techniques were used in producing both the films and posters. The posters were designed for one use only and once the film had been shown, the vast majority were disposed of. Very few remain which makes the current exhibition all the more important.   

Knight's Move, 1924, poster by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg,
film directed by Raymond Bernard (France)
Outstanding amongst the designers of these works of art, were Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, sons of a Swedish painter who emigrated to Russia in 1896. Both studied decorative arts at the Stroganoff School from 1912-1917. During this time they also worked in the theatre and organised exhibitions. Influenced by the Futurist poets led by Vladimir Mayakovsky, they produced stencils for propaganda posters during the Civil War, including for the liquidation of illiteracy. Can't argue with that!

From 1918-1922 they worked closely with Aleksander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and the Working Group of Constructivists, further developing their style and carrying out experiments in the use of texture, surface and colour constructions. Throughout the 1920's they worked in theatre design as well as producing a huge body of work across many media from sculpture to architecture and from designing railway cars to women's shoes! However, their most significant achievements were in graphic design, especially film posters. Their wide knowledge of various media was drawn together in the production of about 300 posters, making use of vibrant colour, geometrical shapes and distorted portions and perspectives. Georgii died in a road accident in 1933, whilst Vladimir continued working until 1963 when his sight began to deteriorate.  

The exhibition includes the simultaneous screening of some of the most important films from the era, including Storm Over Asia, made in 1928 and set in Mongolia ten years earlier. It tells the story of a young Mongolian cheated out of a valuable fox fur by a nasty European capitalist. Our hero goes on to joint the Soviet partisans, helping them to force the occupying British troops out of Mongolia. Note the historical inaccuracy - the British were never in Mongolia. Of course, accuracy and propaganda do not necessarily go together and it is interesting that several films were set in Soviet Asia as a way of indoctrinating the local population to the Bolshevik world view. You can watch the whole two hours and five minutes of it, complete with English captions, here. Another example of this genre is Turksib. Made in 1929 and directed by Viktor Turin, it celebrates the construction of the Turkestan-Siberia railway. The poster which was designed by the Stenberg brothers is featured in the exhibition.

Turksib, 1929, poster by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg,
fim directed by Viktor Turin
Heroes of the Blast Furnace, 1928, poster by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg,
film directed by Evgenii Ivanov-Barkov
The importance of labour and the duty for all to contribute to the economy was a key theme of Soviet cinema. The exhibition includes a number of posters from this genre, including the Stenberg's poster for the prosaically named Heroes of the Blast Furnace. Made in 1928, the film was based on a novel by Nikolai Liashko which revolves around the lives and loves of steelworkers. yes, even here there was space for a spot of romance, as long as it was in the cause of glorifying socialist labour. I have to say, the dramatic images of the Stenberg's poster and the shifty eyed "baddie" in the corner would certainly have persuaded me to purchase a ticket!

Similarly, Mikhail Dlugach's poster for Cement, with its silhouetted figure, eerie red face and dramatic staircase immediately grabs our attention and no doubt helped win audiences for another movie in an industrial setting. Dlugach was born in Kiev and studied at the local art school between 1905 and 1917. He joined Reklam Film in 1924, going on to become a member of the Association of Revolutionary Artists, designing pavilions for exhibitions as well as propaganda posters during the Second World War. In 1958 he was involved in producing the Soviet pavilion at the Brussels International Exhibition. He lived to the age of 95 - surviving many changes in the Soviet Union including the many vicious purges of the Stalinist period.

Cement, 1927, poster by Mikhail Dlugach,
film directed by Vladimir Vilner
2014 has been designated UK/ Russia year of culture. This exhibition is one of the first events in the year long festival. If the rest of the programme meets this standard, it will be a year to remember. Host gallery, GRAD is gaining a reputation for high quality exhibitions - including the recent show of Soviet era travel posters. Londoners are extremely lucky to have small galleries such as GRAD and my favourite, Ben Uri so easily accessible to them. The posters in the current exhibition are the property of Antikbar, dealers in antique posters. Their website is a show in itself!

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