“I want the pen to be on par with the bayonet, ” wrote Soviet poet, Vladimir Maiakovskii. During the Second World War, Soviet troops were not only found on the battlefield. Hundreds of artists joined their comrades in defense of the Motherland by producing propaganda posters nearly every day of the war from 1941 – 1946 for TASS, the Soviet Union’s press agency.
“Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945,” on exhibition through this weekend at the Art Institute of Chicago, features a collection of the rare surviving posters which have not been seen in the United States since the war. The posters offer a fascinating vantage into the artistic, cultural, and historical perspective of the Soviet Union from the early stages of World War II through “Victory!”
“You don’t even need to read the captions,” commented my Russian colleague as we traversed time through the images, taking me much longer as I read each translation. “The posters speak for themselves.” Indeed, the images of starving Soviet children, villagers locked alive in a burning church, Stalingrad under siege, caricatures of Nazi scoundrels, and stalwart Mother Russia beckoning aid express so much without understanding their Cyrillic script. The posters employ a range of styles to achieve their message from folkloric tradition, through graphic satire, Socialist realism, historical idealization, and the grotesque. Speaking loudly, vibrantly, they convey the same ideals in so many different ways.
Pavel Petrovich Sokolov-Skalia. Untitled, 1943.
Stalin and representatives from an array of the Soviet Union’s ethnicies unite gazing westward under the banner of the Communist Youth Organization in an example of Socialist realism.
At first glance, one would hardly notice that each large, vivid artwork is a series of stenciled images painted entirely by hand on newsprint. This method took the skill of a team of artists, cutters, painters, trimmers, and technicians to produce the posters on a massive scale, but bypassed the need for machinery during the limitations of the war. With each color in the poster’s design requiring a different stencil, the most intricate designs demanded up to 70 different stencils. These commanding artworks stood between five and ten feet tall in Soviet storefront windows providing inspiration, incitement, and darkly comic relief to its citizens.
Artist Alexis Petroff was contracted to painstakingly reproduce the cutting, stenciling, and painting of the 30 layers required to create The Moralistic Wolf. The intricate process is documented in the short film by The Art Institute below.
Pavel Petrovich Sokolov-Skalia. Defenders of Moscow, 1941.
Portraying the air raids on Moscow, this poster is the largest in the exhibition comprised of 17 panels and standing 11 feet tall. The last panel reads, “With valor and courage the entire nation greets each hostile air raid.”
The themes expressed in the propaganda afford a fascinating view of how the Soviets viewed themselves, the enemy, and the fate of the world at this critical time in history. The Motherland, the heroic past, the idealized leadership, cultural legacy, and partisan patriotism are expectedly featured extensively. The many satirical incarnations of Hitler and the Axis are insightful and entertaining, with simultaneous portrayals of the disturbing and preposterous. As writer Vladimir Kemenov said, “The moment the foe becomes ridiculous he ceases to be terrifying.”
Deeply interesting is the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States as depicted in the posters. Initially, the US is seen as a greedy, capitalist state in comparison to the hardworking and righteous Soviets. Yet the artwork eventually celebrates the alliance of the USSR, United States, and Great Britain to a degree which I hadn’t previously seen. My Russian friend was also surprised by the unbridled acclamation of the Allies’ role: “That was no longer in the history books by the time I went to school.”
Nikolai Fedorovich Denisovskii. Victory!, May 12, 1945.
“May this day remain through the ages a union of friendship, glory, and valor! The Fascist beast is forever turned to ash. Victory has come! And in her hands the flags of the free peoples proudly wave. The world has never seen such victories. Honor to our heroes! Greetings to our Allies!”
While made of stencils and paint, the 250 posters of Windows on the War offer a rich and provocative glimpse into the Soviet perspective during World War II. While only a small collection of the posters, produced with cheap and accessible wartime supplies, has survived, several were actually discovered stuffed into a closet at The Art Institute in 1997. Back on display as intended, their intricate detailing and coloration, their expression, have not faded with time. The work of these wartime artists is a tangible reminder of the debt of gratitude owed to history’s soldiers, both brush and bayonet, and the incomparable power of art.