A hearty welcome to all readers of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently! I’m happy to contribute with this particular topic, one that’s interested me for quite some time. Feel free to leave comments–I love comments like Mary Pickford loved posing in quaint photos with puppies (very much).
If you like movie posters as much as I do, you’re probably familiar with some of the more iconic ones: Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, etc. Many of these feature basic, accessible artwork: Rhett and Scarlett, sci-fi heroes in heroic poses, a shark’s jagged mouth.
But if you go back back to the poster art of the silent era, a surprise awaits you. While looking at the carefully painted and posed images of Chaplin, Gish, and other familiars, you’ll suddenly stumble across an entire world of sharp, bold, imaginative images. Bright blocks of color and slashing diagonals grab your attention. Figures half-realistic and half-graphic wheel amid daring compositions.
These are film posters from the 1920s Soviet Union, and they’re probably the finest and most unique film posters ever made. Dare I say that they were…revolutionary (pardon my bourgeois humor).
How did this unique style start? And why did it come from the Soviet Union, specifically? Let’s do one of my most favorite things and start exploring…
A Bit Of Historical Background
During the Russian Civil War of 1917-1921, poster art became a powerful tool for spreading communist government propaganda. Strong, modern, eye-catching graphics and slogans soon became the style. They were plastered throughout cities and sent to the frontlines in droves. Posters were so effective that there were even some made to “summarize” the latest news, in place of tabloids (as was done by the Russian Telegraph Agency in Moscow).
Once the miserable war ended, leaving behind disease, famine, a collapsed economy and widespread disillusionment (believe it or not), Vladimir Lenin decided to throw his citizens a bone by introducing just enough capitalism to help the economy get going again, while still leaving major things like transport firmly in the hands of the state.
Thanks to this touch of freedom, Russia experienced its own version of the Roaring Twenties. The economy improved. Artistic experimentation became common, with Constructivism becoming the dominant art form.
Speaking of which, let’s examine…
Constructivism (It Sounds Stuffier Than It Is)
This new art movement started in the 1910s but became huge in Russia during the ’20s, influencing everything from theater sets to fashion. It oh-so-modernly experimented with angles, geometry, photomontage, and “industrial” looks, These soon filtered their way into poster designs, not just for blatant propaganda but also ads for everyday things like beer, food, accessories and more. Instead of being one of those art movements largely confined to small circles of manifesto-typing artists, Constructivism became a part of Soviet life, encouraged by the government for “bringing art to the masses.”
And there’s one more thing that had a heavy dose of Constructivist art…
Awesome Soviet Film Posters
Film became massively popular in Russia in the 1920s. Soviet leaders approved of this since it only took about 2.5 seconds for them to realize what a great propaganda tool it could be. Starting in 1923, foreign movies (which were often bootlegged) became especially popular. Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were beloved by Russian filmgoers–the most popular of them all reportedly being Buster Keaton!
These foreign films made their way to Russia via distributor Sovkino–naturally controlled by the state. The advertising department of Sovkino, Reklam Film, was responsible for designing and distributing film posters throughout Russia. Eye-popping film posters.
Headed by graphic designer Yakov Ruklevsky, Reklam Film used the latest avant-garde and Constructionist techniques to create exceptional art. Photomontage was key in playing with the combination of realism and the abstract. Talented artists were recruited to be a part of the Reklam team, including the Stenberg brothers, who created some of the finest images.
1925-30 was the heyday of these designs. Although thousands of film posters were distributed throughout the Soviet Union, relatively few of these have survived the wear and tear of the following decades, making them difficult (and darn expensive) to collect.
But by the early ’30s, the golden age of Soviet film poster was coming to an end.
So What Happened?
The Soviet Union leaders were always more comfortable with art when it could serve as propaganda. “Free expression” didn’t exist under the Soviet regime, and even the formerly government-approved style of Contructivism was getting too far from the party line. Not to mention the misgivings about people’s enthusiasm for American cinema.
Throughout the ’20s more and more Soviet films were made until they succeeded in crowding out foreign films all together. And in 1934, Stalin made Socialist realism the official art style of Soviet culture. Anything experimental, religious, abstract, impressionistic, etc. was forbidden, and artists who refused to comply were punished. You started to see a lot of poster art like this one featuring Stalin, getting less experimental in style:
Or this one, extolling the virtues of collective farming (communists were all about the collective farming):
By the ’50s, the official propaganda art had turned into beautifully painted crud like this:
I adore realistic art, but using it like this…болезненный! (Painful!)
And thus the heyday of Soviet poster art was relatively brief. But, much like other silent era innovations like German Expressionism, it’s left behind an influential legacy. Today, exhibitions, books and reproductions continue to circulate the surviving examples of this bizarre, energetic and fearless style (as well as to enhance an occasional dorm room wall).
And it seems to inspire graphic design even today. Check out the fun trend of “Modern Vintage Movie Posters”–more than a little indebted to Constructivism if you ask me!
But even though they may be imitated, the original Soviet posters will probably never be matched for sheer skill and imagination. And whatever the modern trend may be, in my opinion they will always be timelessly cool.
Kenez, Peter. Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
Pack, Susan. “Film Posters of the Russian Avant-garde.” 1995. http://tomlundquist.us/Packtxt.htm