Heroic workers, godlike leaders and red flags are the images that come to mind when people think of Soviet art. “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941–45” challenges such traditional notions. Its 250 works include many examples of Socialist Realism, alongside vintage posters from the U.S., Britain and Germany. But few of the TASS Studio’s 155 posters, designed during World War II, fully conform to popular preconceptions of Soviet propaganda. Many reflect diverse artistic styles and contain elements of humor and literary wit that were rare in Stalinist Russia.
The TASS Studio began in Moscow as a grassroots collaboration between artists and writers to support the war effort but was soon subsumed by the Soviet news agency, TASS. From 1941–45, the studio produced more than 1,500 posters for display in the USSR and abroad.
Poets, authors and editors played an important role in the posters’ conception. Many Soviet literary stars contributed poetic verses to the posters—some of which reference classic works of Russian literature—instead of simple slogans like “Loose lips sink ships.” (“Windows on the War” translates the posters’ text into English, but the literal interpretations fall flat for Anglophone readers.)
In Our One-Thousandth Blow (pictured, 1944), writer Vasili Ivanovich Lebedev-Kumach conjures the spirit of the Revolutionary poet Vladimir Maiakovskii, inciting his fellow writers and artists to “inflict a blow against the enemy” through “verse and prose, drawings and vibrant posters.” Artists Nikolai Fedorovich Denisovsky and Pavel Petrovich Sokolov-Skalya’s caricature of Hitler is attacked by a giant pen and pencil as well as bayonets. The poster recalls a political cartoon rather than heroic Socialist Realism, but it’s enlarged to monumental proportions and brought to life in vivid color.
The colors’ intensity is partly due to the stenciling process, which grew out of the Russian Revolution’s broadsheet tradition. Instead of printing the posters, TASS copied them using hand-cut stencils and hand-painted them onto sheets of paper. A TASS Studio assembly line could produce each poster design in runs of 100 or more. The resulting images are more painterly than machine-printed posters, with richly layered colors and textures. During a recent interview, exhibition cocurator Jill Bugajski, a research associate in the museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings, told me this “blurring of genres between poster design and painting” is the most interesting aspect of the exhibition.
Cocurator Peter Zegers explains that the posters also retained their rich colors because they haven’t been publicly displayed until now. In the 1940s, when the Art Institute was one of several foreign institutions to receive TASS posters, museum staff shelved them—and forgot about them for 50 years, until the Department of Prints and Drawings rediscovered them in 1997. Since then, conservators have painstakingly restored each work, as Zegers and Bugajski reconstructed its history.
The result of their scholarship is a comprehensive—at times overwhelming—survey of an extraordinary and little-known period in Soviet art history. Moving through the last few galleries of this monumental show, I began to feel “museum fatigue.” “Windows on the War” would have benefited from some strategic editing of repetitive examples. Despite that, this multilayered exhibition is still a must-see for those who appreciate graphic design, military history or Russian literature.