See the words ‘USSR’ and ‘propaganda poster’ and you tend
to conjure up images of industrialisation and Stalinist insignia. The posters and prints in this exhibition, however, which inaugurates a new gallery dedicated to Russian culture, tell a completely different story.
Stemming from the 1930s, when they were commissioned by Intourist, the Soviet body responsible for promoting foreign tourism, the images present a vision of life under communism that was deliberately tailored to sympathetic Western intellectuals. Here is a world of culture and music festivals. Some of the themes are decidedly bourgeois – from skiing and game-hunting in the snowy wilds, to scenes of cruise ships, health resorts and palm-fringed beaches that seem more evocative of the French Riviera than Mother Russia.
The style of the posters was also determined by their Western market. While a few early works consciously refer to the revolutionary designs of constructivism and suprematism, most have a sophisticated, art deco-influenced look, full of bold shapes and burnished colours. Only by the tail-end of the 1930s did travel magazines such as Soviet Land switch to more programmatic, socialist realist depictions, where heroic labour and youthful athleticism was the order of the day.
A small, fascinating section of printed shawls and other textiles embodies a different face of propaganda, one intended for Soviet citizens. Here, the themes are more familiar – industrial and military might and the cult of Lenin and Stalin. What the exhibition reveals, though, is how neither of these two propaganda traditions, domestic or foreign, was necessarily the more honest depiction of Soviet reality.
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A nostalgic collection of posters from the Soviet 30's. A juxtaposition of two perspectives - the internal view of the USSR of workers, red stars and Stalin overlooking his people and the external, an idealised construction for the West of boating, hunting and other leisurely activities. The exhibition is yet another window into USSR life as it was, and continues to fascinate with it's, dare I say, beautifully artistic propaganda.