A stack of stamped and aged parcels sits in a Plexiglas case towards the midway point of the expansive “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945.” Sent by the U.S.S.R. Society of Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries to the Art Institute and other institutions in non-Communist countries in the 1940s, the parcels contained 157-stenciled posters made by the TASS media studio in Moscow, meant to gain support for the Soviet war effort and influence an alliance.
Likely disregarded at the time as a populist, “lesser” art form, the posters were stashed away for decades until museum renovations in 1997 revealed the surprise acquisitions deep in a storage closet in the Department of Prints and Drawings. The Art Institute’s posters, now fully restored, join TASS pieces from other collections contextualizing the historical moment. Ben Shahn’s lithograph This is Nazi Brutality and Thomas Hart Benton’s monumental painting Exterminate! from the “Year of Peril” series, align the TASS studio’s work with what some of America’s artists were making at the same time.
Pavel Petrovich Sokolov-Skalya (Russian, 1889–1961), Nikolai Ernestovich Radlov (Russian, 1889–1942). Fascist Reports, August 17, 1942. Multicolor brush stencil on newsprint (pieced), laid down on tan Korean lining paper. 1772 x 870 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. RX21447/0409.
A crimson wall, maps, and an enlarged Margaret Bourke-White photo of the TASS press studio in production begin the poster exhibit that is almost as much about text as it is about image. There are English translations for Cyrillic poster text and poems, detailed explanations of iconography and caricatures, chronological historical notes, airy curatorial themes like “art as a weapon,” and the occasional quote about war or art floating near the ceiling. The posters were meant as persuasive mass media during wartime, combining language, design and image directed at an audience’s hearts and minds. So for someone with no knowledge of Slavic languages in the 21st century, much of this text makes the propagandistic messages more clear.
Made on cheap newsprint, the posters were conceptualized, designed, stenciled, assembled and distributed by groups of artists. The exhibit describes the stenciling process, and includes a recreation of a TASS design on video, showing a cutting and color-layering process that is much more intricate than a Banksy.
El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge from 1920 serves as a stylistic bracket, reminding us of the bold diagonals and geometric abstraction of the Russian avant-garde. Believing too much abstraction was for the bourgeoisie elite, TASS studio chose a more illustrative technique producing scenes of black comedy and later social realism for the eyes of Soviet citizens.
Often divided into multiple cells with text underneath, many of the TASS posters include political cartoons and allegories that involve hyperbolic, sadistic images of violence. German stereotypes and idealized Soviet figures are rampant throughout.
Pavel Petrovich Sokolov-Skalya, Russian, 1899–1961. Wolf the Moralist, July 19, 1943. Multicolor brush stencil on newsprint (pieces), laid down on tan Korean lining paper. 2375 x 830 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. RX21447/0415.
Nazis are portrayed as gorilla-like monsters, often in the act of murdering women and children, and a spindly Hitler appears repeatedly in many forms—a wolf, a vulture, a tiger, a skeleton, and various monsters. With his characteristic moustache, he’s shown reveling in his kingdom of death and destruction, or being captured and killed in impossible, bizarre ways. One TASS poster shows Hitler as a viper patterned with swastikas, coiled around a map, another shows him as an animal caught in a saw-toothed trap marked with the allies’ flags.
Up to three meters in height, the TASS agit-prop beacons used poetry, news updates, and heroic moments in Soviet history, in addition to political satire. In 1945, the news was victory, and several posters show fireworks over Red Square and beaming lights over Moscow, New York and London. As the graphic dissemination of information was less vital postwar, the TASS studio was closed in 1946, and the brief American-Soviet camaraderie was quickly forgotten in the Cold War.
Visually and emotionally exhausting, this maze of posters should be seen and appreciated as a major piece of English-language scholarship on the subject of propaganda art in the Soviet Union as it is still being historicized. The acquisition story alone is worth the price of admission. Who knows what else could turn up stuffed in a closet at the Art Institute?
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer