Comrades in Art
The events of the 1917 Russian Revolution are pretty well known. The peasants overturned the government, deposed the royal family, and aspired to a utopia in which workers would get a fair share of the wealth. The revolution also launched constructivism, a relatively unknown modernist art movement that was radicalized and inspired by these ideals.
It was a time in which industry and machines were transforming Russian society, and the optimistic spirit emerging from this change inspired constructivists to create an art that matched. Part politics and part aesthetics, constructivism spurned art’s traditional concern with composition and favored an art that defined beauty by its materials and function instead. Constructivism’s influence can be seen across all mediums, but it was particularly apparent in design.
In the early 1920s, Russia was a rural, peasant country whose citizens were largely illiterate. In order to communicate its ideals to the broadest possible audience, the government needed a visual language. As the government of the people, it believed art and culture should serve its political needs, which meant it saw art as a vehicle that could spread its message. At the same time, film was becoming increasingly popular, and the government realized its potential as a propaganda tool. Progressive artists, still inspired by the era’s forward-thinking ideals, experimented to find novel ways to advertise films in order to deliver the government’s message to the broadest possible audience. Film posters were among the most arresting and ambitious works the constructivists made.
At the exhibit, students examine the posters on a tour led by curator Lehti Keelmann.
Photo by Natalie Condon
The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s collection includes 25 of the most iconic constructivist film posters thanks to a donation from the estate of James T. Van Loo (B.S.E. ’68). Van Loo’s estate also funded programs in both the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Physics, as well as programs to encourage interdisciplinary symposia, research, and teaching between mathematics, physics, and complex systems. A software engineer at both Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, Van Loo also had a lifelong interest in Russian modernists and Russian silent films.
“The film posters reflect the gumption of the early Soviet days, where artists felt freed to engage in experimental artistic practices and make fearless design choices,” explains Lehti Keelmann, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History of Art and a co-curator of UMMA’s exhibit, Soviet Constructivist Posters: Branding the New Order. “They were made for the masses and displayed on building facades and in shop windows. These posters evidence a decade of short-lived but explosive artistic freedom in the Soviet Union—a time of transformation and transition combined with daringness and daydreaming.
”Excited by film’s movement, designers used type, color blocks, and images to incorporate techniques they saw on-screen into their advertisements, such as dramatic close ups. In addition, constructivist designers pioneered photomontage, a process that involves cutting and reassembling photographs to make different images and create effects that recalled the process of editing film. They similarly juxtaposed images from still shots in film to create surprising new meanings and metaphors. “In finding novel ways to advertise films, these young artists created a new visual language," adds David Choberka, the Andrew W. Mellon Manager of Academic Outreach and Teaching and a lecturer in Germanic languages and literatures.
The movie posters in the exhibition helped to communicate the era's ideals to a largely illiterate populace in the Soviet Union's formative first decade.
Photo by Natalie Condon
The posters capture an important point in graphic design, and they also offer the chance to examine the physical remnants of an important historical moment. After taking his Stalin and Stalinism class to see the exhibit, Ronald Suny, William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History, observed, “The posters are sensational, so revealing of a particular moment in the history of the 20th century, a moment of utopian hope, of working collectively toward the future. My students really loved the exhibition because they received a visual representation of the Soviet Union, at least in its idealized images. One can only feel regret that the future proved to be far darker than the artists of that short period expected.”