There's something stark about Soviet design and propaganda art. The harsh lines. Limited colors. Lenin lurking ominously in the background. There's also something very intriguing in it. Those same harsh lines speak of a reality that I have no experience in. They draw me in to a world that still exists, just in a different fashion. Sure the fall of the U.S.S.R in 1989-90 put an end to a lot of the feelings that Westerners had about the Russian motherland but a lot of the harsh lines in those posters from the late 1910's to early 1970's still hold significance.
I'm a big fan of Wassily Kandinsky and his geometric style of modern art. My favorite Kandinksy work is his Yellow – red – blue (1925) that ultimately broke with the constructivism and suprematism that came to be the hallmark of Soviet propaganda posters, showcasing freedom from organization and order. It was his own way of rebelling against the revolution occurring around him in his homeland, shortly before moving to Germany and then Paris.
My first formal introduction to Soviet propaganda art was at London's Tate Modern where in the late 2000's they had an exhibit featuring great examples from that era. I was blown away by the intricacy of these pieces that were meant to inform, and ultimately model, a new society. Constructivism pushed using art for social purposes, a natural extension after the Russian revolution and the forming of the Soviet persona under Lenin. Art as a way to serve the political and cultural means of a country sounds completely counterintuitive to the art I think of now, which seems to be more countercultural than ever, pushing boundaries and holding governments to accountability.
One of my favorite examples is 1925's "Nowhere else but Mosselprom." It's almost an exercise in branding for a communist department store. Part of the appeal is the Russian alphabet and the otherworldly nature that it gives the composition. It's almost what you're used to, but not quite. I think this went a long way in shaping how Americans saw Russians. We didn't understand the letters in their language, immediately throwing their culture into a far off category.
The arrows point to the building in way that signifies 'this is the only place a true Russian would shop.' It's a powerful symbol. Also, notice the utilitarian design of the building, stark and made for a purpose that could easily change to a defensive stronghold at any moment. The use of red in the propaganda posters also made them stand out. The black and white backgrounds that usually accompanied the red accents played into the juxtaposition of the pieces. These weren't merely artworks, but advertisements from the government, not far off from a tweet from the White House today.
Feminism in Soviet Design and Art
One thing that struck me was the inclusion of women in Soviet art. For a movement that was marked by macho-male figures, and still is to an extent, the female population was readily included in the worker's movement. In 1926's "Liberated woman – build up socialism!" you see a very strong portrayal of a female worker that contributed to society in the factories and fields alongside the men. This piece also highlights the use of red for declaring a message and black and white for the scene. The poster leaves what the women is holding in her hands a mystery. Is it a gun, broom or tool? That's up to the viewer, leaving room for any woman to see herself as part of the worker's movement.
For its part that it played in shaping how the common person saw the communist Soviet movement, it has to be hailed as one of the greatest ad campaigns ever executed. It rallied people behind a common cause and belief and allowed the government to use graphical representations to push its message. If that's not modern marketing, I'm not sure what is.
You can read more about Soviet design and propaganda art here.