Chelsea’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery is currently showing a fantastic collection of 95 rare Soviet Constructivist film posters, circa 1920-33, and a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s influential “Monument for the Third International” (1920, reconstructed 1967).

These gems of early 20th C. graphic design were cutting edge for their time and they still look fantastic today. The visual imagination of the designers synched up quite well with the heady films during an era when the Soviet Union was still a major center of cinematic production and innovation.

Unknown Artist, poster for “Enthusiasm” (1931) (via

What you will see at the Shafrazi gallery is the power of the Soviet avant-garde. They are brash, colorful and filled with youthful energy. Unlike the European or American posters of the era, which grew out of the work of Jules Chéret, Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec in the 1890s and Art Nouveau, the Russians and Soviets were more influenced by book illustration and the Futurist Manifesto of 1909.

Poster art for the Soviets was considered an effective medium to broadcast the message of the revolutionary government. In their 1974 book, Revolutionary Soviet Film Posters, Mildred Constantine and Alan Fern observe:

Just as the Soviet Union had skipped over the various historical stages that might have been expected in its social structure, so the poster art which began to develop skipped over the succession of artistic styles found in western Europe. From having few posters, and not very interesting ones, the Soviet production became one of the most fascinating in the world.

Compared to the Hollywood posters of the same period, the Soviet works look like fine works of contemporary art. The work by masters of the medium, like the Stenberg Brothers, vibrate off the wall. Many of the posters on display are for foreign films, like American features with Buster Keaton, and all of them are easy to enjoy without having to be able to understand what they say in Cyrillic.

As an added bonus, the Shafrazi Gallery also has what is considered the most authentic model of Tatlin’s tower. A symbol of the inflated ambition of the Soviet Union, Tatlin’s plan was never realized because of the lack of funds, materials and leadership.

Looking back at these powerful works from an empire that no longer exists, you can’t but help but we aware that the promise of a thoroughly modern and visionary Soviet world was never realized. Soon after the period featured in this exhibition, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, adapted Social Realism as its dominant style and threw the experiments of their avant-garde into museums (or sold them to the West). Perhaps it’s reassuring to be reminded that the capitalist or democratic worlds don’t have a monopoly on falling short of their ideals and promise.

Model of Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument for the Third International” (1920/1967)

Revolutionary Film Posters: Aesthetic Experiments of Constructivist Russia, 1920-33 and Vladimir Tatlin: Project of the Monument for the Third International Soviet Congress continue at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery (544 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until July 30, 2011.

Homepage images is a detail of Leonid A. Voronov and Evstafiev’s poster for “October” (1927). (via

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

4 replies on “For the Love of Constructivist Russia”

  1. YAY! Did you see the unknown Suprematists paintings I posted a year or two ago?

    Great to see this stuff coming out man –

  2. Excellent review of an exciting show. Sadly, the title the gallery chose for this show is antiquated, culturally-imperialistic, offensive, misinformed, inadequate and incorrect.  It is interesting that the author of this review did not make the by-now-very-old mistake of using the term “Russia” when it should be “Soviet Union” or “USSR.”
    To use the term “Russia” in this context is antiquated because today, most academics, historians, cultural commentators, etc. no longer allow themselves to think in the narrow, simple-minded terms of the 19th century, “Great Stateism,” or worse, good old fashioned imperialism. The Soviet Union was much, much more than just “Russia” and even if Great Russian Chauvinists tried to appropriate or subordinate all non-Russian culture, happily they failed: the Soviet Union never managed to become a monolith and in the 1920’s it was anything but.
    To use the term “Russia” in this context is culturally-imperialistic because to use it either consciously or unwittingly, is to continue the program of appropriating, subordinating and even eliminating all non-Russian aspects of the Russian empires, Red, White or Putinesque.  All acts are political acts, whether acknowledged as such or not.  Using specific terms, such as “Russia” instead of “Soviet” will carry significantly different meanings to everyone other than lumpens.
    To use the term “Russia” in this context is offensive because all those Balts, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, Armenians, Poles, Finns, etc. almost always identified themselves by their ethnic roots and/or their at times, as heroic new Soviet revolutionaries.  Even the avant-garde that was actually ethnically Russian did not consider their comrades from the other Republics as “Russians.”  (Big clue:  Tatlin’s tower was NOT called “Project of the Monument for the Third International Russian Congress”).  To keep trying to deny the identity of these great, revolutionary artists and their art is crude and offensive.
    It is also misinformed, as a careful perusal of new and updated texts on this subject will reveal.  While the misuse of the “Russia” was still generally accepted by some of the better-known poplar writers on Soviet art and culture up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is no longer the case.  Everyone should use current sources, not just the old stuff from the late 60’s and 70’s.
    It is also inadequate because by pretending that the artistic expressions of the incredible period can somehow be understood or even framed within the narrow confines of “Russia” either culturally, historically or even geographically  misses so very, very much.
    And for all of the above reasons, to use the terms “Russia” instead of “the Soviet Union” or “the USSR” is simply incorrect.
    It behoves a gallery with the weight, seeming credibility, and resources such as the Tony Shafrazi Gallery to do the right thing and change the title of its excellent exhibition to something more correct, better informed, less offensive, culturally-imperialistic and antiquated.

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