“The mobilization of art for revolutionary aims is a defining feature of communism,” writes Mary Ginsberg in the introduction to Communist Posters, out next month from Reaktion Books with distribution by the University of Chicago Press. The former British Museum curator adds that these posters “have served as vehicles of persuasion, instruction, damnation, and social discourse in every communist nation.”
While there have certainly been enough communist art publications to fill a small library, from Fuel’s recent book on Soviet anti-alcohol posters, to photographer Stefano Cerio’s monograph of off-season Chinese amusement parks, Ginsberg states that this is the “first survey across the history and diversity of communist poster art.” The posters of the People’s Republic of China, with their bright-eyed workers and Mao’s ubiquitous face, are the most familiar (and account for all the images provided for this post). Communist Posters also examines the graphic design of the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Mongolia, and communist countries in Eastern Europe through over 300 illustrations. Each section has an in-depth essay by Ginsberg and other authors on the artistic inspirations, policies, and politics that guided these distinct propaganda poster legacies.
Of course, propaganda art is far from confined to communist revolutions; see, for instance, the broadsides of the American Revolution. Yet as international influences combined with traditional visual expression, and 20th-century printing technology allowed for mass-produced lithographs, these nations’ outputs represent the height of propaganda posters. Going back to 1914, artists such as Kazimir Malevich worked on propaganda art that skewered Kaiser Wilhelm II, and that avant-garde style would later fuse with references to Russian religious icons that used the color red to symbolize salvation and faith. In one Soviet poster, Lenin hovers in a red orb like a saint of future industry. In Vietnam, artists who studied in French colonial schools combined those painting practices with folk art and the aesthetics of American comics, while artists in Cuba left out the superhero laborers that dominate Chinese and Soviet posters, and experimented with vibrantly colored, sometimes abstract graphics, from the 1960s to early ’80s.
Cheap and quick to create, posters could spread messages on education, hard work, modernization, the glories of the revolutionaries, and the importance of recycling, conveying that information even to those who could not read. A 1958 poster coinciding with China’s Great Leap Forward, an initiative that aimed to propel the nation ahead in agriculture and industry, has bundles of grain wrapped in bright red bows shooting like rockets out of a field. A chart in Communist Posters shows that over 13 million posters were produced by the Tianjin Fine Art Publishing House in 1958, compared to 144,000 the year before.
Rather than blurbs, the back cover of Communist Posters has quotes from figures including Joseph Stalin (“Print is the sharpest and the strongest weapon of our party”) and the Fourth National People’s Congress of China (“Speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates and writing big character posters are a new form of carrying on social revolution created by the masses”). Television and the internet eventually made the poster obsolete as a propaganda medium, but for several decades it was an effective tool for guiding a mass identity and purpose, especially when those were both in flux.