In the pre-Stalin Soviet Union of the 1920s and ’30s, there was a dynamic creativity in the arts, including in one of the newest forms of media: film. Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde, out now from Taschen, chronicles this era through 250 film posters by 27 artists, and examines how the disparate influences of Constructivist shapes and cinematic montage collided in their designs.
“The new political structure created by the Bolshevik Revolution produced a profound sense of social responsibility and encouraged artists to experiment in multiple fields, particularly in architecture, industrial design, and graphic design,” Christopher W. Mount, formerly a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, writes in a foreword.
Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde was first issued in 1995, and the new edition reaffirms the vibrancy of this period of graphic design. The posters are from the collection of Susan Pack, who started acquiring them in the 1970s. Pack’s extensive book essay delves into the artists and film history of the early 20th century. The first films screened in Russia were the work of the French Lumière brothers, and were imported to celebrate the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1894; their announcements were simple typographical ads.
“Within little more than a decade, a thriving film industry was established,” Pack writes. “However, World War I and the turmoil of the 1917 Revolution made film production and distribution increasingly difficult. Famine, civil war, and a foreign blockade prevented the importation of foreign films, raw film, and equipment.” Then in 1919, Lenin nationalized the industry. “The general belief was that the film industry had been the tool of profit hungry capitalists before the Revolution; now it was to be a source of education and inspiration for the masses,” Pack states.
Significantly, these posters were all made before Soviet realism became the dominant art form under Stalin, and there was a fluidity and freedom in styles. Part of what fueled this were the diverse backgrounds of the poster artists, such as the prolific brothers Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg who came from set design and Constructivist sculpture (and together made around 300 posters), and Alexander Rodchenko who worked in photography and industrial design. Their experimentation is especially remarkable considering the speed at which these posters were printed. Pack notes that two artists — Vladimir Stenberg and Mikhail Dlugach — “recalled that it was not unusual for them to see a film at three o’clock in the afternoon and be required to present the completed poster by ten o’clock the next morning.” To make their job even more stressful, many of the printing presses were in chronic disrepair, as they predated the 1917 Revolution.
Nevertheless, their film posters were distinct in eschewing the glamor of Hollywood and proposing incredible scenes of action, in which elements of photography, lithography, and collage are overlaid. Perspectives are often skewed, faces presented larger-than-life, and colors are vivid. “One of the great innovations in Soviet filmmaking during this period was the concept of montage,” Pack writes, and indeed that use of montage was featured in the pioneering Soviet film Battleship Potemkin (1925). Montage likewise found its way onto the posters with their actors, typography, and geometric forms intersecting at unexpected angles.
These posters were ephemeral advertisements, not meant to be saved. In fact each of the posters in Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde is among just a handful of surviving copies. “When one considers that the poster artists assumed their work would be torn down and thrown away after a few weeks, it is astonishing that they continued to strive to maintain such a high standard,” Pack writes. “Clearly, these innovative flights of the imagination do not deserve to be consigned to oblivion”