GRAD: See USSR
‘Posters are able to reflect their time vividly and with emotion in a manner unlike any other visual medium. Over time, the relevance of the texts in advertisements is lost, as is their function of promoting an idea or product. Simultaneously, however, they become informative in a different way, as historical documents, testimony to many events. Thus alongside artistic quality, these posters possess a phenomenological, cultural, socio-psychological and specifically historical quality, which allows us to get a sense of the time and of the mindset of a nation, and of the cultural and social environment in which they were created’ Irina Nikiforova on posters.
The above is a very roundabout way of saying the simple Soviet posters of the 1920s and 30s are very powerful mediums. I have always loved their images. The powerful colours and art deco styles seemed to me as a youngster the very essence of this mysterious country. You can see a banner of some classics on the right.
GRAD (quite literally Gallery for Russian Arts and Design) is yet another initiative to hit London’s ever expanding Russian scene. It is a non-profit art based organisation that has taken a relatively small space in Little Portland Street just off Oxford Street. The objective claims to be to broaden awareness and understanding of Russian arts and design from the early Twentieth century to the present. They seem to have acquired funding and support from academia and the idea is definitely a good one. There are a few lectures and events spining off from the shows and the space itself will make for a compact and sylish event launch space.
I dropped into their first show of ‘InTourist’ posters. They had some of the originals on loan from Kirill Kalinin the collector behind AntikBar, who deserves more recognition for his restoration and collection works. If Yellowcake ever manifests into a physical space I will decorate it with Kalinin’s reprints collection.
I really enjoyed seeing the original posters, especially now I have actually seen some of the real destinations. InTourist itself was founded in 1929 in the famous Moscow Hotel Metropol, with the aim of promoting a positive image of the Soviet Union to attract foreign tourists and therefore foreign money. This seems rather incongruous in comparison with the common perception of a secretive country of closed doors and barriers. The challenges of foreign advertising were quickly established as Soviet marketing and propaganda images looked drab and limited against American and European publications. In the true sprit of collectivism, Artists, school children, students and all manner of image creators were set competitions to create the images the Soviets wanted the world to see.
The images Nikolay Zhukov, Sergey Sakharov, Viktor Klimashin and friends created follow the artistic influences of Kasimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde Contructavism style of the time. You can see the lines and straight shapes of Tatlin’s tower in the Moscow Theatre Festival series and in the ocean linear featuring in London-Leningrad. There is also something oddly pleasing in the skewed perspectives of Aleksander Zhitomirsky’s Georgian Military Highway and L’Armenie Sovitique by Sergey Igumnov. They present the jovial image of driving as if you could quite happily drive through the Caucasus pretending you were motoring through the South of France.
There are two images for Baku in Azerbaijan that are particularly iconic. Zhukov’s Shepetova – Baku shows a glamorous female train passenger speeding through the dust with the oil wells set in the distance. We learn that the 55 hour trip is ‘the shortest, cheapest and most comfortable route between Iran/Persia and Western Europe via the USSR’ Catchy, as Soviet slogans go. Maria Nesterova’s Bakou is a colourful depiction of the Caspian Sea Baku peninsula complete with oil workers, I can recall that particular Baku smell just looking at it.
Nesterova also created USSR Health Resorts in 1930, which is surely a representation of somewhere in the Crimea, at least somewhere definitely on the Black Sea. It shows a headscarf wearing member of the proletariat reclining on a balcony under a sun parasol and over looking a bay. There are palm leaves and grape vines. Paradise indeed. There are more images of the Crimea, Sakharov’s Crimee being a particularly odd example. Here a beautiful beach scene of blue skies, white sands and clear waters under a hazy sun is played out. Tiny art deco figures lounge on the sand. Somewhat strangely, there are two large ears of wheat intersecting the image, as if a 5 year plan productivity message snuck in at the last minute.
The Central Asian republics were also heavily represented with ethnic faces, ears of wheat, cotton, blazing sunshine and the occasional mosque. I particularly like the Golden Road to Turkmenistan.
It would be impossible to pick a favourite but if I was to buy one I would go for the Trans siberian Express by Merinov. Here we learn we can go to the Far East from Europe in 12 days. The imagery is very Soviet, there is a red star over the speeding train passing by St Basils on its way to China which is represented by a small red and green hut. Also worth a mention is See USSR where we can travel by both reindeer and camel such is the diversity of the USSR.
Such images undoubtedly did not receive much internal exposure. The average Soviet worker or peasant lived a life so sharply contrasting they were unlikely to recognise their own country. The images on their posters were of work, industry and productivity.
GRAD have finished showing See USSR and have already started work on their next exhibition, which involves an architectural model of the Tatlin’s Tower. And InTourist still exists. Today it is a modern travel agency specialising in Russian and the former Republic Tours, Volga Cruises and Mongolia. They rebranded as IntoRussia and don’t use any of the art deco branding of old which is a real shame.
I think I might buy L’Armenie Sovietique and pretend I am motoring through 1920s Armenian mountains and under triumphant bridges of Soviet industry. A world that never really existed, except in a poster.