Nearly 100 years ago, as the former Russian Empire was engulfed in a civil war that would result in the creation of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks’ state news agency, seeking to shape public opinion on tumultuous events of the day, enlisted the help of an avant-garde poet and artist, Vladimir Mayakovsky.
In his work for the government-information arm, called the Russian Telegraph Agency, Mayakovsky and a workshop of other artists developed a unique process for quickly turning government reports into posters to be put up in storefront windows. Taking the name from an acronym for the Russian Telegraph Agency, they became known as ROSTA Windows.
Aimed at a semi-literate population, the posters delivered inspiring dogma through simple, direct graphics, with short lines of text. Using an assembly-line process to create posters by hand from a stencil of Mayakovsky’s design, a poster could be in a Moscow storefront 40 minutes after the news came in.
Snapchat and Twitter have nothing on Vladimir Mayakovsky.
“The idea of creating an image and a very short, easily understood text that would reinforce the image, it does anticipate a lot of what’s come since, including what we see around us today,” says Jon Mogul, associate director of curatorial and education at the Wolfsonian-FIU museum. “They weren’t avid readers, so that kind of visual communication and simple text was very powerful, compared to a manifesto or something like that. Which is a reason that film and radio were also very important propaganda tools around the same time.”
On Friday, the Wolfsonian will open the exhibition “Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters From Between the World Wars,” a survey of works mostly created between 1918 and 1932, a period of rare, pre-Stalin aesthetic freedom for avant-garde Constructivist artists, who took techniques such as photo montage out of the galleries and onto the streets.
Mogul says it was a period of great “visual energy,” when Gustav Klutsis began working with an iconic red, black and white color scheme that has become a signature of Russian graphics; when painter Alexander Rodchenko began to explore color, geometry and photo montage on posters; when Valentina Kulagina designed messages that trumpeted the Communist Party’s plans for women’s liberation.
“You couldn’t come out with a poster that said ‘Lenin sucks,’ but the way you expressed those officially sanctioned ideas, there was a fair amount of autonomy there,” Mogul says.
The show was organized from the collection of Americans Svetlana and Eric Silverman by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, where it debuted in September.
If the exhibit followed a typical timeline of this kind of museum show, Mogul says, the process of putting it together probably began at the Bowdoin museum in 2015, pegged to the 2017 centennial of the Russian Revolution.
The Wolfsonian began its conversations about hosting “Constructing Revolution” in late 2016 or early 2017, Mogul says, when the current buzz about Russian propaganda and influence in the 2016 election wasn’t so pronounced.
“It’s a really great show and is right up our alley in terms of the kind of material it has and the questions it addresses,” he says. “But certainly over the course of the time since we decided to take it, that’s become impossible to ignore. Even though the show is not explicitly tackling those contemporary issues, I think they will be on the mind of people who come to see the show. We’re sort of expecting that.”
Mogul hopes that visitors will be impressed by the techniques on display and the excitement and visual tension created by some of the most important designers of their time. But he does point to a “troubling” dichotomy in these works.
“You can see very sincere idealism being expressed, people creating these images and slogans because they think they are building, not only a new society, but a better, fairer, more equal and free society,” he says. “And at the same time, these posters that they’re creating are being used by a state that is increasingly becoming not only a dictatorship, but a pretty murderous one that ends up killing hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.
“It’s not enough to create a powerful poster. You need to think about why you’re doing it and what the consequences are going to be. And very often the powerful, simple, straightforward message is going to be the one that’s easily exploited and abused.”
“Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters from Between the World Wars” opens Friday, April 13, at the Wolfsonian-FIU museum, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $12, $8 for seniors, students and children 6–18. Call 305-531-1001 or visit Wolfsonian.org.