Revolutionary film posters

by David Kunzle

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Mildred Constantine and Alan Fern, Revolutionary Soviet Film Posters (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press) 98 pp., 90 pls., 17 figs. in text.

This finely produced picture book, the first of its kind to relate Soviet poster to film, includes an all-too-brief text which gives some useful stylistic pointers in poster and graphics history, but deals with the Russian posters according to the traditional formalist criteria of bourgeois art criticism. These criteria, whose shortcomings are being increasingly scrutinized with respect to Western bourgeois art, seem very inadequate in and of themselves when applied to revolutionary and socialist art. The authors are a former associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and the chief of the prints and photographs division at the Library of Congress. They describe the manner in which avant-garde movements such as cubism, geometrism, rayonnism, and the indigenous Russian-ism, constructivism, with their incorporation of typographical and photographic elements, contributed to the Soviet "poster-renaissance" of the immediate post-revolutionary  years.

Given the authors' bias towards the European avant-garde, one understands why they pinpoint the film poster as qualitatively superior to and generally more interesting to Western observers than all the other posters produced in the post-Revolutionary decade for other social and political purposes. These other posters are as it were tainted with "illustrational," "folkloristic" or "academic" styles of earlier Russian painting (and of much English and American poster art of the pre-1914 period). The time honored art-historical and art-critical tactic of comparing the same or similar subject (here, posters for the same film) rendered by different artists in different styles, gives rise to some value judgments which reveal more of the Western aesthetic tradition than a particular historical situation. One poster is described as "meaningless and confused next to the poetic simplicity" of another for the same film. The first question the historian must ask is: in what terms, comparatively, did the Russians, for whom this poster was intended, experience these posters? Further: why were two posters produced for the same film? Did they have a different function? Were they made at different times and with historically or locally conditioned differences of perceptions of the film, or for differently perceived audiences at the same time and same place?

The authors display only a pro forma recognition of that historical necessity which bound the film posters to a new revolutionary society. They make no attempt to track the posters or the films they illustrate within the movement of the Revolution. Nor do they try to trace the web of shifting policies that carried the Soviet Union from the age of Lenin into that of Stalin. Neither political events, apart from the 1917 Revolution itself, which is the assumed background, nor political leaders, apart from Lenin and Trotsky (twice each), are so much as mentioned. Yet the authors recognize the film at this time (the posters date from 1926-1930) as a highly political medium, which provided a basic political education to a still largely illiterate populace. This politically educational role is, however, never characterized in any specific way, nor are the films, only some of which the authors had actually seen, and which are represented largely as titles - and posters. The role of art at a time when bourgeois criteria were being challenged, and a theory of socialist culture production had not yet crystallized, gave rise to much debate, which is here skirted. The posters are by "a group of artists … who were centers of controversy." Why? At the time, or only under Stalin? We are not told, presumably because the authors do not know. But it is hard to believe that more information on this subject is not available from non-Soviet sources. This tantalizing understatement remains wholly undeveloped in all its far-ranging implications:

"By 1928, considerable debate and disagreement about the failures and accomplishments of the films produced by the young masters was taking place."

Moreover, the authors hedge on the functional relationship between film and poster. They are more interested in the formal manner in which a particular poster borrows from a particular still from a film, than in the relationship in terms of ideology or function. As in so much art-critical writing, the factor of audience is ignored. What kind of audience are the posters addressing, and in what circumstances? Can the posters be properly described as advertisements, insofar as they are designed to draw into the movie theater an audience assumed to be inattentive, indifferent, or even resistant? Are they designed to give basic information about the particular content of the film? Do they assume a high degree of illiteracy, which might explain, in part, the aggressivity of the imagery? The images are often both aggressive and visually confusing. If they were to accompany films to remote and culturally backward areas, did the makers expect a certain level of incomprehension, and decide to ignore it? It might be that the popular hunger for film, any film, at this period was such that the posters were, in a practical sense, superfluous.

Pertinent questions such as these, and many more might possibly be answered by reference to materials to be found only in the Soviet Union, which, as they inform the reader, the authors were unable to visit. There are also lesser hypotheses and assumptions that might be confirmed simply by asking older Russians who would remember, for instance, whether it was really the custom, as the authors assume from the character of certain designs, to put up seried rows of identical posters, in the manner of commercial publicity in the West at the time. The Soviet Union is still, it seems, difficult of access, despite the ever-increasing flow of tourists attracted by the exotic and forbidden, and of researchers attracted by untapped mines of information. The originals of the film posters reproduced, incidentally, remain of unstated and therefore mysterious location and under an ownership (which one assumes must be private) shrouded in anonymity, despite the fact that they are also being published, by an unidentified agency, in the Soviet Union, after what seems to have been a long suppresion. [1]

At one point the authors impute to the Soviet authorities, without comment, a purely capitalist motivation for showing films: "to gain revenue from those who flock to see them." This is hard to believe, but it is also hard for us, in the publicity saturated West, to imagine an environment where images are not mercenary in intent and competing on this basis for our attention.

What were, if any, the "competing" media in the Soviet Union at this time? One cannot assume, surely, that one film was "competing" against another in the sense we understand the phrase, or that a poster for a film "competed" against a poster for a circus or adult education. The lesson from Cuba, whose Revolution has also produced, in its first decade, an extraordinary renaissance of poster art, is instructive. The posters put out by the film institute (ICAIC) do not so much advertise films, which are listed in the daily press and whose availability is therefore already known to an almost totally literate public, and which film-hungry Cubans would probably go to see anyway. Rather, the posters function as embellishments of the film and of the streets, where they are posted on specifically designed "paraguas" (literally, umbrellas, actually posts with four vertical leaves). The relationship of the Cuban poster designs to the content of the films varies enormously. And in the case of the many films imported from bourgeois countries, which are often, and known by the Cubans to be very bad, it does so with exhilarating freedom. [2] The Cuban film poster is an unusual example of "pure" poster art, filled with a kind of revolutionary elation although not necessarily with specific revolutionary message or ideology.

The Soviet films "worked"; presumably, the posters did also. In whet manner, to what degree, and in what precise relationship to the films, remains to be discovered. We are told that the artists were "fervent in their search for a new social order, as were the revolutionary politicians and social theorists." But this is to ignore the extent to which, by the very dynamic of a revolutionary situation, the artists' intentions cannot have been identical with one another, any more than those of the "revolutionary politicians and social theorists." Some of the most laudable intentions get weeded out by force of circumstance, and to treat the graphic or film artists as a kind of monolithic bloc is simplistic, to say the least.

The remark quoted above follows directly after a lengthy transcription from the catalogue to the Rayonnist "Target" exhibition shown in Moscow 1913, which manifests: "We do not demand attention from the public, but ask it not to demand attention from us." The relation of this adamantly elitist and "counterrevolutionary" attitude to Futurism on the one hand, and Constructivism on the other, deserves to be developed. Did it in any sense survive in those posters which seem to us today the more difficult to read or decode, and which may have appeared thus also to some, at least, of their contemporary audience?

It might seem churlish to reproach the authors for not pursuing research which they did not set out to do, and for which they are not fitted. But it is frustrating, to say the least, to find a really pregnant generalization, a wholly fascinating concept, left hanging in the air:

"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."

To develop so bold an idea would require skills in political as well as art-historical analysis of the highest order; but the next sentence represents a singular anticlimax:

"From having a few posters, and not very interesting ones, the Soviet production became one of the most fascinating in the world."

The strength of the book lies in its discussion of stylistic characteristics, but even here it does not go far enough. Style has meaning in relation not to some "absolute" aesthetic but to the social forces and needs which determine it. If "clean lines, geometric forms, and primary colors replaced the ambiguous line and color so characteristic of Art Nouveau" (the most progressive Western poster style of the pre-1914 era), and passed into Soviet poster art, is this because artists saw them as more relevant to the new society, aspiring to the "clean," "primary" and "geometric order"? But there are also contradictory or balancing characteristics in the film posters, which are, I submit, as much about destruction or destructuring, as restructuring. Cubism and Futurism seem comparatively simple, well-ordered and rational compared to these anarchic, fragmented, disjointed, jarring mélanges of geometric-abstract, photographic and realistic forms, assembled in a cacophony of intersection, clash and collision.

Many artists seam more or less consciously attuned to the discordant patterns of revolutionary movement rather than its harmonies, and to the necessity of struggle even when or especially when the formal resolution is nowhere in sight. There is this evocative description of the new Soviet city or collectivity the Revolution was forging, rendered in posters confronting the spectator with

"a succession of varying moods, a diversity of viewpoints, a series of continually changing shapes and angles. Thus the city is like a montage, and montage is one of the principal sources for the vitality of these films and for the posters they inspired."

This describes not just the city, surely, but the very dynamic of revolution itself, as described by Lenin:

"the vortex of reality (is) entangled in Revolution as it has never been before."

Since there is no theoretical or empirical model for the survival, over a long period of time, of a revolution on the basis of a "diversity of viewpoints" and since such a model is certainly not to be sought in the subsequent history of the Soviet Union, it need not surprise us that the experimental Soviet film poster lasted only a decade, and was to be wiped out by the socialist realism of the Stalinist era, which was hardly tolerant of "diversity of viewpoints."


1. "Kept from view once their immediate utility had passed…" (p. xi) "The posters, in a collection in Moscow, are not generally available to the public and have not been seen within the Soviet Union or abroad, according to our information, since 1926 and 1928…" (p. 13) "With their publication in books in this decade, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, they can now be appreciated…" (p. 15).

2. See David Kunzle, "Public Graphics in Cuba: A Very Cuban Form of Internationalist Art" in Latin American Perspectives; issue no. 7, Supplement 1975, vol. II, no. 4, pp. 89-110.