The Daily Heller: Propagating Red

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for The Daily Heller: Propagating Red

Once again, like clockwork, Productive Arts has a wealth of posters for sale to some fortunate institution or collector—this time accompanied by a handsome documentary catalog designed by Greg D'Onofrio and Patricia Belen (downloadable here).

From the catalog:

Published between 1930 and 1937, the collection of Gustav Klutsis (Latvian, 1895–1938) posters featured in this catalog span the period from the early years of Joseph Stalin’s Five-Year Plan and end shortly before the artist’s arrest and execution in 1938. Together, these posters not only complement the critical policies supporting new government initiatives, but also illustrate how the aspiration of one artist responded to the confluence of utopian objectives and ideological struggles of the proletariat in the shadow of repressive doctrines. Klutsis’ masterful handling of photomontage in poster design confirms his role as one of the most prominent 20th-century revolutionary artists.

The earliest posters of this collection exhibit the daring graphic language of Constructivism and reflect the modern, industrialized Soviet Union, which broke away from the traditional art of the past—dynamic compositions using scale, contrast and repetition; heroic imagery; revolutionary colors; prominent diagonals; bold sans-serif typography and asymmetry. Klutsis’ unique poster design process combines these avant-garde Constructivist principles with multi-layered and fragmented photomontages featuring images of farm equipment, factories, workers, peasants and other contributors of the new economy. As a result, the posters convey the ambitions and praise for agriculture, industry, technology, labor and the proletariat. Klutsis further emphasizes these visual messages by using political slogans and policies of Stalin such as: “We will Repay the Coal Debt to the Country,” “Building of Soviet Farms and Collective Farms is the Building of Socialism in Rural Areas,” and “The USSR is the Shock Brigade of the World Proletariat.”

Klutsis had a profound commitment and enthusiasm for Agitation Art (agitation–propaganda or agitprop)—a form of propaganda promoting Communist policies and information. In 1931, Klutsis wrote “Photomontage as a New Problem in Agitation Art,” published in Art-Front: Class Struggle on the Visual Arts Front [Izo-front: Klassovaia bor’ba na fronte prostranstvennykh iskusstv] by the October Art Group, whose members included Klutsis, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin. He wrote “The old kinds of visual art (drawing, painting, engraving), with backward technique and methods of work, turned out to be inadequate to the mass agitation of the Revolution.” Instead, Klutsis declared photomontage to be the new art form for socialist industry and it was quickly supported by society and government.

Klutsis and his wife and collaborator, Valentina Kulagina (Russian, 1902–1987), often photographed themselves as peasants, coal miners and members of the proletariat, and utilized these images as elements in their photomontages. By placing themselves in the posters, as staged workers and next to images of actual workers, they demonstrated how photomontage practitioners were integral to the technological revolution as much as factories, agricultural systems, coal mines and heavy industry.

This collection reveals Klutsis’ gradual, visual shift away from Constructivism, toward depictions coinciding with the adoption of “Socialist Realism” as the official Soviet style of art and literature. The once-celebrated photomontage was met with irritation by the government as being too inaccessible, monotonous and ambiguous. Beginning in approximately 1932, heroic images of the all-powerful Stalin towering above the masses begin to replace the proletarian worker. The typography is no longer energetic or arranged with purpose; blocks of color are replaced by red banners; symbolism is overshadowed by naturalism. It is unclear how much Klutsis subscribed to Stalin’s cult of personality or whether the State Publishing House of Fine Art [Izogiz] contributed to his change in style. Undoubtedly, there were questions regarding Klutsis’ loyalty. He was accused of participating in a Latvian fascist group and was killed as part of Stalin’s Great Purge (1938).

This significant collection of posters are visual proof of Klutsis’ prolific achievements to avant-garde design and are an expression of his creativity and passion in the midst of changing ideological struggles.