back in the ussr: the energy and invention of russian film posters

Read an edited extract from "Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde." A brand new book that explores the stark, striking, and challenging film posters of a pre-Stalin Soviet Union.

by Matthew Whitehouse
23 October 2017, 7:45am

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

The Russian avant-garde film posters of the mid 1920s to early 1930s are unlike any film posters ever created. Although the period of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union was brief, these powerful, startling images remain among the most brilliant and imaginative posters ever conceived. The Russian film poster artists experimented with the same innovative cinematic techniques used in the films they were advertising, such as extreme closeups, unusual angles, and dramatic proportions. They montaged disparate elements, adding photography to lithography, and juxtaposed the action from one scene with a character from another. They colored human faces with vivid hues, elongated and distorted body shapes, gave animal bodies to humans, and turned film credits into an integral part of the design. There were no rules, except to follow one's imagination.

The 1917 Revolution changed life in Russia politically, socially, and artistically. Art became regarded as an important force in shaping the future of the new state. Slogans like "Art into Life" and "Art into Technology" expressed the popular belief that art had the power to transform lives on every level. It was a time of artistic experimentation, a kind of spontaneous combustion caused by the charged atmosphere and the radical changes in art and life. Diverse art styles, such as constructivism, realism, analytical art, and proletarian art developed simultaneously. Bold new directions in art, including Suprematism, Non-Objectivism, and Cubo-Futurism emerged in this fertile period of change.

The quality of the posters is remarkable considering the artists often had to rush to meet nearly impossible deadlines. Both Vladimir Stenberg and Mikhail Dlugach — two of the most famous Soviet poster artists — recalled that it was not unusual for them to see a film in the afternoon and be required to present the completed poster the very next morning. Furthermore, the equipment for printing the posters was falling apart and the technology was primitive. The only printing presses available pre-dated the 1917 Revolution. Vladimir Stenberg recalled that some of the presses were so shaky that practically everything was held together by string.

The artists often had to create the posters without ever having seen the film. Especially with foreign films, the artists often had to work from only a brief summary of the film, and publicity shots, or a press kit from Hollywood. 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. Clearly, these innovative flights of the imagination do not deserve to be consigned to oblivion.

In 1932, eight years after Lenin's death, Stalin decreed that the only officially sanctioned type of art would be socialist realism. Both the subject and the artistic method were required to depict a realistic (we might call it an idealistic) portrayal of Soviet life consistent with communist values. Stalin's decree marked the end of the period of avant-garde experimentation represented by the posters in this book. He may have closed the window of creativity, but not before it had illuminated history with some of the most brilliant posters ever created. The imagination, wit, and creativity exhibited in these film posters have yet to be rivaled — anywhere in the world.

Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde is published by Taschen and out now.

Images courtesy of Taschen

Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde