CLINTON — Titles don’t come any drier — would grimmer be more accurate? — than “Images of Atheism: The Soviet Assault on Religion.” Yet the show, which runs through Oct. 2 at the Museum of Russian Icons, is visually lively, even playful. Cuteness-wise, the smiling cosmonaut saluting viewers in Vladimir Menshchikov’s 1975 propaganda poster “There Is No God” verges on Disney-adorable.
Karl Marx famously declared that “Religion is the opium of the people.” Right there you had the theoretical underpinnings of the Bolsheviks’ opposition to religion. They were “Godless Communists” for a reason. Furthermore, the Russian Orthodox Church had been a pillar of the czarist state. Religion posed a political threat as both belief system and institutional force. So it makes sense, however bewildering such a name may sound, that there was a Godless Five-Year Plan to go along with the economic ones. The newly installed rulers of the newly installed Soviet Union considered religion anathema twice over.
What those rulers didn’t consider anathema — at least not initially — was artistic innovation. During the ‘20s and spilling over somewhat into the ‘30s, Soviet visual culture witnessed an unrivaled degree of artistic ferment and innovation in film, photography, painting, and applied design.
A revolution in the arts matched the one going on in society, and that cultural revolution’s energy and experimentation are very much evident in the anti-religious propaganda from those years. Mikhail Mikhailovich Cheremnykh’s “Blacksmith, Beat the Bells into Ballbearings,” from his “Anti-Religious Alphabet” (1932), is textbook Constructivism, with its use of photomontage, solid color, creative typography, interplay of angles and curves, and let’s not forget that exhortatory title.
“The Anti-Religious Alphabet” is the show’s centerpiece. Designed by Cheremnykh for classroom use, it’s a set of 27 letter cards (Cyrillic has more letters than Roman does). The cards served the dual purpose of helping young pupils learn their letters — and disdain religion. They’re agit-prop for kids. The titles make the propaganda aspect plain. “Ford’s Factories Are Fascist Forts.” “Sacred Stories Are So Silly!” “Vile and Virulent Is the Viper’s Venom” (the viper in question being Pope Pius XI). The top-hatted capitalist seen in “Believing Is Bad for You, Badder than Booze” bears an alarming resemblance to Mr. Monopoly.
Most items in the show are from the ‘20s and ‘30s, with just a half dozen from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The former are far more vivid and imaginative. The Brezhnev era was no less sclerotic artistically than socially. An exception is that cosmonaut poster. The work of an artists’ collective known as the Fighting Pencil, it was inspired by a remark from cosmonaut Gherman Titov. “Sometimes people are saying that God is out there,” he remarked of outer space. “I saw neither angels nor God.” Notice how the steeples at the bottom of the poster include a mosque. The Soviets were ecumenical in their atheism.
In addition to the posters, the show includes such amusing ephemera as playing cards with anti-religious images and an ashtray in the shape of an Orthodox priest. The most striking thing about “Images of Atheism” isn’t anything in the show, per se. It’s the juxtaposition with the contents of the other galleries, which are just what one might expect in a museum devoted to, yes, Russian Icons.
IMAGES OF ATHEISM: The Soviet Assault on Religion
Museum of Russian Icons, 263 Union St., Clinton, through Oct. 2. 978-598-5000, www.museumofrussianicons.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.