BRUNSWICK, Maine — Mao Zedong, who knew something about the subject, famously said that a revolution is not a dinner party. Neither is it an art show. Political doctrine and artistic practice don’t play well together. The great exception took place in Russia, starting in 1917. What became the Soviet Union witnessed a period of rare cultural ferment that lasted for a dozen years or so, until crushed by Stalin’s attacks on “formalism” and elevation of Socialist Realism.
“Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters From Between the World Wars,” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, looks at the vibrant relationship between ideology and graphic design during those years. The show, which runs through Feb. 11, features nearly 100 posters and vintage publications. All are from the collection of Eric and Svetlana Silverman.
The title is a play on words. Constructivism, along with Suprematism, was the chief Russian avant-garde movement of the time. But what made these years so remarkable culturally is that the “ism” that mattered most was dynamism. Dizzying innovation flourished across the board — in literature, film, arts fine and applied — and standard classifications mattered little or not at all.
Alexander Rodchenko, perhaps the most spectacular talent of the era, was a painter, photographer, sculptor, and graphic designer. Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of the period’s great poets, was also a graphic artist. The show includes more than a dozen “ROSTA Windows” executed by him. ROSTA was the acronym for Russian Telegraph Agency, and the “Windows” daily propaganda posters. “I wish the pen to be on par with the bayonet,” Mayakovsky declared in 1925.
The ROSTA posters are unusual for having an almost-storybook visual quality. Their throwback look makes them highly unusual. The other most notable throwback in the show, Dmitry Moor’s “Did You Volunteer?” from 1920, is a “throwback” of only a few years. It consciously imitates the two most famous posters of World War I: Alfred Leete’s “Lord Kitchener Wants You” and James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam recruiting poster.
It wasn’t the past that inspired the likes of Rodchenko and Gustav Klutsis, who has more than a dozen posters and magazine covers in the show. It was the future. A Klutsis poster from 1929 celebrates the first Five-Year Plan by showing a Red Star-bearing locomotive running over a camel rider. Putting the agitation into agit-prop, these posters still look modern and feel revolutionary — revolutionary in appearance as well as ideology.
Emphasizing energy and experimentation, they rely on new techniques like photomontage. Within the same frame, fonts proliferate, colors clash, angles slant. Visually, these posters are highly busy but hardly ever cluttered. Sheer exhilaration manages to unite otherwise-warring elements.
These posters join image and text in such a way that one doesn’t so much read as react. It’s the difference between exhortation, a call to action, and argument, an invitation to thought. Don’t think, these posters declare, act. Visual fingers form political fist. And not just fingers. Klutsis’s “Working Men and Women — Everyone to the Election of Soviets” (1930) shows a giant open palm atop a column of many smaller open palms. It’s an obelisk of hands, a manual monument. It looks crazy — and unforgettable. More important, it’s so simple and direct.
Simplicity and directness were crucial. One of the more fascinating aspects for non-Russian readers is how looking at the posters today puts us in the position of many viewers then, when a majority of the population was illiterate. The distancing effect of Cyrillic letters is less impediment than window. The whole is what we respond to, as was the case at the time. Truly, this art was meant for the masses.
That was also true of film, perhaps the most distinctive — and enduring — achievement of this period, thanks to such masters as Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin, and the most vital of them all, Dziga Vertov. Four of Vertov’s “Cinema Week” newsreels play in a side gallery. There’s also a selection of movie posters, though not from any canonical works. Have you seen “Lady Bandit” (1927) or “The Parisian Cobbler” (1928)? Me neither. This makes the posters all the more striking.
The future was in the air as well as on the screen. The show has two versions of a 1931 poster, “Let Us Build a Dirigible Fleet in Lenin’s Name.”
Lenin died in 1924. That didn’t keep him from being even more ubiquitous than any czar was under the Romanovs. Partly, that’s owing to the wonders of mass production. No less important is a cult of personality that would take a terrible toll under Stalin.
A Klutsis poster for a 1931 anti-imperialist exhibition shows a soldier looking through a double periscope. The lenses are at an angle to the viewer, but knowing what we now do about the culture of surveillance and terror already in place, with the Stalinist purges soon to come, the image is chilling. It becomes all the more so knowing that Klutsis was executed in 1938.
Bowdoin has mounted a complementary photography exhibition, “Dmitri Baltermants: Documenting and Staging a Soviet Reality.” It runs through Jan. 7. Baltermants (1912-90) is best known for his images of World War II. The velocity of the ’20s lives on in images like “Forward” and “Anti-Aircraft Gunner.” The latter’s canted view and wild kineticism are pure Rodchenko.
The two dozen images are split between World War II and Soviet life during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years. We see a cosmonaut, a Red Square parade, factory workers. Brezhnev gives a speech with an image of Lenin looming behind him. Baltermants made no bones about his penchant for altering negatives to please the Communist Party. Here the sight could hardly be more subversive: a pedestrian present dwarfed by a stirring past. Conversely, the most powerful image has nothing to do with revolutionary fervor, past, present, or fictive. The title is self-explanatory: “Overhead View of Reading Room, Moscow.” Maybe Mayakovsky was right: The poster is on par with the bayonet. But books better both.
CONSTRUCTING REVOLUTION: Soviet Propaganda Posters From Between the World Wars
DMITRI BALTERMANTS: Documenting and Staging a Soviet Reality
At Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 245 Main St., Brunswick, Maine, through Feb. 11 and Jan. 7, respectively. 207-725-3275, www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum