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Saturday, March 10, 2001
Graphic design's hammer and sickle revolution
By C.B. LIDDELL
The Art Deco architectural style of the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum is one usually associatedwith the plutocrats and movie moguls of the 1930s. It may therefore seem a tad ironic to hold an exhibition of posters from Communist Russia at such a venue. But the rivalry between the Soviet Union and Western capitalism spurred the space race, the spread of internationalism and the ascendancy of material values.
And the relationship between communism and capitalism also influenced graphic design. For generations, art students in the West found inspiration in the bold strokes of the avant-garde design pioneered by Soviet artists in the years following the 1917 revolution.
This is why so many posters at this exhibition, especially those made by the Stenberg brothers, have such a modern feel to them.
Sons of a Swedish father, Georgii (1899-1933) and Vladimir Stenberg (1900-1982), were part of the Constructivist movement, which rejected traditional ideas of art for a new freedom and utilitarianism aimed at taking art directly to the people.
The new Soviet government decided that cinema would be the perfect medium to reach its vast, semiliterate, linguistically diverse population. Working closely together, the brothers took advantage of the resultant cinema boom to create movie posters in a new, populist, eye-catching style, using montage, strong geometric designs and vivid colors.
"Fragment of an Empire," a poster for a 1929 Russian film of the same name, frames the screaming face of a man between a pair of simplified, black hands, giving it greater impact.
"The Man With the Movie Camera" (1929) shows the use of another Constructivist technique, the interpenetration of matter and space. Against a backdrop of soaring skyscrapers, the body of a woman is suggested by the positions of her arms, legs and head as she seems to fall toward us.
This poster is beautifully unified by the lettering arranged in spirals that echo the woman's arched figure while at the same time helping us look through her to the vanishing point in the sky.
The freedom and playfulness of these designs make it hard to believe that this was a totalitarian society. But, before the rise of Stalin, Soviet society enjoyed a degree of freedom that even allowed Hollywood schlock like Douglas Fairbanks' "Robin Hood" (1922) to knock box-office spots off such Soviet classics as Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" (1925).
The latter, however, definitely had the better posters. Anton Lavinsky's design shows a Russian sailor in a very camp pose in front of the ship's mighty guns.
Just as innovative as the film posters are the political posters, such as Dmitri Moor's "Help" (1920) from the famine-stricken civil war period. A raw appeal to our humanity, this shows an emaciated peasant with outstretched hands. Another potent image is seen in "Fighting Lazy Workers" (1931) by an anonymous artist. This shows three hammer-wielding red figures raining blows down on a thin wedge filled with drunken workers.
The collage effect, so well-used in many posters, is misapplied in El Lissitsky's poster advertising a 1929 USSR-Russian exhibition in Zurich. Showing the forms of a young Soviet hero and heroine merged together, it creates a mutated monstrosity that can't help but remind the modern viewer of the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
Perhaps it was his background as an unsophisticated Georgian mountaineer, but in 1934, Stalin, who was then tightening his grip on power, decided to end the Constructivist era, proclaiming Socialist Realism as the official new art style.
One year earlier, Giorgii Stenberg had been killed in a Moscow motorcycle crash. Believing that his brother had been murdered by the KGB, Vladimir continued to do design work for the state, but in the repressed artistic climate of the Stalin years, he would never recapture the early genius he had shown with his sibling.
"The Stenberg Brothers and the Russian Avant-Garde," until April 1 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, (03) 3443-8500. Nearest station: JR Meguro on the Yamanote Line. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed 2nd and 4th Wednesdays. Admission 700 yen, students and children 350 yen.