How Soviet Art and Design Promoted Communism After the Revolution

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V. Kamensky, Youth of Mayakovsky (image © Ne boltai ! Collection, Prague)

BRUSSELS — In 1931, the Russian Futurist poet Vasily Kamensky enlisted the help of Konstantin Bor Ramensky to illustrate the cover of his latest book, Youth of Mayakovsky. It was a complicated assignment fraught with comradeship and emotion: the book, published just one year after the suicide of Futurism’s de facto poet laureate Vladimir Mayakovsky, was to reflect on the life of the mammoth literary figure, who also happened to be Kamensky’s close friend. How to capture Mayakovsky in a mere five by seven inches?

The result is a slightly sinister lithographic portrait of the poet; it replicates his self-styled, all-knowing confidence, once the subject of so many black-and-white photographs, now forever immortalized in ink. His eyes glare, one overlaid with a square of red, mirroring the one in the background. Blocky numbers hover over his head: 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution (and the year he and Kamensky set up the Poet’s Cafe in Moscow) and Mayakovsky’s age, 25.

A slightly battered first edition of Youth of Mayakovsky is currently on display at the ADAM: Brussels Design Museum in the ‘Triumph of Typography’ section of The Paper Revolution: Soviet Graphic Design and Constructivism. On the centenary of the Russian Revolution, ADAM has teamed up with the Moscow Design Museum, the Konstantin Akinsha Collection, and the Rodchenko and Stepanova Archive to unite close to 100 original works on paper from a variety of artistic Soviet luminaries active during the 1920s and ’30s.

A. Rodchenko, “Books in All Fields of Knowladge, (Reconstruction of Varvara Rodchenko, 1963)” (image © the Rodchenko and Stepanova Archive)

It’s a small display, packed with images and texts, including two works that we are often only exposed to in reproduction: Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1924 poster for Soviet publisher Gosizdat, which depicts Lilya Brik shouting text (a design later employed as cover art by Scottish indie band Franz Ferdinand in 2005); and Gustav Klutsis’s colorful Spartakiad postcards, which celebrate the 1928 games in rollicking photo collage.

Here, however, we get the real deal: the books have been read, the posters have been hung, and they show signs of wear and tear, speaking to the initial motivations of the post-revolution Constructivists: get the Soviet word out. When shown in their original forms, en masse, these pamphlets, posters, magazines, and books are all overtly political. Colors are representative of the Russian Civil War and ‘red’ beats ‘white’; images of Lenin are based upon the strictures of Orthodox iconography. It becomes clear that these artists were themselves cogs in the Soviet propaganda machine, a role that may have been forgotten 100 years later, in a contemporary climate where rock bands co-opt political imagery for their own ends (something that, 15 years ago, Hal Foster referred to as ‘fetishitic constructivism’).

Installation view of The Paper Revolution: Soviet Graphic Design and Constructivism at the ADAM: Brussels Design Museum (image © ADAM: Brussels Design Museum)

Simple, but effective, paper was one of the defining materials that helped the Constructivists gain their legs on the eve of the revolution. The movement was solidified in 1922 when Aleksei Gan wrote in its manifesto: “The end has come to pure and applied [art] … Everything must be technically and functionally directed.” Helped along by an obsession with mechanical reproduction, the printing press became a fetishized object that reflected the controlled manufacture of this new, everyday life.

G. Klutsis, “Lenin is standing on the border of Two Epochs in Development of Humankind” (image © Ne boltai ! Collection, Prague)

In The Paper Revolution, objects are loosely split up by subject matter rather than chronology, which helps demonstrate how certain overarching elements of production spanned nearly two decades. Typography, photomontage, and inventive uses of abstraction all play off each other, and works often cite two collaborators: the author of the work and the cover designer, or the poster printing company and the singular designer.

Some of the best known Soviet typographic projects by El Lissitzky and Rodchenko open the show, but it quickly becomes apparent that there were a lot of other designers in the scene who have been overshadowed. In the magazine section, photomontage covers of Women’s Magazine (1929), designed by Innokenty Zhukov portray strong, compassionate women. Yakov Guminer’s 1927 poster, entitled “1917,” borrowed photographic elements from Sergei Eisentein’s 1928 film October, perhaps as an advertisement for the film. As the walk around the exhibition comes to a close, a section dedicated to Anonymous Constructivism posters showcases the fact that art, once an elitist practice, could now be applied by every man and woman.

Perhaps the only downside to the exhibition is the glass that encases the books, most of which are extremely fragile. The detailed amount of information included only gives more rise to the impulse to flip through their pages, but such is the problem of an exhibition devoted to utilitarian design. At some point, perhaps, they might all be digitized — how’s that for mechanical reproduction?

Installation view of The Paper Revolution: Soviet Graphic Design and Constructivism at the ADAM: Brussels Design Museum (image © Moscow Design Museum)

The Paper Revolution: Soviet Graphic Design and Constructivism (1920s–1930s) continues at the ADAM: Brussels Design Museum (Place de Belgique, Belgieplein 1, 1020 Brussels) through October 8.

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