Windows on the War at the Art Institute of Chicago
When our national focus turns to the physical world of bombs, rations, and death, you’d think that graphic’s ephemerality would be considered useless, but this is almost never the case. It’s a perverse truth that here is almost always a spike in creative output during times of oppression and war. With each side attempting to gain the upper hand through agitating propaganda, the spin and disinformation that accompany unrest is an irresistible subject filled with grisly depictions and earth shattering revelations of the daily devastation of war. It’s one part emotional punch and one part history lesson.
The Art Institute of Chicago has two concurrent exhibitions that reveal just how extensive this phenomenon is. Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 is an extensive review of the official propaganda published by TASS News Agency. Belligerent Encounters: Graphic Chronicles of War and Revolution is a collection of work from various printmakers that lived through wartime and whose work reflected their experiences with the true and ugly nature of war. (Belligerent Encounters will be reviewed on Printeresting tomorrow. Look for it!).
Windows on the War is an overdue look at the TASS window output. These full color images were painted directly onto sheets of paper through stencils. They were created in large editions and primarily distributed across the Soviet Union to spread the official war news. The images were created by an artist, the colors stripped into stencils, and then each layer was painted onto as many sheets of paper as it took to make the poster (up to 18). Smaller sized lithographs were printed sometimes in conjunction with the stenciled window posters.
You get the feeling that these posters were made by printmakers who didn’t have access to the tools needed to create such large prints. This would be partially true. There was talk about transitioning to silk screen or lithography (both were used at times). The realities of being in wartime and the need to produce such large editions (more than 690,000 posters and 1415 separate designs were printed in all) in such a short period of time was the mother of invention. The stenciled posters are more than impressive despite their humble beginnings. They are shockingly delicate and contain such deep layers of color (up to 60 stencils on a single image) that these printers may have fallen in love with the stencil as a medium.
The conditions that these posters were made under were certainly bleak. When the printmakers ran out of their turpentine they had to start experimenting with bedbug pesticides in order to finish their work. Of course, this made the workers sick, so they had to find more of their regular solvents.
The posters were primarily distributed to corner stores and political venues, but were also sent around the world to possible sympathizers (the Tate, MoMA, and AIC for example, usually on slightly better paper). The Art Institute found an unopened stash of the TASS posters in their archives in 1997 when they were preparing to renovate the Department of Print and Drawings space. This realization of already having free access to the posters mixed with an almost complete lack of scholarship (at least in English) created an opportunity that AIC was able to meet.
More than just window posters were made by TASS. They produced postcards, photographs, light boxes, slide films, oversized lacquered glass slides (that were framed and nicknamed stained-glass windows) and even inspired a few animated films. Most of these did not survive as the photo stock used in the USSR was not even close to archival.
The earliest TASS posters use a framed narrative style from the comics, a style that they had borrowed from the earlier ROSTA posters (from 1917-1923). Often 2 frames printed on two sheets in simple graphical colors, consisting of a simple narrative: before and after. These early images often lampooned the Nazi soldier and reflected the daily news. After 1942 their graphic style shifts to a fuller image, with denser and more painterly effects. The TASS posters usually had one of two visual styles, either graphical satire or heroic realism. Hitler is satirized as a dog, wolf, rat, spider, snake, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While every motif from heroic realism shows up: farmer, Stalin marching with the people, Lenin standing above the people, people carrying red flags, constructivist lights above national buildings, or the personification of Ukraine holding a sheaf of wheat.
The most dramatic posters are at key moments of the war. When the British or Americans entered the war, when Italy surrendered, when Paris was liberated, the discovery of the concentration camp at Majdanek, Hitler’s death, the hunt for Nazi war criminals, and the Nuremberg trials. These posters open up almost any subject relating to World War II you care to consider. The exhibition is massive, you feel like you walked for 4 years (and maybe gained a college minor in Soviet culture) by the end, but instead of being intimidating or wearying, getting to see the variety and the breadth of invention that these artists were capable of is enthralling.
This exhibition is part of The Soviet Arts Experience, a 16-month-long, Chicago-wide showcase of works by artists who created under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union. Additional exhibitions include Vision and Communism (September 29, 2011–January 22, 2012) and Process and Artistry in the Soviet Vanguard (August 30–December 11, 2011) at the Smart Museum of Art; Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary (August 22– December 31, 2011) at the Special Collections Research Center at The University of Chicago Library; and Views and Re- Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons (September 20–December 4, 2011) and Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910–1917 (September 23–December 11, 2011) at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.Bookmark / Share / Print