Susan Pack: Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde (2021) | featured image

Film Posters in the Revolutionary Age of Soviet Cinema

Constructivism’s influence in Soviet-era film posters favored cubist-like aesthetics that turned to electrifying colors, shapes, and lines drawn not by laws of perspective but by rulers and compasses.

Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde
Susan Pack
January 2022 (updated edition)

Posters advertising films have been around since 1895 when the Lumière Brothers in Paris first used film to portray a fictional story. Film posters inhabit a niche corner of popular culture, one taken for granted as an ephemeral corollary of the film industry. Susan Pack, who collects avant-garde Russian film posters, compellingly shows that the style and design of film posters from the Soviet Union in the 1920s deserve recognition and renown in their own right.

Methods of presentation have developed throughout film posters’ continuing history. Highlighting the names of star actors who shine most brightly in the firmament has long been popular, though their presence in a film may say more about the production’s budget than the quality of the film itself. The current penchant for a solitary key image in a film poster, planting a single shot in the cerebral cortex or the unconscious, took the form in post-1917 Russia of close-ups of a person’s face. Illustrated on the front cover of Pack’s Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde, the practice may be a legacy from the era of silent films; as Gloria Swanson’s reclusive silent film star Norma Desmond remarks in Sunset Boulevard (1950): ‘We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces’.

The film advertised in the poster on the book’s front cover is The Private Life of Peter Vinograd, made 17 years after the unleashing of artistic experimentation following the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution. By 1934, aesthetic dogmatism had set in under Stalin but the poster’s designer, graphic and stage designer Anatoly Belsky, had studied at the Stroganov Industrial Art School in Moscow during the earlier period when the avant-garde flourished.

The Tsarist order was chucked in the dustbin of history by the Bolshevik revolutionaries and, in tandem with the activation, long-repressed desires for a better society and cultural imperatives for a new kind of art made themselves felt. The iconoclasm that had been subversive before October 1917 became mainstream. Cinema was especially appealing in a country where mass illiteracy was the norm. Vladimir Lenin recognized its importance, reportedly stating ‘that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.’ A decree was issued in 1922 calling for film shows to be encouraged across the country for their entertainment and news value. Alongside the early newsreels and agitprop, foreign films were brought in to redress a dearth of Russian films; censorship was light.

The creativity that fuelled the bold designs of film posters is part of the avant-garde cultural landscape of post-1917 Russia. Before Stalinism imposed a rigid ideological and aesthetic dogmatism, there was an explosion of new talent in the world of image-making that is often grouped under the label Constructivism. The term is one of the least understood in the art world, partly because of its discipline-busting expression in so many fields. How could one movement display itself across not just print graphics, photography, and theatre sets but also clothing, porcelain, furniture, and architecture?

Constructivism was imbued with an appropriately bolshie attitude to canonized art forms art but possessed utopian impulses and was never nihilistic. Art Nouveau may have been capturing the visual imagination of Western Europe but it was bourgeois recreation to Bolsheviks who rejected prettiness and easel painting – manifestations of the marketplace – in favor of Cubist-influenced aesthetics that turned to electrifying colors, shapes, and lines drawn not by laws of perspective but by rulers and compasses.

Art was to be public, no longer the preserve of the academy – ‘the streets are our brushes; the squares are our palettes’, wrote poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, ‘constructed not composed, informed more by machine-age technologies than classical masterpieces enshrined by tradition. The consumer was dead, to be replaced by the communist citizen. As the Russian avant-garde writer and critic Osip Brik put it: ‘Art for the proletariat is not a scared temple for lazy contemplation, but work, a factory, producing completely artistic objects.’

The expressive design of the film posters embodies this exhilarating cocktail of utopian, ideological, and aesthetic ingredients through the dynamic employment of cardinal colors with bold figures, silhouettes, and typographies. Alongside the influence of facial close-ups from silent films was the impact of films made by Russian directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga VertovVsevolod Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko responded to Lenin’s decree with alacrity. This impact is keenly felt in the way posters strove to imbue their static image-making with the sense of speed and motion that characterized montage techniques. The editing of frames in quick succession – think Battleship Potemkinwas translated into pictorializing parts of a film’s narrative or its genre onto a single poster space. The viewer’s eye, jumping from one aspect of a person’s appearance to details of shapes or patterns or colors, imitates montage’s conjoining of time, space, and meaning. As Pack observes about the eye in the poster for Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1929): it ‘simultaneously belongs to the camera, the woman and the camera-man’.

Pack’s Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde is a visual adventure in over 300 pages of a  large-format hardback (9.5 x 12.75) with 250 color reproductions of posters for Russian and American films.

RATING 9 / 10