Scholars may well hope that, with ever-changing digital technology, we can stop to record today’s political catchphrases and memes for future archivists.
Among the regimes that America fought half a century ago, North Korea remains a menacing foe, but Cuba waits eagerly for reconciliation and China is capitalist in fact if not theory. Still, headlines and Wiki-Leaks pepper news and social media feeds with distrust of a sinister Russia that echoes the Cold War. Such U.S. reactions to Communist nations make this new collection of posters particularly relevant today. On the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Mary Ginsberg has edited a comprehensive presentation of the often vivid propaganda that, for the eyes of hundreds of millions in a pre-social media age, celebrated and condemned the likes of Castro, Mao, Lenin, Stalin and the apparatchiks who tried to implement their theories and schemes.
A representative example is “Red Loudspeakers Are Sounding through Every Home” (1972), which as Ginsberg observes, documents the use of images to instill obedience. In a Chinese village, slogans, songs and lectures emanate from speakers installed on the streets. Their indoctrination may have seemed inescapable, for such broadcasts cannot be shut off. Other means further the deification of the leader as well as his dictates. The home shown on the poster has only a framed portrait of The Chairman, surrounded by small banners with sayings and little red books while outside, a family gathers.
Over 330 illustrations demonstrate the range and the scope beyond the U.S.S.R. and the P.R.C., with chapters on Korea, Mongolia, Eastern Europa, Vietnam and Cuba put in context with scholarly essays that cross-references recurring themes. The poster art depends heavily on Constructivism and photomontage that sells the products of intellectuals to peasants and workers, peddling exhortations to produce more, fight harder and act braver.
Still, verbose captions can weigh down the impact of such images. Take one poster from 1937: Sergei Igumnov’s red fist emerges from a rolled-up sleeve showing off a worker’s clenched and muscular arm strangling a snake with swastika eyes, with extensive text: “We’ll Uproot Spies and Deviationists of the Trotsky-Bukharin Agents of Fascism.” Given the relentless purges under the Man of Steel, such creations endure for their visual force more than their context.
As dynasties bore down, the masses viewed ideals. Aleksei Lavrov’s “The People’s Dreams Have Come True” (1950) depicts a grandfather that resembles Lenin clasping a Young Pioneer’s shoulder. The old man’s smile encourages the slightly wistful, perhaps hesitant, fantasies of the boy, looking up from a book penned by “a critic of urban social conditions.” Pravda sits on the table of their ship’s cabin. Behind their sofa, a reproduction of “the famous Repin painting ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’” is a bit blurred, but “confirming how terrible things used to be.” Outside, ships sail past gleaming factories.
While that poster mirrors the ‘20s abstractions of Russia’s past, other lands drew on their own artistic legacies. Mongolian folk art and calligraphy inform that nation’s first efforts, while later art work mimics the Chinese Communist preference for red banners, gesticulating vanguards, rosy cheeks and marching masses. Polish aesthetics, as evocatively shown on film posters, also grace political ones. Silhouettes, shadows, stark typefaces and surreal figures shunted aside the Soviet template for Czech and Hungarian designers who incorporated pop art and psychedelic patterns into silkscreen and montaged takes on opera, a new television model or Allende’s brief Chilean victory. Anti-American sentiments are clear in the Chinese imitation of an anti-Vietnam war mural, with placards of English-language denunciations of the war machine.
North Korea dutifully perpetuates such works, with primary colors and exclamation marks typical of their recognizable, readable typography long before Kim Il Sung. Yet as Koen de Ceuster explains, campaigns prove unrelenting under the Kims, so the shelf life of a given poster was limited: “the message prevails over the package.” De Cuester asks a necessary question: “Where does art end and propaganda begin?” For the D.P.R.K., art theory combines ideological with artistic equality through a unified concept. Agitprop exhorts the Koreans to work diligently against an Uncle Sam whose competing tanks, bombers and missiles always loom. What distinguishes their works is the frequent inclusion of a mythical horse flying over smoking chimneys and rice paddies.
Vietnam takes French and Indochinese influences with hand-drawn lettering, indigenous themes and guerrilla poses from street art. These are more awkward than the Soviet, Maoist or Korean models, but are more original, perpetuating the raw eyewitness sensibility of a real struggle against imperialist invaders.
Cuban artifacts provide another rich array of material, as international influences entered the island’s art long before 1959. Capitalizing on tourism and a worldwide market, its posters were sold as commercial items. Diminishing the Socialist Realism quotient, they favor hand-cut and silkscreened stencils that juxtapose disparate objects, often with humor. Many of the island’s illustrators heeded Castro’s 1977 proclamation: “Our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art.” Contrasting the sophistication of Cuban propaganda against the simplicity of Mongolian posters, for instance, demonstrates the connections one Communist enclave may enjoy over another.
What does the future hold for political posters? Contemporary capitalist systems appeal more to screens than paste-ups. Scholars may well hope that, with ever-changing digital technology, we can stop to record today’s political catchphrases and memes for future archivists.