Soviet Film Posters of the Silent Screen

The Gallery of Russian Art and Design’s latest exhibition includes rarely seen posters promoting silent films from the 1920s. Open until March, it offers a fascinating look at early film advertising and the use of cinematic techniques in print communications.

The Gallery of Russian Art and Design’s latest exhibition includes rarely seen posters promoting silent films from the 1920s. Open until March, it offers a fascinating look at early film advertising and the use of cinematic techniques in print communications.

Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen was curated by GRAD director Elena Sudakova and art historian Lutz Becker. While the 30 posters on show were mass produced, few copies of them exist today and several have never been exhibited in the UK until now.

The Russian Government invested heavily in silent film in the 1920s – a state controlled organisation, Sovkino, was appointed to oversee the distribution of foreign films and revenue generated from ticket sales was used to fund domestic propaganda productions such as Sergei Eisentein’s October and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg, which celebrate the October Revolution of 1917.

Posters promoting domestic and foreign titles were produced by a subsidiary department, Reklam Films, led by designer Yakov Ruklevsky, who appointed a number of young creatives including Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, Izrail Bograd, Grigorii Borisov, Nikolai Prusakov, Mikhail Dlugach, Aleksandr Naumov and Semen Semenov Menes. Some went on to design adverts for consumer goods while others specialised in set design and political posters, but all used the same vivid colours, experimental typography and avante garde techniques.

As the films were produced in black and white, designers were free to experiment with vivid blocks of colour, such as in the Stenberg’s print promoting 1926 film The Three Million Case (above). Propaganda art of the time was mostly limited to one or two colours but Reklam’s film posters used three.

Many of the works shown in the exhibition also feature large floating heads, acting in the same way as close-up stills in film posters today. As Alexandra Chiriac explains in an accompanying book, stills could not be directly transferred onto posters, so artists drew scenes and characters by hand from projections. Their layouts were later transferred by craftsmen onto stone or zinc plates using litho crayon or ink.

As well as employing vivid colours and close-ups, Reklam’s designers used a range of cinematic techniques that were pioneered in the films they promoted – such as repetition, asymmetric viewpoints and dramatic foreshortenings. These distorted proportions were often created by toying with the angle or size of projections, creating dramatic and often eerie or unsettling artwork.

These techniques were employed with the sole intention of startling passers by – according to Chiriac, the Stenbergs once declared: “We produce a poster that is noticeable…designed to shock, to hold attention…To reach this aim, we treat the source material with total freedom, which is also spurred on by the size of the poster. We do not preserve proportionality between several objects and are turning figures upside down – in short, we employ everything that could stop even a hurrying passer by in his tracks”.

While the works on display are rarely seen today, they were exhibited in Russia in 1925 and 1926, and samples were filed at the Lenin Library at the insistence of art critic and politician Lunacharski. The GRAD show is a rare chance to see these iconic works up close in the size and format their designers intended.

Posters also featured in Sudakov and Becker’s book (priced at £25) and GRAD is hosting a series of accompanying events including film screenings and a panel discussion on January 22. See for details.

Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen is open at the Grad Gallery, 3-4a Little Portland Street, London W1W 7JB until March 29 2014.

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