See USSR: two sides of Soviet Union propaganda

New gallery GRAD London stands for Gallery for Russian Arts and Design and its inaugural exhibition presents a fascinating insight into Soviet Union propaganda

New gallery GRAD in London stands for Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, and in keeping with its aim of presenting this art from a refreshingly new angle, its inaugural exhibition presents a fascinating insight into Soviet Union propaganda.

The exhibition of posters, magazines and textile designs is jointly curated by GRAD and Irina Nikiforova, chief of the department of European and American Art 19-20th Century at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. It shows the external proganda by the Soviet Union aimed at selling an attractive vision of the USSR to the tourists of western Europe and America in the late 1920s and 30s.

A series of posters, commissioned in the 1930s by Intourist (the organisation responsible for foreign tourism in the Soviet Union), enticed the West with stunning visions of the country, advertising such pursuits as hunting and adventurous car journeys. See USSR brings some of them together for the first time after extensive research into the relatively short time-span of this particular approach to propaganda.

“Through Intourist’s posters you really see this country that never existed,” says curator and director of the gallery Elena Sudakova. “They used this European language, this very glamorous language. They are trying to attract European and American tourists, by means of the language that was familiar to them.”

Intourist poster by Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, 1939

When the organisation was established in 1929 it had no idea how to advertise travel to the Soviet Union, adds Sudakova. It first used a more avant garde design language that was familiar in Europe at the time, with the influence of Aleksandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky very much in evidence in the early artwork.

Early Intourist poster by Aleksandr Froloff, c 1930

However, the approach changed quickly, as the organisation’s artists adopted the art deco style that was used to advertise European destinations, drawing on European travel posters and other graphics for inspiration. “It’s interesting to look at them, because sometimes you can’t tell whether it’s the French Riviera or the Soviet Union,” adds Sudakova. “Although there are clues of course.”

Poster by Maria Nesterova-Berzina, 1930s

In 1931 Intourist launched a poster competition, which encouraged emerging artists to submit poster designs. Among them were Maria Nesterova-Berzina, Nikolay Zhukov and Aleksandr Zhitomrisky, and the See USSR exhibition brings them together for the first time under the term ‘Intourist artist’.

Nikolay Zhukov’s Caucasus poster, 1936

The Crimea by Sergey Sakharov, 1935

USSR poster by Nikolay Zhukov and Viktor Klimashin, 1935

Highlighting the Soviet Union’s cultural prowess was another key element of Intourist posters and its publications ‘Soviet Travel’ and ‘Soviet Land’, promoting the country as the land of culture through its festivals of dance and music.

The Leningrad Festival of Music poster by Joseph Šebek, 1934

Issues of Soviet Travel and Soviet Land

The propaganda also included travel guides, maps and badges

The external propaganda contrasted sharply with the imagery of the inward propaganda, a point highlighted within the exhibition. In contrast to the images of a Soviet land of leisure, elegance and glamour, these designs draw on imagery of miliary might, flight, the union of peoples and industrialisation, as exemplified in the below textile designs.

The Soviet Aircraft Industry, 1927, artist unknown

The Second Congress of the Textile Workers, 1930s, artist unknown

The art deco inspired posters of enticement were relatively short-lived, as towards the end of the 1930s depictions of the Soviet Union shifted towards the expressions of architectural and political grandeur more readily associated with the union. But, as Sudakova points out of the period explored in the exhibition, “neither of the propaganda, external or internal told the whole story – neither of them reflect any kind of reality”.

See USSR runs until August 31 at GRAD, 3-4a Little Portland Street, London W1W. GRAD also commissioned artist and model-maker Henry Milner to reconstruct the eponymous See USSR poster, designed by Nikolay Zhukov in 1930, which is on sale as a limited edition print (see image at the top of the page for Milner’s artwork).

Pink Floyd fans may recognise the cover of our June issue. It’s the original marked-up artwork for Dark Side of the Moon: one of a number of treasures from the archive of design studio Hipgnosis featured in the issue, along with an interview with Aubrey Powell, co-founder of Hipgnosis with the late, great Storm Thorgerson. Elsewhere in the issue we take a first look at The Purple Book: Symbolism and Sensuality in Contemporary Illustration, hear from the curators of a fascinating new V&A show conceived as a ‘walk-in book’ plus we have all the regular debate and analysis on the world of visual communications.

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