A few weeks ago I was contacted by The New Press and offered a copy of their new publication, Koretsky. The Soviet Photo Poster: 1930-1984, for a prize draw to be launched from this site. This beautiful edition includes 200 colour images as well as interesting commentaries from Erika Wolf, a visual historian based in New Zealand. If you would like to enter the draw, all you need to do is to read to the bottom and leave a post!
To my shame, Viktor Koretsky was a name I did not know, but when I began browsing the catalogue many of the pictures were very familiar. His career is interesting not only because he produced some of the most famous examples of Soviet propaganda art, but also because his career spanned such a long period. His first works were produced in the early 1930s and bear the influence of pioneers of photomontage such as G. Klutsis. One of the examples of his early work that I particularly liked was “Available working hands of the collective farms – to industry” from 1931. The image depicts the mass migration from the rural to the urban sector which was transforming the country during the first five-year plan. The photographs of the workers, smiling but dirty as if straight from a shift in the mines, are placed alongside the clean lines of the modern factory of the future. But perhaps most telling is the hand in the bottom left of the picture writing the word “contract.” The poster reflects the measures introduced by Stalin in the summer of 1931 as he tried to bring order to the mass migration to the cities, by organizing recruitment in a more formal manner. The internal passport would follow the next year.
As Wolf explains in the introduction, photomontage, first the domain of avant-garde artists, had been adopted by a number of political regimes: the “truth-value commonly attributed to photographs” made the approach a powerful tool. But by the early 1930s there was already concern amongst Soviet critics that photomontage presented the viewer with too many different perspectives and was therefore confusing. Koretsky’s work showed a shift in the second half of the 1930s and he began to demonstrate more “painterly techniques.” By the end of the decade he was one of the most renowned Soviet poster artists, though it was during the war that he produced his most famous works, depicting Nazi sadists and Soviet heroes. One of the most famous of these is his 1942 “Red Army soldier, save us!” in which a mother clasps her child to her chest, a Nazi knife dripping in blood pointing towards them. I was particularly struck, though, by his “Death to the child killers!” from the same year. Images of violence inflicted on children are always shocking, but they are particularly rare in the Soviet context, with its emphasis on the “happy childhood” Stalin has provided. Black and white, with only the red of the caption and the murderer’s footprint, the depiction of the dead child, doll thrown down next to her, is chilling.
Koretsky himself admitted that creating images for peace-time was a difficult re-adaptation. Yet he continued to produce posters almost to the end of the Soviet Union’s life-time. As many collections of posters focus almost exclusively on the revolutionary or Stalinist eras, the inclusion of work right up to the 1980s is a particularly appealing aspect of the book. Criticised personally for his use of photomontage in 1948, Koretsky’s work flourished during the Thaw when he demonstrated artistic influences from the West (particularly in his posters devoted to the 1957 youth festival). Despite competition with TV, there was a late revitalization of the political poster, with posters of a much larger format adorning the city streets by the 1970s. Of these later posters, there were two that particularly struck me. One was “Violators of social order – to account!” dating from 1980. A long-hared, side-burned young man with a garish tie is being manhandled by a police-man and a “druzhinik” (member of a volunteer brigade); a knife falls from one hand, a vodka bottle is clutched in the other. The commentary suggests that it reflects a youth culture which emerged in the late 1960s, but for me is reminiscent of themes already prevalent in the 1950s, albeit with a twist: on the pages of Krokodil and in other visual sources, the problem of dissolute youth was already identified as a social problem in the years immediately following Stalin’s death/. Yet at this time the volunteer was normally able to deal with the offender himself; now the police officer was required too. The power of the community seems insufficient by itself. The other poster I found especially striking was “Imperialism – It’s war, it’s the deprivation of rights for millions of people, it’s legalized and everyday racism,” also from 1980. This is a classic poster of the Cold War, presenting various binaries between the horrors of life in the West and the sunny, peaceable one available in the USSR. Here, as Wolf indicates, Koretsky not only portrays the horrors of nuclear war, in particular the neutron bomb, but also deploys motifs from his World War II posters: the face of the woman and child superimposed upon the silhouette of a nuclear missile is directly lifted from his 1943 poster depicting victims of a Nazi mobile gas chamber.
I’ve mentioned some of my “favourites” here, but I’m sure every reader would have her own. Would you like to win a copy of this beautiful catalogue and see for yourself? All you need to post a comment below. It can be a reaction to my blog, some of your own thoughts on Soviet posters, or simply ‘Please enter me for the free draw!’. One of the entries will be selected entirely at random. Closing date: Saturday 30 November.