Women in Russian Poster Art

[This is a loose translation of N. I. Baburina, S. N. Artamonova, ‘Women in Russian Poster Art of the Early XX Century‘, 27 March 2009.]

The image of woman, who gives life to mankind, has occupied from ancient times an important place in the iconography of illustrative art. It manifests itself in the images of the Madonna and the Mother Goddess – the most important representation in painting, sculpture and iconography from the very earliest times to this day. The appearance of women formed the basis for a variety of symbolic images, representing science and art, politics and nature.

The art of print advertising, emerging in the latter half of the 19th century, sought its own ideals, heroes and symbols. The symbol of ‘poster art’ (under which name the concept entered artistic life) could be a female image hearkening back to antiquity (as in the work of Elizaveta Kekushev) or a contemporary one (as visualised by S. Solomko). Examples of both were displayed at the International Exhibition of Poster Art, held in Russia in 1897-1898. It is symptomatic that the theme of feminity, one of the earliest themes adopted by the new genre, was picked up by female artists.

The key to the success of advertising stems, naturally, from its appeal. To reflect this quality, the best posters often are obliged to have female characters. The image of women in poster art is multifaceted and multilayered, and a simplistic attempt to identify it is doomed to failure. The woman in the poster is the propagandist, and her face directly addresses the audience, who then assess the goods on offer or judge the film or play. Simultaneously her other role is that of representing the female customer, demonstrating the role of customer, visitor, reader, in short, the character that uses the offered information and buys the product. The female image could represent social or political or commercial phenomenon, serving as a symbol or sign of a company or a registered trade mark.

The question arises – how much does the woman in the poster, and indeed in advertising, correspond to a realistic image of contemporary womanhood? After all, in contrast to easel painting, poster art is the art of exaggeration. What drives it is flattery; to flatter, the poster should instigate sympathies in the audience such that the audience sees itself in the poster, not as in a simple mirror, but with a twist, as though in a magic mirror, where some features are sharp and exaggerated, while others are displayed in an unexpected perspective.

The active process of forming a Russian poster art coincided with the establishment of the modernist style in the country. The new style influenced the figurative modes of the budding new genre of poster art, and, of course, the depiction of the female image in the poster. Modernism lent it an unusualness, an attractiveness and trendiness that conformed to the requirement of the ‘magic’ mirror.

An early version of the homespun modernism, the neo-Russian style rooted in the pre-Peter (the Great) Russia, enriched the iconography of ‘poster art’ with grand images of women in beautiful traditional dresses.

Patriotic and nationalistic symbols of the neo-Russian style were transformed in the advertising poster into a specific attractive quality of goods and services. The Russian woman in the folk costume represented a poster-ideal of national beauty and often personified the country itself.

Unlike painting and graphic arts, a woman in the advertisement of the past is always associated with modernity: a princess promotes a Singer sewing machine – the artist vividly improves the attraction of the well-known German company via a young Russian noblewoman standing against a background of a modern map of Russia. Combined in a single image are elements of the past and present, a potent mix that elicits a sense of intrigue, surprise and shock.

Along with the images that have arrived in the genre from the depths of the past, the pre-Revolutionary advertising poster was dominated by images of womanhood typified by the France-based work of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. This woman was mysterious with loosely wavy hair, resembled a mermaid or a goddess, a symbol of felinity, an allegory, a symbol endowed with traits of contemporary womanhood.

This image had much in common with the poetry of Symbolism, the mystical imagery of film, theatrical spectaculars, with book and magazine illustrations, and therefore easily absorbed allegorical meaning and content (see, for example, ‘Theatre of miniatures’ by I. Shkolnik, or ‘Autumn of Woman’ by an unknown painter).

The very same image in a commercial context served to refine the most trivial of quotidian items – pasta, soap, bulbs. The artists required a heightened sense of proportion, compositional skill and inventiveness, so that the association didn’t appear strange and strained. (See ‘A.M. Zhukov – St Petersburg – Moscow – Nizhny Novgorod . Soap.’ By an unknown artist.)

Nevertheless, ‘magic mirrors’ advertising everyday objects often manifested itself in exotic female faces and costumes. Notions of ‘colonial’ goods were associated with women living in nearby and far-off lands – Ukrainian, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish women in exotic clothes and situated in fantastical interiors and landscapes. The female domination of the Russian poster extended not only back across the centuries but also across the breadth of space and territory.

When an author wanted to bring the female image closer to reality, he would translate it into a number of aesthetics, utilising humour, satire, hyperbole, metaphor and decorative techniques. So, for example, you can see the woman in the advert for ‘Central Garage’ in a fashion magazine: she is associated with the humorous comparison of horse and car, the contrasting symbols of ancient and modern Russia. Or, you can see the aristocratic woman, ‘breathing perfume and mist’, promoting the parfumerie ‘Empress’. Or, you can see the peasant girl in a bright festive costume inviting you to the All-Russia exhibition of sheep-breeding in the poster by A. Komarov.

In some cases you can see portraits of realistic prototypes and real faces. Thus you find Lyubov Gritsenko, third daughter of Pavel Tretyakov, future wife of Leon Bakst, appear in his poster art devoted to the Red Cross of the Community of St Eugenia.

Consider the portrait sheet of the outstanding Russian painter Valentin Serov. Commissioned to advertise Russian ballets in Paris, he captured the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova in the ballet ‘La Sylphide’. The poster was so successful that for the next Diaghilev season, the French artist Jean Cocteau, basing himself on Serov’s work, created a poster of the other prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theatre, Tamara Karsavina. Many other women appeared on film posters; indeed film poster art incorporated elements of literature, graphic art and films themselves, in a kind of ‘synthesis of the small’, a vivid expression of the culture of the age, both ‘high art’ and kitsch. There appeared graphic images of different literary and stylistic directions, including the mystical, mysterious, and the symbolic. (See M. Kalmanson’s ‘Abyss’.)

And if in the commercial poster one found references to the storied Swan Princess, in film posters one found the spider-woman, the vampire, the woman-serpent, the bloodsucking woman beast.

In the ‘magic mirror’ of the advertising poster, the female image operated under the rules of kitsch, often ‘polluted’ by exoticism. Primitive in design and colour scheme, the “beauties” nevertheless met the tastes of a certain class of society and demonstrated an obvious social and commercial imperative.

Before the First World War, a woman in a poster depicted manifold aspects of a private life. The objective world of the commercial advertisement engendered an idea of her quotidian life: announcements of books, magazines, theatre, films, of culture and leisure. You could learn a bit about her participation in social life, for example, charity. But once the military action began, the poster was commandeered to the service of the political sphere. Now the circle of female personifications expanded and their characters were enriched. The task of motivating the soldiers and the populace fell onto the feminised image of the motherland. S. Vinogradov illustrated this with a middle-aged noblewoman, lamenting at the walls of the Kremlin.

Simultaneously, however, with this reference to the historical tradition appear contemporary images. These are not abstract, but very real: Sisters of Mercy lovingly portrayed by Abram Arkhipov; women workers in red kerchiefs machining shells and participating in demonstrations; ladies collecting donations for the wounded and war orphans.

The poster marched alongside the historical process: women pushed into public life, and as they protested against famine and war, they also found a place for themselves in the poster art of the new politics.

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