See USSR

Well, nobody can say that I don’t practise what I preach – as I mentioned in this month’s roundup, there’s a SEE USSR exhibition at the Grad Gallery in London, an exhibition of Intourist posters from the 1920s onwards, brilliant examples of graphic design, modernism and the inevitable Socialist Realism. I went there a bit ago, and walked around and gawked, and a lovely woman at reception assured me I could take pictures if I wanted, and here they are.

There’s one cavil, though. The lighting is pretty fraught in the gallery and the glare off the reflective covers of the posters is agonising. You can see what I mean – the photos didn’t really come out very well no matter what angle I tried to grab them from. Oh well.

Notice how Westernised the designs are? There was no comparable model in the Russia of the 1920s, and Intourist was granted permission to use any means to attract visitors wielding hard currency into the country. Soviet commercial design therefore was based on the graphic art of Germany and France, seeking to inveigle the Western tourist with familiar styles and tropes.

Crimee, by Nikolai Zhukov & Sergei Sakharov. (1935).

Schepetovka-Baku, by Maria Nesterova.

The posters above depict a reality so far removed from the contemporary USSR that one can easily imagine irony. But that’s what advertising is for – to present glamour beyond the everyday, to entice the visitor, to pretend that the jazz age was as pervasive in Communist lands as in Paris in the 1920s.

So what could you do once you arrived in this wondrous Soviet Union? Why, you could hunt:

Hunting in the USSR, by Georgy Savitsky. (1931).

Hunting in the USSR

Hunting in the USSR, by unknown artist. (1930s).

Or you could go skiing:

Winter in the USSR, by Nikolai Zhukov. (1935).

You could even do a tad of summer sport:

Summer sports in the USSR, by unknown artist. (1930s).

Or you could go trippin’ to exotic lands. Flaunting the minorities was a famous pastime of the Soviets, mainly to show a bit of exoticism, but also to propagate the decree of universal fraternity and equal rights under communism. (‘The aesthetic and political benefits of this decree should not be underestimated as it allowed millions access to a modern standard of living while at the same time it enriched and diversified the Soviet cultural scene through such institutions as the Jewish National Theatre or the State Georgian Rustaveli Theatre, with most of their plays performed in ethnic minority languages.‘ (From the exhibition writeup for these posters.) Nesterova’s posters show a particularly romanticised view of the ethnic minority, belying the ongoing destruction of traditional culture in these lands.

Les Stations de Cure en URSS, by Maria Nesterova. (1930s).

Tbilisi, by Viktor Klimashin. (1930s).

Asie Centrale Sovietique, by Maria Nesterova. (1930s).

This was, after all, a country of a 189 nations:

USSR – Country of 189 Peoples, by Nikolai Zhukov and Sergei Sakharov. (1934).

And how would you travel? If you were a foreigner, you could fly into many cities of the USSR in style:

Par avion en URSS

Once in the country, you could whizz about in fancy cars:

Georgian Military Highway, by Alexander Zhitomirsky. (1939).

Or by train on bridges vaulting over the fashionable automobile:

L’Armenie Sovietique, by Sergei Igumnov. (1935).

You could even leave the country by ship!

Odessa-Istanbul, by unknown artist. (1930s).

By the second half of the 1930s, Intourist’s modernist language was becoming taboo. Avant-garde and Art Deco was out, and under the increasing strictures of Stalin, Soviet Realism became paramount. Check out the transition from Leningrad to Moscow, from the old to the new realist era:

Leningrad, by Nikolai Zhukov. (1935).

Moscow, by Sergei Sakharov. (Late 1930s).

Check out some more Intourist posters at Dieselpunks!

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One thought on “See USSR

  1. Pingback: Art Roundup – October 2013 | Art of the Russias

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