PRINT May 1975

The Groupie and The Commissar: Revolutionary Posters and Capitalist Billboards


I am a Moscow sanitation worker in the winter of 1926, counting (as I walk along a bleak city street cut with wind and ice) my meager newfound blessings within the working class’s pallid gray lot (as yet not substantially uplifted by the Revolution). But at least I am promised things by new Plans, which is hope, something I have not had before. Tucking my chin in from the cold, I turn the corner . . . and face a bank of posters pasted on the wooden wall shielding some new municipal construction. Rodchenko’s bold diamond boasting the Battleship Potemkin’s massive gun turret: a new film about the sailor heroes of 1905. May I be fortunate enough to see it soon. Inspired, I am half a degree warmer.

I am a recently promoted marketing vice-president from Santa Monica returning, via a Mercedes 450 convertible and the Sunset Strip, to the office after a threemarguerita lunch on Wilshire Boulevard. A crisp, sunny day, Jackson Browne thumpily serenades in eight-track, and I ogle the flat, tanned midriffs gliding along the gleaming sidewalks. I round the curve . . . and my windshield glows with a huge, smooth lifelike Barbie Benton, the cheeks of her derriere barely visible under the tunic and alongside the lettering announcing her record album. Inspired, I am half a degree warmer.

Oh, the differences are obvious. The poster—mass-produced and inexpensive—sells me nothing save the healthful rise in fahrenheit (my well-being as a worker is the subject of the poster itself and the uncompromising spirit of the artist who created it). The billboard, on the other hand, is cynically rendered, employing hackneyed old hooks (sex, hipness, luxury), to sell me a trifle I surely don’t need. With the poster everyone—artist, posting man, worker—is uplifted and bettered some small quantum; with the billboard everyone—space salesman, journeyman painter, consumer—is degraded by the transaction. Yet there is a link, a societal inevitability, which subverts these original kneejerk sentiments.

The authors of Revolutionary Soviet Film Posters* wonder (apparently believing attendant graphic art breakthroughs accompany every major cultural phenomenon) where were the great Soviet film posters that surely should have escorted the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, etc? To that point (mid-’20s) of the 20th century, three waves of poster design had occurred: the sweep of Art Nouveau over all Europe; the smaller burst of painterly/woodcut Expressionist messages of Die Brücke and Der Blau Reiter; and the utopian simplifications of De Stijl. But to a great extent, the Russians were cut off. Extreme modernists “liberated” by the Revolution found themselves sitting around freezing cafes puffing icy clouds of theory and pipe-dream projects while the business of running the revolutionary store was got on with by more pedestrian spirits. Filmmakers, however, were given the green light as the official artistic bearers of the Marxist word; of necessity some graphic artists were taken along to hype the masses.

Malevich, with his Suprematist universality, Lissitzky with his Proun fusion of painting and architecture, and Tatlin, with faith in monumental Constructivism, exerted their influences, to be sure, but as much through the film itself (e.g., Eisenstein Proun-like diagonal compositions) as directly on posters. Moreover, the cinematic conglomerate of single frames, and montage—the most important device of early Soviet film, and its corollary of multiple exposure, readily lent themselves to new considerations in poster design (e.g., planning for display in grids by including an overall staircase-ascending effect, as in the Stenberg Brothers’ October, 1929, or a fake peeling, as in Alexander Rodchenko’s A Sixth Part of the World, 1927). The book quotes Standish Lawder’s opinion that the real strength of Soviet silent film montage resides in its facticity, its grit, rather than its graphic effect per se; similarly the posters—frequently cluttered, naive, cacophonous, and overstated—are saved by their undeniable commitment and sincerity. What might descend to overarticulated, jerrybuilt design—like Nikolai Prusakov’s Glass Eye, or the Stenberg Brothers’ poster for Dziga Vertov’s milestone, Man with a Movie Camera—is buoyed by the sheer enthusiasm of visual puns and technical potpourri.

It looks even better to us here, now—mired in skepticism about advertising’s messages, bombarded with the decadent expanse of capitalist billboards, and unable to read the stubbornly abstract Cyrillic alphabet. Such poignant faith in a brave new world, such innocent pleasure in the printing press’s new gymnastics! When we try to recapture it ourselves, we end up with sequined boutique T-shirts of Chaplin, or Lichtenstein’s Peace Through Chemistry. To the right (that is to say toward unmitigated advertising art), there’s the Borisov-Zhukov poster for Living Corpse, with its slick blend of realism and pattern—the lettering tripling as itself, wallpaper, and haberdashery. And to the left, (toward useless formalism), there’s the anonymous work for Gonorrhea, with its bacillic arcs and hilarious figure/ground reversals. Overall, there’s a sense of urgency, importance, deriving from the cinematic nature of the posters themselves. Here are the roots of what we consume unnoticed every day as movie ads—the large figure “contending” with a piecemeal world, the purposeful stare and its aggrandizing title, and the promise of action (on the screen) to clarify this mysterious montage.

Like the Soviet film, the posters declined with modernism’s increasing official disfavor. Trotsky said early on, “Futurism [meaning all those isms] proclaims the Revolution in Moscow cafes, but not at all in the factories,” but Stalin really cast the die for the molding of Socialist Realism. Vertov and Eisenstein were hauled over the coals in Novy-Lef (No. 3, 1928), and the filmsturned toward convention, simply holding the ground won by the pioneers. Is it surprising then, that Litsinski’s sheet for Flag of the Nation resembles an ordinary Paris Metro cigaret ad?

An ordinary Sunset Strip board c. 1975 is another kettle of fish. The cigaret people bring the billboard people an order for so many boards (no discount for multiples) at $ 1100–$3000 per month each; if there’s no “art” from the client’s agency, Foster and Kleiser furnishes it from their own designers “free” (well, they write it off as “advertising” for the sales department). Glass transparencies are made and projected full-size onto the paper on which the “pounce pattern” is made. This used to involve separate processes of drawing and punching (with a sharp-spoked wheel-knife), but it’s now accomplished with one of those flights of genius with which the tackier aspects of American commerce are so often unjustly blessed. The paper is mounted over a copper-mesh screen and the charcoal pencil is juiced with a modest current. As the tracer draws, the electrified pencil contacts the copper screen through the paper’s pores, producing a spark, burning a small hole. (The rest of it: the paper’s taped up to the billboard panels and charcoal powder rubbed lightly over the drawing, yielding a dotted-line cartoon to paint.) The painters—largely Mexican and Korean nationals who, for some reason, are well-versed in academic Realism and, for obvious reasons, are willing to work’ their tails off to make $20,000 a year after a four-year apprenticeship—take over. The things are seasoned wooden panels painted in straight oil paint (Dana, which Foster and Kleiser owns), and the color jazzed up a bit to compensate for the highway’s atmospheric perspective. On a long-term board a free repaint is thrown in every four months.

When I went through Foster and Kleiser, the tour included stops at the art department, the slide library (the company possesses a superb collection of posters from Lautrec and Mucha to Korean War enlistment pleas), the lovely garden setting where the sample boards (painted in the factory and assembled at the site) are unveiled for the client, and a great two-martini lunch at an Ahmanson Center restaurant which trades billboards for dining privileges. No one talked about some vague, distant social goal being nudged along through these behemoth outdoor paintings, and no one said much about art—save that the West Coast boards, because of the available painter talent, are head and shoulders above New York’s. We talked about how the art director had come a long way from Chouinard, and whether or not the tough-chick Winston woman was a “great concept” (in advertising, all bright ideas are “concepts”).

A few of the posters in the revolutionary film poster book depict American films—Keaton, early de Mille etc. A couple more, like Miss Mend (anonymous), advertise Soviet movies about the U.S., e.g., “the struggle of the working class against the capitalists in the U.S. of the 1920s.” My first reaction was, “What! How the hell can Bolsheviks purport to describe this place with a bunch of Russian actors and four sets at Sovkino?” Then I realized, of course, that we (Hollywood) do it all the time—India, England, the North Pole, and Mother Russia (Dr. Zhivago, Red Star) herself. How I’d love to see Miss Mend! How I’d like Foster and Kleiser to do a 30-foot “painted bulletin” (as they call them), encouraging greater productivity in my 1926 sewage processing station. Maybe it’s possible, like a joint space docking mission, now that we have so much in common.