One of nine posters by Amshei Niurenberg for Rosta window 753, December 1920, watercolor on paper, 19 1/4 x 14 1/8".

One of nine posters by Amshei Niurenberg for Rosta window 753, December 1920, watercolor on paper, 19 1/4 x 14 1/8".


Galerie Thomas Flor

One of nine posters by Amshei Niurenberg for Rosta window 753, December 1920, watercolor on paper, 19 1/4 x 14 1/8".

Those in power—or those striving for it—often resort to the force of images. Art historian Martin Warnke posits that in the past, rulers might have paid more attention to the creation and propagation of a political iconography than to proper governmental acts. Such imagery, he insists, had to take into account both the sender’s message and the linguistic capacities, expectations, needs, and norms of the receiver. Stalin certainly understood this double coding when, in 1934, he established the method of socialist realism. Apart from illustrating the party’s directives, Soviet art had to express “narodnost,” which roughly translates to something like “national character.” Stalin rejected the formal solutions of the avant-garde, but he embraced their political impetus and, particularly, their foundation in Russian popular-art forms.

Postrevolutionary propaganda like the so-called Rosta windows—posters published by the Soviet state telegraph agency between 1919 and 1922, deriving their name from the fact that they were typically displayed in shopwindows—drew strongly from the tradition of the lubok: simple woodcuts conveying popular tales as well as religious teachings and government proclamations. Yet when this traditional form was elevated to the scale of propaganda, suddenly lighting up the dark streets of Moscow with their colors, the Rosta windows must have had quite an overwhelming effect. Familiar in their combination of image and text, their cartoon- and caricature-like wit, they supported the Bolshevik cause; called for the restoration of agriculture, industry, and discipline; gave pragmatic advice; and translated official decrees into accessible images, symbols, slogans, and rhymes.

The first Rosta windows were drafted by the illustrator and stage designer Mikhail Cheremnykh. Soon, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (also an artist by training) took on a leading role in their collective production, attracting a number of well-known artists, among them Aleksandr Rodchenko. Individual styles are perceptible in the abstraction of the human figure, of buildings and fields, or in the treatment of the monster-type beings that symbolize ruin, decay, or the cold, often inspired by archetypal images from popular culture. Some of the posters’ freshness might be due to the fact that they were reproduced with the help of stencils and are thus quasi-handmade. A series of six posters from 1921, for instance—artist unknown—propagates the redevelopment of agriculture, showcasing a dutiful farmer plowing the land and a proto-Popeye-style worker hammering iron. A fourteen-part suite by Mayakovsky, also from 1921, translates a decree banning the unruly use of trains, scolding “the imbeciles” who unlawfully ride on the locomotives and thus provoke a collapse of the material. Another work, by Amshei Niurenberg from1920, in almost fluorescent pink, blue, and green, demands a transformation of military discipline into working discipline in order to fend off the rise of “a new eagle,” embodied in a scary, cocky green dragon with wings, symbolizing all things (politically) evil.

In 1967, when Viktor Duvakin’s seminal book on Mayakovsky was first translated into German, the Rosta windows became an inspiration for a new generation of politically engaged artists. The Soviet propaganda poster fueled much of the agitprop work of the time: Chris Reinecke, for instance, made a direct reference to Mayakovsky with her Schaufensterblätter (Shop Window Series), 1969–70, calling for solidarity with tenants. Jörg Immendorff, too, and perhaps also Markus Lüpertz, worked under the influence of the Rosta spirit. With all this in mind, the present exhibition serves as more than a great lesson in art history from the 1920s—and from the generation of 1968. It asks: Must politically engaged art come in the guise of propaganda? And what is the potential of politically engaged art today?

Astrid Mania