THE SILVER AGE OF THE RUSSIAN POSTER
The exhibition “Irrelevant Advertising. Russian Posters of the Early 20th Century” presents a collection of posters, now held at the Tretyakov Gallery, that were produced before the Bolshevik revolution. At the core of this collection are those put together by Fedor Fedorov and acquired by the museum in 1933. The art scholar Alexei Korostin wrote about Fedorov in 1950: “A collector of posters and bookplates, in other words - a partisan of the extremes who collected either very big or very small items.” A separate section is devoted to playbills the gallery received, in 1989, as a part of Mikhail Larionov’s and Natalya Goncharova’s “Parisian legacy” gifted to the museum in accordance with the will of Larionov’s widow, Alexandra Larionova-Tomilina.
The show highlights the period from 1897 up to the early 1920s. The date 1897 is not accidental: in that year Russia held its first “International Exhibition of Artistically Designed Bills” under the patronage of the St. Petersburg Society for Encouragement of the Arts (in St. Petersburg in 1897 — in Moscow, 1898 — in Kiev, 1900). The advertising poster for that exhibition, created by Lev Kekushev, is featured at the current show. The exhibition was organised and sponsored by Russian publishers. For instance, most of the posters from the exhibition’s Russian section were printed in Roman Golike’s typolithography workshop, and in Moscow the exhibition was supported by the renowned publisher Iossif Knebel. Among nearly 30 well-known printers of the age, the especially prominent workshops specialising in artistically-designed posters were: Alexander Levenson’s fast-printing workshop, Ivan Sytin’s publishing house, and Roman Golike’s and Arthur Wilborg’s Partnership. That ambitious exhibition, where first-rate artists (such as Jules Cheret, Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alfonse Maria Mucha) represented various international schools, drew the attention of famous Russian artists to posters as a special area of creative activity.
In Russian, the word “poster” — plakat — is believed to have derived from the Dutch anplakken, which means “to glue”, or “to nail down”. At its roots, Russian posters are closely linked to folk pictures (the lubok tradition), which, through the 19th century, were a popular vehicle for advertising and propaganda. The poster borrowed from the lubok many visual techniques, mainly “narrative” ones. Posters have an eternal relevance: initially intended as attention grabbers, the fixtures to fix the viewers’ gaze to a certain location in an urban environment, posters called for the use of a special visual language. Due to its specific features, poster art is “by birth right” directly connected with the vibrant and bustling city setting. Poster-makers actively used cropping techniques, beguiling angles and gestures, and brief slogans. Many discoveries in composition and imagery made by poster artists before the Bolshevik revolution later spawned the visual cliches of the Soviet era. Directly responding to what is going on, the poster proved to be an “exaggerating mirror” of the stylistic tendencies of early-20th century art. The present exhibition highlights such trends as realism, eclecticism, the “Russian style”, neo-classicism, symbolism, and the avant-garde, both in recognizable interpretations of famous masters and in the creations of unknown poster artists. As it turned out, one style most in tune with the poster art in terms of objectives and capabilities was moderne, with its drift toward a synthesis of arts, exploration of spaces and heightened ornamentality of line.
Those acclaimed artists whose lesser-known creative endeavours in poster art are featured at the show include the brothers Apollinary and Viktor Vasnetsov, Dmitry Kardovsky, and Konstantin Korovin; the artists from the “World of Art” group, Konstantin Somov, Yevgeny Lansere and Leon Bakst; the artists from the “Blue Rose” group, Pavel Kuznetsov, Nikolai Remizov, Vasily Denisov, Nikolai Feofilaktov, Georgy Yakulov, and Sergei Sudeikin; and Mikhail Larionov and the artists of the Parisian school such as Pavel Tchelitchew, Abraham-Iosif Berlin, and Sergei Fotinsky. Noteworthy pieces on view include stylistically consistent poster bills designed by architects, including Yakov Belzen, Lev Kekushev, Ivan Rerberg, and Yakov Ponomarenko.
The exhibition is divided into sections in accordance with the traditional segmentation of poster art by genre and by function. Individual sections are focused on bills advertising exhibitions, military and social posters, publishers’ posters, and playbills. The show also features original graphic pieces — sketched designs of posters and hand-made bills.
The displayed advertisements of art exhibitions of the period prior and during World War I introduce viewers to the thriving cultural scene of the early 20th century and “reify”, so to speak, the circuit of exhibitions of the past, representing the wide range of artistic groupings and shows. Featured side by side are exhibitions and artists that championed jarringly conflicting, sometimes irreconcilable viewpoints.
At that time an advertisement was more or less an integral part of the entire project to which it was related, whether an exhibition, an architectural project, or a publishing venture. A landmark of sorts is a poster for an international exhibition of advertising bills at the Stroganov School of Technical Drawing (1897) designed by Kekushev, one of the leading architects of Moscow moderne who contributed to the creation of the “symbol” of that style, the Metropol Hotel. The poster is a landmark not only because it highlights an event not unlike the Tretyakov Gallery’s current exhibition and started off the development of poster art in Russia, but also because Kekushev, one of the most outstanding representatives of early modernism, was a prolific exponent of its Belgian version in Moscow.
For Kekushev, the international show of advertising bills was one of the sources of inspiration along his road to a holistic modernist style in architecture. 1898-1899 saw the construction of the first mansion in the Moscow modernist style, the architect’s own house in Glazovsky Lane. There were also several other reasons behind Kekushev’s willingness to undertake the creation of this poster. In the 1890s he worked productively in the field of applied art, contributing to the creation of a material environment fashioned in the new style. He made sketches for bronze, wooden and zinc objects for Moscow industrial plants and taught, in 1898-1901, silver-plating, ironforging and composition at the Stroganov School of Technical Drawing.
Not by coincidence, Kekushev’s poster hangs next to an elegant bill for the famous 1902 exhibition “Architecture and Industry of Arts of the New Style”. This piece is believed to have been designed by Ivan Rerberg, along with the exhibition catalogue, where everything, including the advertisements at the end, was created by a single hand. That show was organised by an architect, Ivan Fomin, who also displayed many of his works there. Enlisting financial support from the biggest industrialists and patrons of art, as well as leading Russian and Western producers of furniture, lighting fixtures, glass and bronze, he was successful in making the show a momentous event for the dissemination of modernist aesthetics, design and architectural ideas both among artists and architects, and among their clients. Due to the patronage of Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (Elizaveta Fedorovna), the exhibition was visited by international luminaries, such as, for instance, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Russian exhibitors included Moscow and St. Petersburg architects and artists who championed the new style, Fyodor Schechtel and Lev Kekushev among them. Other items of interest in this section are Yakov Belzen’s advertisement for an “International Show of the Art and formula and represents, in fact, a visual manifesto of the artist’s style.
Of special interest is a poster of the first show of Old Russian art, a landmark event after which icons started circulating around exhibitions and became a focus of academic research. The show of icons was held under the auspices of the Nicholas II Imperial Institute of Archaeology in Moscow, in the year when the House of Romanov celebrated its 300th anniversary. The institute’s activities were focused on archaeology, archaeography, Russian history and related areas of scholarship. The creator of the poster, Vladimir Mayat, an artist and architect working in a neo-classicist style, used the floral design of a wooden iconostasis. The exhibition was a part of the celebratory festivities scheduled for 1913, which included the laying of the foundation stone and the construction of a new building for the Nicholas II Institute, a project in which Mayat was involved as a member of the team of architects. The edifice, now gone, graced Miusskaya Square until the 1960s.
The charitable art shows of the war years, such as “Moscow Artists for the Benefit of War Victims. An Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture” (Nikolai Piskarev, 1914), “Women Artists for the Benefit ofWar Victims” (Yevgeniya Zaidner, 1914), “Assistance to the Families of Heroes. An Exhibition of Paintings of the Russian Artists of the Old and New Schools” (Viktor Vasnetsov, 1915), even then brought together artists with utterly different sensibilities, employing utterly different aesthetic strategies. The surge of patriotic feeling revived interest in the national art traditions. The important public sentiment was captured in the works of the “Russian style”. Such renowned artists as Apollinary and Viktor Vasnetsov and Konstantin Korovin were enlisted to produce political posters. A poster devoted to a fund-raising drive called “The Siberian Day” was fashioned by Apollinary Vasnetsov as a historical reconstruction centred on the figure of Yermak blowing a trumpet. This piece is a fine example of “realist drawing” in posters, a style whose other exponents include the artists Konstantin Klever and Leonid Pasternak. Viktor Vasnetsov created several posters and handbills for charity events employing images culled from the Russian epics, which by then had become the staple of his art. Such is the style of an advertisement for a city charity bazaar held in 1914 for the benefit of the wounded: it was displayed at the exhibition “Artists for the Benefit of Their Fellows, Soldiers”. The poster depicts a fight between Ivan Tsarevich and the serpent of the sea, evoking the 1912 painting “Ivan Tsarevich Fighting the Three-Headed Serpent of the Sea”, the idea for which Vasnetsov had conceived in the 1880s.
Quite a few posters in the gallery’s collection are devoted to an issue of public bonds called “War Loan”. The bonds were issued in February 1916, their final due date set for 1926. That attempt of Nicholas II’s ministers to borrow money for the war from the citizenry was quite extensively advertised among all the groups of population of the Russian Empire. The poster, for this reason, incorporated all stylistic trends, from the narrative poster close to oil folk prints (the lubok) to the emblems of statehood. Other noteworthy items include works by Vladimir Varzhansky, Ivan Vladimirov, and Alfred Eberling; we have yet to learn the names of many other poster artists whose pieces went into countless reprints.
Also on view in this section are unique pieces like the hand-painted sketches for the 1917 “Freedom Bonds” posters, published on the orders of the Moscow Committee of Finances. Very famous and with politics woven into its very name, that instance of official borrowing was initiated by the Provisional Government, which issued the bonds in late March 1917. Unlike similar campaigns of the Tsar’s policy-makers, this issue had a long maturity period of 49 years, which underscored its democratic nature. The “Freedom Bonds” split society into conflicting groups depending on their stance on the war and the new government. The posters were a part of an expansive propaganda campaign — the “Freedom Bonds” programme included film screenings, lectures, demonstrations, and performances by actors and poets.
The agency in charge of the campaign was the Russian National Committee of Public Assistance to Government Bonds, which, in addition to brochures and newspapers, also printed posters. The jury evaluating the artists’ proposals for the design of the “Freedom Bonds” posters was chaired by Konstantin Korovin, who was experienced in the creation of “monumental” advertising bills, one of which, produced earlier under the “old regime” (in 1914) — “Dmitry Donskoi” — is held at the Tretyakov Gallery. Created by artists with different levels of skill and experience and with different stylistic leanings — Pavel Kuznetsov, Alexander Moravov, A. Filippov and Georgy Pashkov — these hand-drawn drafts, which survived by miracle, are the most telling artefacts of their day. In the margins, they carry still legible inscriptions and notes pencilled by the artists and the jurors. The design of Pashkov, a monumental artist who also designed posters of different styles, is an “inversion” of the iconic imagery. The exhibition features a printed copy of the poster as well. An artist Alexei Kravchenko submitted to the contest the design of a funny-looking advertisement with a subheading “Motherland and Freedom in Danger”, which looks like a sad and ironic prophecy of events that would follow in later years. The show also offers up interesting examples of insurance advertising, such as two posters by Dmitry Kardovsky (1917). The texts speak for themselves: “Life insurance in state saving banks. Each worker should insure his family’s wellbeing in case of death.”
Social themes reflecting the wartime developments and the preceding days of peace are likewise addressed in the collection of advertisements of charity events, bazaars and concerts which involved different social groups of the population and were often patronised by the Tsarist family. Most of these pieces combine the “Russian style” and modernism. A whole “series” of four posters (one of which was created by the artist and architect Alexander Durnovo, who also excelled in poster design) is devoted to the famed “Day of the White Chamomile”, which, from 1911, was the symbol of philanthropic programmes for fighting tuberculosis. Deserving special mention are posters by Leon Bakst, Stepan Yaremich and Sergei Vinogradov highlighting the publishing venture of the St. Eugenia Community — an early-20th century charitable organisation operating under the auspices of the Red Cross and patronised by Princess Eugenia Maximilianovna of Leuchtenberg. During the years of its existence, the community published more than 6,000 postcards, some of which were designed by artists from the “World of Art” association. Many posters featured at the show were printed on the famed cartes postales — open letters of the Red Cross.
Especially noteworthy is an informational poster about a weather station in Gagra (1904). The station was set up at the instigation of a member of the same distinguished family, Duke Alexander Petrovich of Oldenburg, the consort of the patroness of the St. Eugenia Community; over two years it built the first Russian sea resort on what were previously feverish swamps. Opened in autumn 1903, the resort came to be known as a Russian Riviera. The poster’s style is a “salon” version of moderne, creating and advertising a certain way of life.
The Russian theme, tackled in the posters designed by unknown artists and advertising charity bazaars, fairs and festivities, many of which took place in the rooms of the Russian House of Nobles and in the city’s riding halls and squares, was also addressed in Ivan Bilibin’s gorgeous ornamental panel-size poster, an advertisement for a concert of sacred music at the Moscow Conservatory (1910). Like many “World of Art” artists, Bilibin also excelled as a book illustrator. He designed many items for reproduction in print, creating sketches of postcards, bookplates, postmarks, labels, calendars and menus, and commercial advertising posters — at least one of them deserves mentioning for its ironical attitude and superb mastery — that of the beer-honey brewery “New Bavaria” of 1903.
Among all varieties of posters present in Russia, the “publishing house poster” has the longest history, and it was precisely this sort of work that became a springboard for the development of the Russian poster in general. Its functions naturally close to those of book illustration, publishers’ posters became the most “cultured” area of advertising, along with exhibition posters and playbills. The genre was tackled by professional book designers who worked on the staff of different magazines at different times and whose works formed the basis of the collection of pre-Revolutionary publishers’ posters at the Tretyakov Gallery — its artists included Nikolai Samokish, Yelena Samokish-Sudkovskaya, and Ivan Goryushkin-Sorokopudov.
Most posters were created for the “Niva” magazine between 1899 and 1918. This ambitious publishing venture targeting the average reader cast its net all across Russia — not only in big cities, but in the provinces as well. One of the major engines of this spread was the magazine’s marketing policy to offer in addition to the magazine as such a large number of free literary, academic and entertainment supplements. Many artists in their memoirs criticised the magazine’s approach as pandering to petit bourgeois tastes. Yt, precisely on account of its accessibility for the ordinary person, this almost lubok-like, demotic art penetrated the everyday life of peasants and city folks, cultivating particular tastes in culture. Apart from the “French”, ostentatiously ornamental, gaudy version of moderne offered by Samokish-Sudkovskaya and the grotesquely opulent “Russian theme” in Goryushkin-Sorokopudov’s pieces, there also existed more stylistically neutral works created by Nikolai Samokish and Vasily Svarog — an aesthetic strategy closest to the realist posters of the Soviet era. Another item worth mentioning is a 1913 bill advertising the “Vokrug sveta” (Around the World) magazine; it was created by Aleksandrs Apsitis, an artist well known for the grotesque satires he authored after the Bolshevik revolution. Markedly different from this material targeted at the common folk are publishers’ small-scale advertisements for the illustrious artistic and literary magazines of the Silver Age — Nikolai Feofilaktov’s for “Golden Fleece” (1905) and Nikolai Remizov’s for “Apollo” (1911). These aesthetic symbolist images are self-contained as an ivory tower.
The exhibition offers up unique artefacts that survived only by miracle — Sergei Sudeikin’s posters in form of folding screens, which were designed as a detail of the stage set for Vasily Kamensky’s poetry reading held on May 14 1919 in an auditorium of the Artistic Society in Tiflis (Tbilisi). As in the famous Stray Dog Cafe or Comedians’ Halt where “the painted word” was the reverse side of the poetry for an hour, here we have instantaneous “illustrations”, the cooperative creative effort of an artist and a poet, words and images, a play with symbols, which were committed to the paper in a most saucy manner. Sudeikin’s creation is one of the examples of the new application of the art of poster — no longer a purely advertising vehicle, it was now a fixture to decorate a space and to introduce into it “the spirit of play and artistic improvisation”. In tune with Sudeikin’s oeuvre in general, these watercolours on a delicate paper reflected the artist’s intent to play up the transient nature of existence.
Sudeikin’s bill advertising a carnival at the Russian Hunters’ Club (1914) highlights a similar emotional and creative state. The extremely rare lithographed posters of Leon Bakst for Ida Rubinstein’s first stage appearance, “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” (1914), are an artistic manifesto of sorts which introduces into the reproduction technique of lithography a conceptual sketchiness of imagery evocative of the artist’s hand. Georgy Yakulov’s wonderful poster for the Pittoresque cafe (1917-1918) has a stunning “live” feel that defies the medium of print used for its reproduction. On the opposite extreme we find show bills, in the most direct sense of the word; there is a small series of five cinema posters for silent films, fashioned in a somewhat naive, purely illustrative vein and luring the viewers not only with the catchy titles of the films but also with such gimmicks as nude models, one such example being an advertisement for Victor Turzhansky’s picture “Eve Deceived” (1918). Another bill advertises Alexander Ivanov-Gai’s 1917 film, an adaptation of Alexander Amfiteatrov’s pamphlet “The Family of Obmanovs” (The Family of “Cheatovs”), a send-up of the royal family prohibited by the censors in 1902. Advertisements for Russia’s first automobile shows, designed by a French artist Rene Pean, rely precisely on the “showy” quality of the art of the poster. The bills feature all imaginable cliches about Russia: snow, furs, and Russian belles holding on to the banners of the countries represented at the exhibition, and this imagery gives the posters a decidedly cheesy look.
The tradition of charitable functions and artistic futurist balls, which existed in Russia before 1917, was continued in Paris in the 1920s, where it converged with French artistic practices. Improvisation is the keyword for these soirees. The artists’ balls initially were farcical performances with the participation of artists, poets and composers. Including costumed presentations, poetry recitals, and readings of facetious manifestos, the events were a mixture of artistic practices, rowdiness and clownishness. The collection of posters “Bal Olympique” was created by Russian emigre artists for a charitable bazaar for the benefit of the artists of the Parisian school, which took place at 28 Boulevard des Capucines, to this day home of the Olympia Concert Hall.
These artists’ balls injected with eccentricity were organised, in the early 1920s, by Mikhail Larionov, who saw in them a priceless opportunity for realising his boldest ideas that reached beyond the “grand” genre in theatre. Initially intended for adornment of the ball rooms, the posters, although reproduced through the medium of print, had a circulation of just several copies (as was indicated on them). Such posters featured in their centre a blank space, to be filled with hand-made drawings. This original technique distinguishes the works of Pavel Tchelitchew, Serge Fotinsky, Isaak Frenkel, and A.-I. Berlin. The drawings offer a humorous take on the topic of Olympus as the seat of arts, on Edouard Manet’s “Olympia”, a piece iconic for the new art, and on the traditions of the Olympic games — the latter images spoofing the “fight” of artists and nations. Printed on delicate yellow paper, the advertisements for Mikhail Larionov’s and Natalya Goncharova’s “definitive” exhibition of stage design projects (1918, Galerie Sauvage) are put on show in the same cultural and real exhibition space because they echo the above-mentioned works. Larionov, painting over the printed pieces with gouache, created a real “gallery of styles” such as impressionism, pointillism, and rayonism. In anticipation of the Larionov and Goncharova 1918 exhibition and the show of the same artwork in 1919 at the Barbazange Gallery, an unknown artist, presumably Viktor Bart, created fine handmade typeface posters introducing to the public artists, poets and composers who were to win international recognition in the future. Mikhail Larionov also created the “41°” posters on a pack paper, by hand and in cooperation with the poet Ilia Zdanevich (Iliazd), in advance of the latter’s poetry reading in Paris. These bills are an original send-up of surrealist principles in poetry and visual art. Like many projects spearheaded by the futurists, the futurist university called “41°”, set up earlier in Tiflis in 1918, was an emotional and amusing utopia which, all Zdanevich’s efforts notwithstanding, would not come back to life in Paris.
The name of the exhibition, “Irrelevant Advertising”, is a provocation of sorts. On the one hand, the show offers a chance to relish the flavour of an era long gone and to appreciate the artistic side of works whose advertising message lost their edge many years ago. On the other hand, the exhibition is very relevant because it demonstrates a witty, creative approach to the production of advertising, an approach that has value today when advertising lays its claim on a huge “informational terrain”.