Poster Boys (and Girls)
They used to throw them away, now Soviet propaganda posters can sell for thousands of dollars. Here’s our insider’s guide to choosing and preserving your Soviet poster.
By Jillian Ong
Get an anti-cholera vaccination! Work, build and no complaining! The Party is the mind, the honour and the conscience of our age. Political posters were an important tool of Soviet propaganda, and their designs and slogans are as compelling to us today as to their original target audiences over half a century ago.
Dmitry Moor, Have you volunteered for the Red Army?, 1920
Soviet posters were issued in print runs of up to 100,000 and displayed everywhere: walls, fences, trams, boats and even special propaganda trains. Their bright colours, vivid imagery and simple popular slogans were designed to exhort and indoctrinate the masses, in every aspect of their lives — at work, at home, on holiday...
However, few remain intact today, as most did not survive more than a few weeks after posting. The rest were thought worthless and recycled, lost or destroyed. It was not until the late 1980s that posters were recognized as collectibles in the West.
Most of us have thought about buying a Soviet-era poster before we leave the country. But what’s the best deal? Which artists should you look out for? How much should you expect to pay? And how do you look after a fragile piece of paper? Just read on.
Which Artists? How Much?
Gustav Klutsis, The USSR is the shock battalion of the world proletariat, 1931
Soviet poster art can be broken down into five main periods, each with several famous artists whose works will command a premium on the market today. Note, however, that this brief list is by no means exclusive.
The Bolshevik Era (1917-1921) is characterized by its bold, revolutionary messages and fervent images, reflecting the need to convince the population that the new Bolshevik regime would create a better nation. Look out for posters by Dmitry Moor, Viktor Deni, Nikolai Kochergin and Aleksander Apsit. Cartoonists before the Revolution, Moor’s stirring Have You Signed Up For the Red Army? epitomised his simple yet impassioned style, while Deni was best known for his scathing caricatures of fat capitalists and priests.
Also from this period are stenciled posters known as “ROSTA Windows” — ROSTA being the Russian Telegraph Agency — for the rapid summary and dissemination of news. ROSTA posters were mounted in kiosks, railway stations, market places and occasionally in empty shop windows, hence their name. Eminent contributors to these include poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and artists Mikhail Cheremykh and Ivan Malyutin. ROSTA Windows proved to be a highly effective propaganda machine, as Mayakovsky later noted, “It meant that Red Army men looked at posters before battle and went to fight not with a prayer, but with a slogan on their lips.”
Unsurprisingly, posters from this era are exceedingly rare, with most in museums or private collections. The Russian State Library, for example, boasts the only surviving copy of Lazar Lisitsky’s Drive Red Wedges into White Troops. If you want to buy a good quality Bolshevik poster, be prepared to invest several thousand dollars.
The Kukrynisky Group, Rout and destroy the enemy mercilessly!, 1941
Lenin’s introduction of The New Economic Policy (1921-1927) in 1921 marked the beginning of a time of relative economic and artistic freedom, during which time the Constructivist movement gained popularity in Russia. Much of this period’s artwork used basic geometric shapes and strong diagonals to form precise compositions. The Soviet film and theatre industries also flourished, and the film posters of this period are still considered to be some of the most imaginative of all times, breaking new ground with techniques such as photo-montage, double images, intercutting and split screens. Names to note include Lisitsky and Alexander Rodchenko, both pioneers of photomontage and graphic design posters, brothers Georgy and Vladimir Stenberg, Boris Kustodiev and Mikhail Dlugach.
High quality posters from the ‘20s are on the market for as low as $300, to over $10,000 for pieces by recognised artists. London-based Russian art specialists MacDougall’s recently sold Kustodiev’s Flee for $2,800. “Posters are a market that will grow with the growing middle class, who are willing to spend a few thousand dollars on a poster,” says the auction house’s co-owner William MacDougall. “Russian art isn’t just dependent on oligarchs anymore.”
Viktor Govorkov, Farm work cannot wait!, 1954
The First and Second Five Year Plans (1928-1937). When Stalin assumed control in 1928, he used posters to stress the political importance of the economic plans. The main images of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s were therefore of blast furnaces, power stations, construction sites and people hard at work. In particular, posters were designed to encourage city dwellers to support and participate in the process of collectivization, often providing an image of the way life should be, rather than the way it was. It was a style called Socialist Realism, where art was important only as a tool for social engineering. The later part of this period, corresponding to the Terror, was dominated by images of Stalin as the infallible Leader. He appeared everywhere, a larger-than-life central figure, occasionally flanked by minions.
Perhaps the most famous artist to emerge from the ‘30s was Gustav Klutsis, recognized for his combination of photography with graphic art. Originals by Klutsis can still be found today. In addition to artists from the earlier periods, also look out for work by Aleksander Deineka, Nikolai Dolgurokov and Viktor Govorokov.
During the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), posters were used in the battle against Nazism, mocking Hitler and glorifying the Red Army. Posters calling for bravery, and denouncing Fascism were visible in every city and at the Front. This period marked a hiatus in the fashion for Social Realism, with some of the most powerful icons of the Bolshevik era reappearing, including ‘TASS Windows’ issued by the eponymous news agency that succeeded ROSTA.
Due to Stalin’s earlier purges (Klutsis, for example, was executed at the infamous Butovo gulag in the late ‘30s), most posters were produced by younger artists, including the Kukryniksy Group (a trio of students), Viktor Koretsky and Viktor Ivanov. Cartoonists, illustrators and oil painters all contributed to the war effort through military poster design.
Anatoly Yakushin, Outer space will serve mankind, 1971
High quality posters from the ‘30s and ‘40s can be found to suit any budget. Jim Lapides, at Boston’s International Art Gallery, says, “The works of Rodchenko, Lisitsky and Klutsis can range from $10,000 to $100,000, but many museum-calibre pieces from before the Second World War are still available at $300 to $1,500.” The souvenir shop in Moscow’s Museum of Contemporary History also has pieces for sale from $20, although many are stained or torn.
Finally, the Post-War Period (1946-1990) was characterized by a return to Socialist Realism, with Stalin again the focus of many posters until his death in 1953. The commanding reds and greys glorifying Stalin finally gave way in the late ‘50s to bright colours and an imagery spreading the ideas and plans of the Communist Party.
From the ‘60s, the Cold War and the Space Race were dominant themes. By the ‘70s and ‘80s, posters addressed a wide range of topics linked to the construction of communist society, such as social progress, advances in science and technology, nuclear research and environmental health. Famous names from the post-war period include Vasily Osrovsky, Miron Lukyanov, Yefim Tsvik and Nikolai Babin.
If you haven’t got much to spend but don’t want to compromise on quality, posters from the ‘70s and ‘80s are available in Moscow for as little as $10. “Post WWII images are still fascinating and valuable as collectibles,” says Jim Lapides.
What Factors Affect Poster Value?
Viktor Koretsky and Vera Gitsevich, Our Motherland is the Motherland of Russian aviation, 1949
In general, the usual guidelines for any collectible art apply: works by well-known artists, originality and rarity all contribute towards commanding a higher value. Look out for òèðàæ (circulation), sometimes printed at the bottom of posters from the ‘60s or later, which will tell you how many prints of that edition were made. Complete sets of posters, as well as those signed by their artists, are also more valuable.
Subject matter plays a key role in affecting value: “Space and sport posters are very popular, and will fetch a higher price,” explains art dealer Pavel Ananienko, “as will posters of one-time occasions like the Olympics. But posters of holidays like May Day or New Year’s Day won’t be worth as much because they happened every year.”
Poster condition is also a significant factor, and can sometimes make a difference of thousands of dollars in price.
A generally-accepted system amongst art dealers grades posters from A (mint condition) to D (fair condition). As a broad rule of thumb, posers with a slight blemish, a small tear at the edge and/or requiring minor restoration are okay, but faded colours, water marks, yellowing, staining or paper loss will significantly lower poster value.
Is It Genuine?
Because they were not made to last, posters from original editions are printed on thin, flimsy and matte paper. The difference between a reproduction and an original can be seen even by a first-time buyer, and good dealers will tell you right away if a poster is original or not.
Creases and folds are a good indication that a poster is original, but there is little that an amateur or first-time buyer can do to protect against fraud apart from exercising some common sense: just make sure you’re confident in the person you’re dealing with, say the experts. Fortunately, the chances of buying a forgery in the poster market are very slim. “The incentive to make fake posters compared to paintings is much lower,” notes William MacDougall.
Above all, remember that there is more to poster buying than just investment value — make sure that you like what you buy. If nothing else, it will be an excellent souvenir of your time in Russia. And who can really say how much that $10 poster will be worth in fifty years’ time?
In Moscow, the widest selection is at the Ismailovo market. Alternatively, art dealer Pavel Ananienko (tel. 997 1130) has a range of good quality originals from the ‘70s and ‘80s, or go down to the Museum of Contemporary History at 21 Ul. Tverskaya.
Although most artwork and antiques must be given export permits from the Ministry of Culture, this restriction does not apply to posters less than 50 years old, which may be taken freely out of the country. However, export permits are required for posters which are over 50 years old. To facilitate the process, make sure you get a formal receipt when you buy a vintage poster.
FRAMING AND PRESERVING
Ensure that your mounted poster is not in direct contact with the glass, as temperature and humidity changes on the glass can cause your poster to wrinkle, or, at worst, to form mildew.
Check that all parts of the frame that come into contact with the poster are acid-free. Hardboard, ordinary backing card and wood contain high levels of acidity that can discolor and degrade paper over a fairly short period of time
Never mount your poster permanently on any surface if you want to maintain its value. In particular, dry mounting (having your print glued to a backing with a heat activated dry adhesive) is a definite no-no, as it yellows the paper and is irreversible. Instead, the best thing is to have your poster lightly hinged with archival glue to its backing card (canvas or thick archival paper) with a sheet of rice paper in between.
Ensure that the back of the frame is properly sealed. This will provide protection against insects, dust, air pollution and changes in temperature or humidity.
To protect your poster from light damage, use UV filtering glass. Hang it away from direct sunlight or fluorescent light, both of which can cause fading.
Avoid hanging a poster in bathrooms, above radiators, or in basements.