My thanks to Elena Stolyarik and Olga Less for translating the posters.
On August 6, 1945 a solitary US B-29 Superfortress winged its way towards Japan to unleash the most awesome force the world had yet seen. The mushroom cloud that rose over Hiroshima at 8:15 am that morning was followed by a similar cloud over Nagasaki three days later; within a week the Japanese submitted to an unconditional surrender, which ended the Second World War and spared the Land of the Rising Sun from total destruction. When the War began in the autumn of 1939, the world was still antiquated enough that the Poles hoped to stop the German Blitzkrieg with cavalry charges and biplanes; the Soviet Union was hastening though a series of Five-Year Plans to turn its peasant farmers into factory workers, to replace ubiquitous horse carts and oxen with modern trucks and tractors. In six short years the world changed profoundly. By 1945 the old European and Asian colonial powers had beaten themselves into the ground. In their place the US and USSR emerged as industrial, militarized superpowers, partnered in an unstable alliance, eyeing one another cautiously, and fearful that the other was positioning itself for ultimate supremacy in the final conflict between communism and capitalism. For a brief moment in 1946 it seemed as if the accomplished peace could squash any new threats of conflict. But the situation quickly unraveled, the relationship between the western powers and the USSR turned frigid, the Iron Curtain fell, and by the end of that calamitous decade each side was scrambling to upgrade their arsenals with newly developed jet aircraft, ballistic missiles, and nuclear bombs.
Fig. 1. German. Cast bronze medal depicting on the obverse Soviet, American, British, and French bombers as the tour horsemen of the Apocalypse, on the reverse a German soldier standing between Death (l.) and the Devil (r.), by Karl Goetz, 1944 (ANS 1979.38.911, gift of Ira, Lawrence, and Mark Goldberg) 110 mm.
The late 1940s was a time of conflicting emotions on a global scale. The euphoria that accompanied the end of one highly devastating war was bound up with the growing anxiety over a still greater war that threatened to annihilate all of mankind through Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Rebuilding destroyed cities and governments were a cause for optimism in the possibilities afforded by a fresh, clean start; yet, at the same time, the developing rift between the east and west endangered thousands with starvation and terrible deprivation (see fig. 14). These same years saw the formation of staunch Cold War institutions that were manifestations of these tensions at the international level: the United Nations (UN), for example, sprang from the cheerful hope that quarrels between nations could be resolved through diplomacy and third-party arbitration, while the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were grounded in the gloomy conviction that massive military strength is the best deterrent to conflict. The dreams and nightmares of the immediate post war years found expression in a variety of artistic media, two of which are presented here: posters and medals held at the ANS.
Posters obviously do not fall within the scope of our Museum’s interests, but during our move this last spring we made a fortuitous discovery: a cache of dozens of Soviet posters from the late 1940s. During his systematic search for records and other archival material before the move, ANS archivist Joe Ciccone found two tightly wrapped bundles in the corner of a basement storeroom. Upon carefully opening one of the bundles, he was taken aback to find Joseph Stalin returning his gaze. Over the course of the next couple of days ANS staff members gently unrolled both bundles and begin to catalogue and conserve this amazing find. Now that the work is completed, we felt that this discovery should be shared with our members. Our preliminary presentation of a selection of the posters also gives us the opportunity to review our holdings of similar socially- and politically-charged medals from the beginning of the Cold War, and to consider in what ways the perspectives offered by both media differed.
Fig. 3. United States. Silvered bronze medal. Society of Medallists 33rd issue, 1946, “World Peace” by Joseph Kiselewski (ANS 1988.124.31, gift of Stack’s) 72 mm.
Fig. 6. France. AE commemorative medal for the 1946 Paris peace conference by André Galtié (ANS 1953.144.46, gift of Wayte Raymond) 68 mm.
Fig. 7. France. AE commemorative medal for the 1946 Paris peace conference by Robert Cochet (ANS 1953.144.47, gift of Wayte Raymond) 68 mm.
During those thorny years in the late 1940s, one of our long-time members was stationed in Moscow as a State Department officer. There he came to realize the posters’ potential as rare historical documents and so made the bold move to collect as many of them as he could. In all he managed to gather nearly 100 examples, even some duplicates and triplicates. At some point—and here the story becomes less clear—he mailed the bundles to himself care of the ANS either from Moscow or Washington D.C. We can easily imagine, however, that in Washington in the early 1950s possession of Soviet posters could be a serious liability to one’s career, especially once Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings got under way. Perhaps he felt the ANS offered the safest repository for his collection in the meantime. For the next 50 years the bundles of posters gathered dust in the basement of our old home at Audubon Terrace.
It is only since Perestroika that post-War Soviet posters have begun to receive serious study, the most systematic overview to date being Stephen White’s The Bolshevik Poster (Yale University Press, 1990). As yet no comprehensive catalogue of the material has been published, nor is one likely to appear in the near future since the task of studying these items is hampered by their fragility and intended short life span. We can only assume that the posters that have been studied to date represent an unknown fraction of the actual larger number of posters produced at any given moment during the course of Soviet history. For this reason any newly surfaced material, like this ANS collection, makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of the medium.
First used by the Bolsheviks during the 1917 revolution, the poster was thereafter adopted by Lenin as a simple, inexpensive, yet dramatic means of conveying information and ideology to the citizen body. Even long after WWII the poster retained this important role in Soviet mass communication, alongside television and radio. Artistic experimentation with the graphic medium reached its height during the Constructivist period of the 1920s, when avant-garde posters were being produced by artists such as Alexander Rodchenko. However, Stalin’s declaration in 1932 that all art henceforth was to conform to “Social Realism,” requiring more realistic rather than abstract portrayals of Soviet life, brought this earlier period of experimentation to a close. In fact, a number of the poster artists from the 1920s died in Stalin’s gulags. Fear of change meant that Social Realism would remain the dominant poster style for decades to come, as it is in the selection of posters presented here.
Fig. 13. United States. Silvered bronze medal. Society of Medallists 32nd issue, 1945, “World Unity or Oblivion” by Berthold Nebel (ANS 1988.124.30, gift of Stack’s) 70mm
Fig. 14. German. Cast bronze medal commenting on the German monetary reform of 1948, inflation, and widespread hunger, by Guido Goetz, 1948 (ANS 1950.24) 74mm.
As historical documents—types that are often overlooked by Cold War historians—the medals and posters offer several unusual perspectives of the period, born of their functions and sponsorship. The state-sponsored propaganda poster, for example, communicated an idealized, isolated world of a healthy, unworried populace toiling for the Motherland under the benevolent oversight of a fatherly Joseph Stalin. Frequent allusions to the might and perseverance of the USSR can be found in posters glorifying the soldier and sailor, new military hardware, and the 30th anniversary of the 1917 revolution. Triumphant, bronzed athletes are seen on some posters (figs. 9, 12), illustrations of a thriving, joyful Soviet youth. In a medium that was meant for internal consumption it is not surprising that references to the world outside this idealized state are few. We find only a sporadic cartoonish characterization of the Capitalist or western leaders (fig. 23), and an occasional illustration of how much better off the Soviet worker was than his or her western counterpart (fig. 30). Similarly, references to the new peace and the USSR’s role in world affairs are virtually non-existent. The brave cheer of the poster world was fleeting, however; none of the posters lasted longer than the elements would allow. This meant, of course, that as the posters were forgotten their unifying messages could be altered, in line with new programs or revamped slogans.
The medals, on the other hand, endure, and differences in their sponsorship, immediate purpose, and the artists’ nationality meant that their messages and perspectives were also significantly varied. And too, the audience that viewed the medals was often considerably more restricted than that for the posters, which could allow for more experimentation or individual expression. The subject matter of the medals for the US subscription-only Society of Medalists (SOM) series, for example, was left to the discretion of the artist. For his 1946 SOM medal (fig. 3), Joseph Kiselewski found inspiration in the end of hostilities: ‘The war was over,’ he remarked in his notes accompanying the medal, ‘the misery and horror had gone. I have tried to portray a simple and cheerful “World Peace” which would rest the mind from the dismal past and look only to the bright future.’ Peace is also a dominant theme in three separate French medals from 1946 (figs. 4, 6, 7). Here, however, since each of the medals had the Paris peace conference of that year as its primary subject (and presumably sponsorship), their World Peace becomes less the expression of an individual artist’s emotional relief than an international event deserving commemoration. This larger (inter)nationalized perspective ensured that the medals would be devoid of any personalized content that might offend the sponsors, or detract from the subject commemorated. In a sense, medals of this sort come close to the posters’ propaganda-like function in so far as they promulgate the “official” message through an accepted vocabulary of images and representation. This is important to note since darker, more individualized expressions of contemporary events can also be found. For example, Berthold Nebel’s 1945 SOM medal entitled “World Unity or Oblivion” (fig. 13) deals with a subject that was certainly the subtext of the 1946 Paris conferences—and the foundation meetings of the UN—but does so in a way that would be unacceptable on medals commemorating either event: a mushroom cloud rising over a sea of dead bodies.
The most highly politicized and individualized medallic commentary of the period is found in the work of Guido Goetz, the son of the famed German medallic artist Karl Goetz. In Germany, the function of medallic art had long since broken through the standard barriers of understated commemoration and portraiture. Karl Goetz and other early 20th-century German medallists had found a way to use medals to express their political and social views through (sometimes nasty) satire and visual sarcasm; these artists did not pull their punches when rendering enemies of the German people. In part, this politicized approach to medallic art was due to consumerist economics; Goetz fed his family through his constant production and sale of medals, which numbered over 600 separate pieces by the time he died in 1950. He therefore chose timely themes that were depicted in such a way as to have the broadest appeal to his German audience/costumers. The younger Goetz adopted his father’s artistic and political stance for his own medallic work; his are the only contemporary medals we possess that illustrate important events like the German monetary reform and hunger of 1947-48 (fig. 14), the Berlin airlift (fig. 18), and the split of Germany and formation of NATO (fig. 19), all from a purely (West) German perspective. Popular resentment towards the Russians is freely expressed in Goetz’ work, no differently than the resentment towards the allied forces expressed in his father’s work during both WW I and WW II (fig. 1).
From the other side of the German divide we have a number of odd, decidedly pro-Russian porcelain medals commemorating the 30th anniversary of the 1917 revolution (figs. 21, 22). The medals were produced at the centuries-old Meissen porcelain works near Dresden, which fell into Soviet hands after 1945. Over the years Meissen had, of course, produced scores of porcelain medals for various purposes, but immediate post-war examples are rare. Rarer still is the large 100 mm module of these examples. Significantly, the obverse of one example depicts Vera Mukhina’s Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Worker (fig. 21), an enormous stainless steel statue group that was perched atop the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. This statue later came to symbolize the 1937 Exposition, but before the Exposition opened it caused Albert Speer to redesign the German/Nazi pavilion, which was situated directly opposite the Russians’ pavilion, on an equally monumental scale.
Fig. 18. German. Cast bronze medal depicting the Berlin Airlift, by Guido Goetz, 1948 (ANS 1950.24) 92mm.
Stephen White, The Bolshevik Poster (Yale University Press, 1990).
International Poster Gallery Online:
Revised 2/1/2019 https://www.internationalposter.com/country-primers/soviet-vintage-posters/