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Art Institute unveils World War II posters from Soviet Union

“Our One Thousandth Blow” (June 5 1944) | Courtesy Art Institute Chicago

“Our One Thousandth Blow” (June 5, 1944) | Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

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‘WINDOWS ON THE WAR: SOVIET TASS POSTERS AT HOME AND ABROAD,
1941-1945’

♦ July 31-Oct. 23

♦ Art Institute of Chicago,
111 S. Michigan

♦ Tickets, $12-$18 general admission

♦ (312) 443-3600;
artinstituteofchicago.org

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:40AM



In 1997, as the Art Institute of Chicago prepared for an expansion of its Prints & Drawings Department, many materials stored in rooms that would soon undergo construction were cleared out.

Among the spaces emptied was a closet for oversized framed works. And it was there, on a top shelf, that curators discovered 26 tightly wrapped brown paper parcels containing large, dramatic, vibrantly painted posters that had remained folded and unseen for half a century.

The museum’s conservators were brought in to carefully unfold the fragile poster paper. Curators and historians followed. And so began the odyssey that has resulted in “Windows On the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945,” which opens July 31 at the museum and will be complemented by subsequent shows at both the Smart Museum in Hyde Park and the Block Museum in Evanston. All these exhibits are part of “The Soviet Arts Experience,” a 16-month Chicago-wide showcase of works in many disciplines by artists who created under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union.

So, just what sort of posters were contained in those envelopes, who created them and what were they meant to do? And how in the world did they get to the Art Institute as World War II engulfed Europe and the Soviets suffered millions of casualties and tremendous devastation as they fought the Nazis on the Eastern front? As it happens, the 157 posters sent here arrived via regular mail, and two of the original envelopes containing them will be displayed as part of the show.

The story begins soon after Germany unexpectedly invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in clear violation of the nonaggression pact between the two countries that had been signed in August 1939. The call to mobilize the Soviet Union’s citizenry for the war effort began immediately.

As part of that effort, TASS, the Soviet news agency, enlisted the aid of artists and writers to produce monumental storefront window posters — all stenciled and vividly hand-painted, and often measuring between 5 and 10 feet tall. A total of about 1,250 different designs ultimately were created — about one a day over the course of the war. And they serve as a fascinating chronicle of the twists and turns of that conflagration, and the various alliances and attitudes forged as part of it. Included are many aptly demonic versions of Hitler. (Interestingly, the Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin, appears only rarely.)

The posters (which were issued in editions of between 100 and 1,000) gradually went beyond serving the cause of internal national unity and were seen as effective international “cultural ambassadors” — dynamic graphic inducements for support and sympathy in the fight against fascism. The 157 posters in the Art Institute’s collection were mailed to the museum by VOKS (the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries), which also sent them to such institutions as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art. But they have not been displayed in this country since the late 1940s, when the wartime alliance quickly shifted into Cold War mode. And their uncovering at the Art Institute — where a total of 250 posters will be on view, many borrowed from the Prague-based “Ne Boltai!” (“No Chatter!”) Collection of 20th century propaganda — has inspired other U.S. museums to dig into their own long-buried caches.

The artists who joined the TASS collective to create the posters (some of whom are captured in a winning photo by Margaret Bourke-White at the entrance to the exhibit) were a talented and diverse bunch that ran the gamut from political cartoonists and book illustrators to fine-art painters. And their images (in styles that ranged from Constructivist, to socialist realist, to satirical cartooning, to photo montage, and more) were invariably accompanied by text. These words often were drawn from famous Russian poets, or from news stories, or devised specially by the writers in the project.

“This exhibition is very much a delicate balance between horror and black humor,” said Jill Bugajski, an exhibition research associate, and one of many contributors to the lavish 400-page catalogue accompanying the show.

Organized more or less chronologically, the exhibition makes it possible to trace the major episodes and trends in the European theater of war. There is the Anglo-Soviet Agreement of 1941 (with British and Soviet bomber pilots shaking hands midair); the ferocious Battle of Stalingrad that finally marked a turning point in February 1943; the Soviets driving the Germans out of Odessa (in a clever reworking of an earlier historical event captured in the great film, “The Battleship Potemkin”); the Nazis’ looting of cultural property; Hitler’s shopping around for alliances with “neutral” countries and his desperate recruitment of boy soldiers; the first uncovering of concentration camps in Poland (with a particularly horrific image of Hitler chewing on bones); what Bugajski called “the race to the finish line” as the British, Americans and Soviets all headed to Berlin, and a stark vision of Hitler staring into a mirror like a cadaverous Dorian Gray.

And then there is the poster with the three flags of the victors — perched atop the Kremlin tower, Big Ben and, for the United States, blowing over Wall Street rather than the White House.

“Clearly, the tensions of the Cold War set in immediately,” Bugajski said. “But there is one crucial final image in the show — of the courtroom of the Nuremburg trials for war criminals. After that, the TASS artists’ collective lost the immediacy that drove their work. That sense of serving as headline news was gone.”

NOTE: Hundreds of additional works not in this show are accessible via an exhibition microsite (artic.edu/TASS), Tumblr page (tass-posters.tumblr.com), and special Twitter feed (@TASSPosters).

Related exhibitions at other museums here will include “Vision and Communism” (Sept. 29-Jan. 22, 2012) and “Process and Artistry in the Soviet Vanguard” (Aug. 30-Dec. 11) at the Smart Museum of Art; “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary” (Aug. 22-Dec. 31) at the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library; and “Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons” (Sept. 20-Dec. 4) and “Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910-1917” (Sept. 23-Dec. 11) at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. Visit sovietartsexperience.org for a full schedule of events.



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