An extraordinary discovery was made in 1997 at the Art Institute of Chicago: 26 thick rolls of paper, which crumbled to the touch, were found at the back of a cupboard. After being put in a humidity chamber, where the paper was softened, 157 Soviet wartime stencilled posters were revealed, celebrating the three-flag alliance between Britain, the US and the USSR in startling strong images accompanied by poems and slogans by some of the best poets of the day. These posters were a memory of a period of co-operation between the allies that became unthinkable during the cold war.
Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 (Art Institute of Chicago)
Peter Kort Zegers, Douglas W. Druick, Konstantin Akinsha, Robert Bird, Jill Bugajski, Adam Jolles
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On 22 June 1941, the day Germany attacked the Soviet Union, a group from the Artists’ Union offered their services to make agitational posters for the Soviet streets that would inform and cheer the public. Their suggestion was quickly approved and they were taken under the wing of the Tass news agency, where over the 1,418 days of the war, a group of some 92 artists, poets, writers, stencil cutters and painters produced 1,240 designs. These enormous posters were intended to fill empty shop windows and were thus called “Tass windows”. They were also hung in factories, schools and theatres. Each design was reproduced some 150 times by hand, over three shifts every day. Photographs in this book, designed to accompany an exhibition of the posters in Chicago, show them being studied by passers-by on the streets of Moscow.
Because of equipment shortages, stencils were used rather than lithographs, producing a striking effect. In the stencilling process, paint is applied to the paper and sits on the surface, rather than soaking in as it does in printing. This dedicated group took stencilling to a new level: one portrayal of Hitler used 25 colours and more than 100 stencils. Some of the country’s best poets, such as Marshak, were called back from evacuation to keep producing copy for the posters, many of which drew on Stalin’s wartime speeches.
The posters found in Chicago were a selection of those designed for international use, intended to encourage the US and Britain to open a western front, which they finally did with the Normandy landing in 1944.
This publication combines 80 of the discovered posters with 75 other Tass windows disseminated within the Soviet Union. It drives home the horror of the war in the Soviet Union, in which an estimated 27 million people were killed. We see the heroic partisans, the female ditch-diggers and the banal everyday reality – posters calling on people to save electricity and collect scrap metal for tanks. Short biographies at the end of the book are a tribute to the artists and poets who created the posters, whose stories were earlier subsumed in self-glorifying Soviet state propaganda.
More posters can be found at: artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/TASS/overview