STEVEN HELLER PERSPECTIVE

Excerpts from the 1989, Poster Art of the Soviet Union catalog by design historian Steven Heller:

15 years ago, a Russian friend of mine, who had recently emigrated to New York from Leningrad, asked me to give him all of my discarded design magazines so that he might send them to his friends back in the Soviet Union. He said that copies of Graphis, Print and CA were considered more valuable than any other Western product among the many of Soviet typographers and poster artists working for state–run firms. Because the legacy of the Russian avant-garde, including the revolutionary styles known as Constructivism, Futurism and suprematism, were denied to Soviet artists, Western approaches, as seen in a few cultural exchange exhibitions and in the rare copies of Graphis, had become the model on which some Soviet experimental graphics were based. Herb Lubalin, Lou Dorfsman, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar were among the “underground" graphic design heroes of the Soviet Union. Over fifteen years ago, however, one would never have found any Western influence in the official graphic examples that surfaced outside the Soviet Union. Much of it was anti-Western propaganda in the guise of somewhat souped-up, Socialist Realism or leave laboriously rendered style of cartoon and
caricature. Compared to the graphics of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, where the poster and book arts were distinctive, if not unprecedented, Soviet graphic design appeared uninspired and unimaginative.

But this is not an entirely accurate picture. In studios and flats throughout the Soviet republics, type designers were designing new alphabets and poster artists were testing the limits of visual communication. Although much of it was not available for Western consumption – indeed some of it was simply in the rough or dummy stages and therefore hidden from public view – Russian designers were seemingly preparing for the day with dynamic graphics would be called upon to sell ideas and products, just as such dynamism was briefly applied to myriad forms of advertising and propaganda between 1917 and the mid – 1920s. The first evidence of this design activity came on the heels of Mikhail Gorbachev's election as party chairman (but before glasnost became a household word) with the International
Typeface Corporation’s sponsorship of the first exhibition of contemporary Russian typography held in the United States.

Indeed "Poster Art of the Soviet Union" (the first such exhibition to be mounted in the US) reveals the diversity and exuberance absent from Soviet design for many decades. For a nation that has historically used print to convey its points of view, this is a hopeful sign.  But this is also much more than a return to the adventuresome design of the early 1920s, when revolutionary fervor was at its height, and before the imposition of Socialist Realism signaled the repression to follow – a time, by the way, when Soviet film and theater posters, for example, where as revolutionary as the period in which they were produced. This exhibition signifies another revolution as significant as the one of 1917. For the democratic sentiments embodied in the words perestroika and glasnost, emblazoned on some of the posters and implied and all the others, is a dangerous step for this the behemoth nation and its new courageous leaders. These posters are not just examples of excellence in design, but are evidence of great social upheaval.

As I admire these images, I hope that history will not repeat itself, and that these posters will not become the artifacts of a betrayed revolution.

Steven Heller, September. 1989, New York

Steven Heller is journalist, critic and art director. He has authored over 80 books, many related to the history of illustration, typography and graphic design.

Steven Heller is journalist, critic and art director. He has authored over 80 books, many related to the history of illustration, typography and graphic design.