Stenberg Brothers (Vladimir, 1899-1982; Georgi, 1900-1933), Gossip, 1928. Lithograph in colours. Sold for ￡13,750 in the Posters sale on 4 June 2015 at Christie’s London
‘Released in 1928, the film Gossip attempted to show the danger of careless talk, suggesting that those who spoke about things they didn’t understand — or which didn’t concern them — would fall victim to fear and confusion,’ explains Christie’s poster specialist Sophie Churcher.
‘Gossip was used as a propaganda tool across the Soviet Union, its poster becoming a powerful reiteration of the film’s message,’ Churcher adds. ‘In the foreground, a man gazes into a street car in open mouthed horror, his expression met by the fearful regard of a female passenger.’
The striking poster is the work of prolific Moscow-born artists The Stenberg Brothers, whose Constructivist designs were used to promote around 300 films. ‘Combining lithography and photomontage, the artists produced innovative graphic works that echoed the surreal imagery of the films they advertised,’ says Churcher.
Stenberg Brothers (Vladimir, 1899-1982; Georgi, 1900-1933, Fragment of an Empire, 1929. Lithograph in colours. Sold for ￡11,250 in the Posters sale on 4 June 2015 at Christie’s London
Another work by The Stenberg Brothers, this powerful poster was used to advertise Fridrikh Elmer’s 1929 film Fragment of an Empire — described by historian Paul Rotha as ‘the epitome of the Soviet propaganda film’.
‘The film tells the story of a veteran who had suffered from amnesia since the end of World War One,’ explains Churcher. ‘One day, the former soldier recognises his former wife on a train. The pair are reunited, and the veteran’s memory begins to return.’
Underpinning this tale of long-lost love are the soldier’s reflections on the Russian revolution. ‘As his memory returns, the veteran reflects on the difference between pre- and post-Revolution society, admiring what are presented as Soviet achievements.’
Using their signature photomontage technique, The Stenberg Brothers captured the veteran’s vivid expression of shock — the Soviet Union presented as the only antidote to the trials of pre-Revolution society.
Stenberg Brothers (Vladimir, 1899-1982; Georgi, 1900-1933), Milord Macgrew, 1927. Lithograph in colours. Sold for ￡10,000 in the Posters sale on 4 June 2015 at Christie’s London
Produced slightly earlier in The Stenberg Brothers’ career, this coloured lithograph became the rather morose lead image for Milord Macgrew — the turbulent story of two lovers pushed apart by the decision to leave the Soviet Union.
‘Based on the famous Robert W. Service Poem The Spell of the Yukon, Milord Macgrew is the story of smooth talking Dan Macgrew, who persuades a married Russian dancer to leave her husband, promising her the bright lights of New York,’ explains Churcher. ‘Instead, Macgrew takes the dancer to Alaska, where he forces her to work in a saloon.’
This improbable story has a suitably melodramatic ending, explains Churcher: ‘The protagonist’s Russian husband travels to the Yukon and shoots Dan Macgrew in order to get his wife back. The Stenberg Brothers show the dancer’s face stricken with concern — the moral of the story being that the glory of Capitalist America — with its bright lights — is illusory.’
Anton Lavinksy (1893-1968), Battleship Potemkin 1905, 1925. Lithograph in colours. Sold for ￡45,000 in the Posters sale on 4 June 2015 at Christie’s London
‘Released in the USSR in 1925, Battleship Potemkin is considered Eisenstein’s greatest masterpiece, and came to be one of the most celebrated Russian films of all time,’ says Churcher.
The film presented a dramatised version of the notoriously violent 1905 uprising, which saw the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebel against their Tsarist regime officers. Renowned for its depictions of hysteria and despair, the work became the inspiration for Francis Bacon’s 1957 Study for the Nurse in the Film “Battleship Potemkin”.
Written as a revolutionary propaganda film, the work also served as a forum for Eisenstein’s experiments in production and editing, employing techniques from Moscow’s Kuleshov School to elicit visceral response. ‘Displayed in the streets of Russia, Anton Lavinsky’s poster would have been incredibly intimidating, the ship’s guns aimed directly at passersby,’ Churcher explains.
Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938), Long Live the USSR, 1921. Offset lithograph in colours. Sold for ￡15,000 in the Posters sale on 4 June 2015 at Christie’s London
Born in Latvia in 1895, Gustav Klutsis began his artistic training in Riga, before joining the Latvian Rifle Regiment to fight in the 1917 October Revolution.
A keen graphic artist, Klutsis spent much of his time on the battlefield sketching fellow soldiers and Lenin — this early foray into political art marking the beginning of a long career as a Soviet writer, teacher and artist. Though early works displayed Cubist influences, Klustsis came to be recognized as one of the most important exponents of Russian Constructivism.
‘This powerful piece of propaganda employs photo montage to depict marching workers, a mass of bodies moving beneath the declaration ‘Long live the Soviet Union, the fatherland of the world’s proletariat,’ Churcher says.
For more features, interviews and videos, see our Christie’s Daily homepage