New York Russian film posters from the 1920s and early ’30s are visual dynamos. Seeing 95 of them clustered salon-style in “Revolutionary Film Posters: Aesthetic Experiments of Russian Constructivism 1920-1933” was an exhausting experience for the eyes. Not only is each poster masterfully designed to keep the viewer’s gaze zigzagging around the image, but the exhibition as a whole seemed geared to prevent any opportunity for optical rest. Rather than group the posters by chronology or creator, the show was organized according to visual relationships, a decision that indicates the way these posters are intended to be regarded: not as artifacts, but as works of art.
The title of the exhibition was somewhat misleading. The posters are not experiments, but fully articulated graphic designs that reflect the shifting esthetic philosophies of the European avant-garde in the first quarter of the 20th century. Similar to Italian Futurism and Cubism in France, the Russian Constructivists employed aggressive, energetic and often rectilinear designs, which is the dominant style of these posters.
More than half of the works on view were made by Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, who were active members of the avant-garde in Moscow. Being committed Constructivists, the Stenberg brothers built up their images using collage techniques that tend to rely on strong juxtapositions of scale and at times color. Where there are faces, they wear heightened emotional expressions. Text is used to amplify the graphic impact. The impetus of the Stenbergs’ approach, it seems, is to shock and intrigue.
Mixed in with the posters were a few flat screens looping remastered versions of Russian classics such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). The posters that accompanied these films were situated in close proximity, providing an opportunity to compare the advertisement with its product. A trio of posters designed by Alexander Rodchenko for Battleship Potemkin illustrated how compositionally in sync Eisenstein and Rodchenko could be. Rodchenko condenses into a series of single images the great filmmaker’s dramatic camera angles and darting cuts.
Overall the exhibition suffered only in its ambition. As in an over-packed biennial or art fair, the sheer abundance of posters—each roughly the size of an ad on the side of a phone booth—was stifling. That said, this was a fine display of a rich vein of Constructivist activity.
Photo: Alexander Rodchenko: Battleship Potemkin, 1929, poster, 28 1/2 by 42 1/2 inches; in “Revolutionary
Film Posters,” at Tony Shafrazi.