Did Joseph Stalin invent modern marketing? That's the thesis of a new show at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle, which argues that the techniques the dictator used to promote communism in the 1930s presage those now used to sell products throughout the free world. Long before the creative directors of Western ad agencies and shortly before Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Stalin understood how to use images to mold public opinion. "It was mass marketing," says Boris Groys, co-curator of Dream Factory Communism the Visual Culture of the Stalin Era, at the Schirn through early January. "The difference was that Stalin's was conducted by a totalitarian state and used to promote a single product communist ideology."
The show's 200 paintings, posters and films trace the development of Soviet "agit-art," from its inception in 1918 among the painters of the Russian avant-garde to the heyday of Socialist Realism in the 1930s and 1940s. One reason it became so effective was that, especially in the early years, it was artist-driven. There was oversight and censorship by apparatchiks, of course, but it was the artists impassioned by the Bolshevik Revolution, holding high office themselves, and exploring the new techniques of photography, film and high-speed presses who conjured up the images.
The show begins with early esoteric work like Kliment Redko's 1924 Uprising, a black and flaming red square-within-a-square symbolizing the cosmic force of the Bolshevik Revolution. But by the late 1920s, the Left Front movement, which included filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, had turned to a more accessible and representational art. Before long, Gustav Klutsis and Alexander Gerasimov had perfected the stiffly staged portraits as reverential as old Russian icons that mythologized Lenin and glorified Stalin. The familiar Gerasimov portrait of Stalin, looking kindly as a schoolmaster with outstretched hand and twinkle in his eye, found its way into millions of Soviet homes. Thus was mass art invented with a simple switch of artistic purpose: the artist was no longer meant to create an individual work for a museum, but multiple images for the whole society.
By 1934 Stalin had taken personal control of Soviet cultural life. After writer Maxim Gorky delivered a speech declaring "Socialist Realism" to be the only morally acceptable art form, Stalin imposed it as aesthetic law. No matter that it wasn't realism at all but instead a dreamy digestible theater of the proletarian paradise to come. For the next 30 years, oversized, brightly lit scenes of handsome and happy workers and their Kremlin leaders toiling for the communist cause went up on every billboard, cinema screen and gallery wall until, as Groys puts it, "they completely altered and reorganized the visual space of an entire society." But, as the exhibition attests, artistic talent could occasionally shine through, transcending the intended ideology. Kazimir Malevich's 1928 Reapers, a bold, block-colored painting of three peasant women, is as stunning as the groundbreaking abstracts that made him famous in Czarist days. And Alexander Deineka's 1931 On the Balcony owes more to Bonnard or Matisse than to Stalin. But it is the affinity between Stalinist art and American commercial art that drives the show. Both evolved almost simultaneously on the strength of new media developments. Both aimed at mass appeal. And both presented an unattainably idyllic family life. Look at Alexander Laktionov's 1947 Letter From the Front: it's pure Slavic Norman Rockwell.