Soviet Space Posters, 2017

by Glenn Rice

'The poster is a weapon of mass persuasion, a device for constructing a collective psychology.' - Vyacheslav Polonsky, historian and organiser of propaganda art

Early in the morning of 22 June 1941 Soviet poster artist Iraklii Toidze's wife Tamara rushed through the door of his studio. 'The Germans have invaded,' she said. 'We are at war.'

The grave, determined look on her face inspired Toidze to create the first Soviet propaganda poster of the Second World War, an intense image of Mother Russia entitled 'The Motherland is Calling!' that urged citizens to give their all in the conflict that came to be known in the USSR as the Great Patriotic War.

It was a milestone in the history of the Soviet propaganda poster, one of the 20th century's most influential and recognisable art forms.

Many artists took inspiration from it and Toidze himself would reference it years later, in a second era-defining image that ushered in a creatively dazzling period during which posters became synonymous with the space effort.

Toidze had been a poster designer since 1927. A decade before then the first propaganda posters had appeared in Russia, flagstones on a richly illustrated path that was to stretch across half a century from insurgency through war to outer space.

Design revolution

The first Soviet propaganda posters appeared during the workers' revolution of 1917, designed to deliver political messages with maximum immediacy and impact. Individually they carried a wide array of designs but they all followed the same basic brief: reflect on recent events, codify a message and use bold colour, self-explanatory imagery, crisp graphics and a short, punchy slogan to convey it to the viewer.

These illustrated bulletins quickly became an integral part of Soviet culture, hitting peak distribution during the Russian Civil War and the Second World War. After 1945, their focus shifted from war propaganda to international cooperation and social responsibility. The burgeoning Soviet film industry also began to exploit the medium in increasingly creative ways, and in the late 1950s the poster entered its most inspired and inspiring period.

Space on the wall

In 1957 the scale of the 'Sputnik effect' – the intense global fascination with Sputnik 1 and attendant crisis of self-confidence it caused in the USA – caught Soviet government officials by surprise.

With no other tools at hand with which to drive home the message of Russia's supremacy in space to the masses, they hastily commissioned the esteemed poster artists of the Great Patriotic War to create the first space posters.

The iconography of space exploration had to be devised very quickly, but extracting a lexicon of instantly recognisable symbols and designs from a space sector whose activities were mostly top secret presented the artists with a major challenge.

Figureheads were needed, but in the days before manned missions cosmonauts were off limits. The identities of spacecraft designers were classified military information, so their likenesses couldn't be used either.

Instead, the designers of the first space posters sidestepped these limitations by creating images of strong, determined men in workers' overalls hurling stylised rockets into space with their bare hands – rockets that looked nothing like real Soviet R7 launchers.

Eighteen years on from 'The Motherland is Calling!' Iraklii Toidze used a variation of his iconic wartime design on what is considered to be the first space poster, 'In the Name of Peace'.

Mother Russia is still characterised as a scarlet-clad, middle-aged woman, but her once stern expression has become beatific. The bayoneted rifles that were ranked behind her in 1941 have been replaced by the rays of the rising sun. No longer fixing the viewer with a steely gaze, she gestures skywards with a sweep of her arm, inviting admiration for her country's amazing achievements in space exploration.

In contrast to this majestic figure, space itself is represented rather naively by what appears to be the Moon in the top left corner and a cartoonish rocket. The date of the poster suggests it was created to celebrate one of the Luna missions – possibly Luna 1, which passed by the Moon in January 1959.

The following year, the political and stylistic evolution of space posters started to keep pace with the rapid advance of the Soviet space programme's achievements.

Cosmic visionaries

Creative restrictions loosened when a new role model emerged: the cosmonaut.

Designers had developed an iconography presenting him as the epitome of New Soviet Man long before the first manned flight in 1961, but were forced to keep it under wraps until 1960. The enduring image of a solitary young man in spacesuit and helmet with the universe at his feet is entirely the imaginative product of Soviet poster artists.

Yuri Kershin's 1963 poster 'Long Live the First Woman Cosmonaut' revived photomontage techniques that had been popular with poster artists of the 1920s.

Kershin set Vladimir Bazanov's official photo of a posed and coiffed Valentina Tereshkova into his own graphic of the iconic 'CCCP' space helmet, and imposed it on a backdrop of the Vostok 6 rocket trailing a scarlet Soviet banner through space.

You can see the Czech version of this poster on display in the Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery. Both the image and its accompanying slogan translate well into any language and leave no doubt as to what their message is.

The mid-1960s brought a new stylistic approach. The poised, front-facing compositions that had dominated since the war were replaced by lines and curves of dynamic upward motion.

In the tradition of severe art, which simplifies form and colour to present subjects in a dramatic, cinematic way, the easily recognisable faces of cosmonauts were restyled into idealised images of romantic heroes.

The Reklamfilm state publishing house specialised in the production of film posters in the sixties, and employed a number of young graphic artists including Miron Lukianov and Vasily Ostrovsky. In 1965 this duo created one of the most highly-regarded space posters, 'Through the Worlds and Centuries', which welded striking monochrome movie poster imagery to the punchy graphics of propaganda art.

End of an era

With hundreds of designs being produced each year, the sixties proved to be the peak period for the space poster. By the end of the 1970s space travel had lost its novelty and romantic appeal and poster production plummeted.

With the onset of the democratising Gorbachev era in the 1980s, the erstwhile clarion call of space hushed to a whisper in the soon-to-be former Soviet Union. In the time of Glasnost and Perestroika the public had other things to think about, and the golden age of Soviet propaganda posters was over.

Post script

Monument to the Conquerors of SpacePoster art led the way in the cultural depiction of cosmonautics. Its visual language continues to influence painters, graphic artists, sculptors and architects, and its legacy is apparent in works ranging from slides in children's playgrounds to a breathtaking monument to the Soviet space effort in Moscow.

The 110-metre-high Monument to the Conquerors of Space is a symbiotic merging of creative elements: a monument, an architectural edifice, a propaganda tool and a public educational space all in one.

It soars above the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, which houses an outstanding collection of space-themed objects and artworks, including about a thousand rarely exhibited posters.

The Monument opened in 1964, but the outline of its frieze-clad plinth and rocket-tipped, titanium-plated contrail appeared on posters as early as 1958, shortly after a design competition opened that culminated in the construction of the edifice itself six years later.

Its influence over the years on many other works, including Sergei Borisov's iconic 2002 photograph Ascension, is a testament to the lasting power of the posters that inspired it.