Soviet Art Propaganda: From Self Expression to Political Communication

To trace the biographical lines of the production, style, reach and impact of artist Gustav Klutsis’ propaganda posters, such as “Under the Banner of Lenin,” is to follow the development of a Soviet cultural production engine which transformed the meaning of art and the way society experienced it. The prominence of agitprop posters was a reflection of the Soviet initiative to infuse a communist mindset in every Soviet citizen. Soviet leadership had a hand in crafting the artistic agenda of the era; they also set up an art school and publishing house to bring the cultivation and production of art under their control. In this way, they pooled artistic resources into a Soviet artistic propaganda campaign, by which art transitioned from being a form of personal expression to a means of state communication, and by which the artist acted as a tool rather than a source of human meaning and content.

“Under the Banner of Lenin” represents the emergence of a new constructivist art form which began in the early 1920s. That poster is an example from 1930[i] of photomontage propaganda posters created by Klutsis, a prominent photomontage artist who spearheaded the constructivist approach.[ii] Photomontage is the practice of cutting and pasting photographs into a larger whole. In the constructivist tradition, it uses objective, clear images to convey political meaning. In an essay entitled “The Photomontage as a New Kind of Agitation Art,” Klutsis explained the optimal characteristics of photography to convey a form of art that was “more truthful, more lifelike, more comprehensible to the masses,” as opposed to painting and drawing.[iii] For instance, “Under the Banner of Lenin” used constructivist techniques to convey an image of Lenin and Stalin as a straightforward, conjoined icon.[iv] Head-shots of Lenin, and later, Stalin, were wildly popular material for propaganda posters, and poster images often portrayed the leaders as having elevating and enhancing qualities, such as their tremendous size relative to the masses, or the projection of their direct, piercing gazes.[v] As such, constructivism brought about a political approach to art.

This transformation of Soviet art into a political communication mechanism is not only evidenced by its characteristics, but also by its depersonalized means of production. Klutsis describes his creation of a poster that is similar to “Under the Banner of Lenin,” for which the source of his pride was his success in delivering a “weapon of class struggle and construction,”[vi] as opposed to a personalized product. In that essay, he also notes that the poster’s successful debut was a result of the “collective work” of about 200 people.[vii] From this description emerges a picture of political, rather than individualistic, production methods.

Klutsis’s constructivist posters were prevelant throughout Russian society. Propaganda was intended as a form of art which would bring about a “transformation of mass consciousness,” as Victoria Bonnell puts it in Iconography of Power, to encourage acceptance by the masses of the new Russia.[viii] Bonnell brings to life propaganda’s wide distribution, writing that propaganda reached citizens “in the city and the countryside, in the factory and collective farm, in rooms and apartments and huts and dormitories.”[ix] In other words, the Soviet propaganda campaign was ubiquitous.

Klutsis’s choice of medium, the poster, served the goal of reaching a mass audience by alleviating costs of production and distribution. According to Peter Kenez, posters provided a particularly useful format, because they were quick and inexpensive to produce and spread and were useful for conveying messages simply and effectively, through use of slogans and visual images. In particular, posters could target Russian citizens who might be illiterate, including peasants. The simplicity conceivably also enabled artists to design numerous posters quickly.[x] As such, thanks to the convenience of posters, Klutsis’s work was brought to the helm of a new Soviet art form: the wide-reaching, constructivist poster.

The rise of Klutsis’s work was a direct result of the Soviet government’s art education and production efforts. Klutsis was educated at VKhUTEMAS, or the Higher Art and Technical Studios.[xi] VKhUTEMAS came about due to a decree by Vladimir Lenin, that this institution should “prepare master artists of the highest qualifications for industry, and builders and managers for professional-technical education.”[xii] As Lenin intended, it was this school which cultivated Klutsis’s association with the constructivist tradition and photomontage in the service of the state. As such, Klutsis’s artistic practices were as much a product of government efforts as they were of Klutsis’s own personal development.

Klutsis was not only educated by the Soviet government, but his work also was published as a direct initiative of it. Izogiz, or the Art Department of the State Publishing House, was a major producer of Soviet propaganda starting in 1931 and was overseen by the Central Committee. This “centralization and control”[xiii] of propaganda production afforded the government a new level of influence and reach. In addition, the censors at Izogiz were able to dictate what would be expected of the artists. Izogiz also was able to produce posters at a much higher rate than had been done before; production increased from 25,000-30,000 to 100,000-250,000 posters in an edition.[xiv] While “Under the Banner of Lenin” was originally produced in 1930 and was not part of this centralization, that image undoubtedly contributed to the rise of propaganda posters which led to the centralized publishing process. Tracing the art education behind and production of Klutsis’s work shows the important hand of the Soviet Union in transforming definitions of art and society. It was through this hand that the Soviet regime facilitated the use of propaganda to create a new understanding of Russianness.

The communicative power of the Soviet propaganda campaign worked as a vessel to redefine Russianness, in the eyes of the masses, to fit the new Soviet ideology. Kenez explains that the transition to the Soviet period was “not only in economic policies but also a thorough overhaul of the entire social and political order.”[xv] Propaganda aided these latter two goals. As Kenez points out, propaganda taught “an inimitably stilted, Soviet form of speech”[xvi] which translated the new conception of Russianness. The significant transition to a new way of life and ideology required a changed Russian identity of every citizen. Propaganda, such as Klutsis’ posters, provided a psychological and spoken vocabulary with which citizens could process and operate within the Soviet environment. This agenda spread across the Soviet Union, but Klutsis’s work gained attention even beyond its borders. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels noted of Klutsis’s art that it could “convince anyone of the victory of communism.”[xvii] In this way, Klutsis’s propaganda posters were part of a campaign to ensure the acceptance of the new regime, and to redefine what it meant to be Russian in that way.

Today, Klutsis’s work has retired its functional value and is preserved as an artistic artifact of a bygone period. It has come under the ownership of public and private collections[xviii] and is displayed abroad, including at the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the International Center of Photography.[xix]

Tracing the biography of Klutsis’s posters, such as “Under the Banner of Lenin,” reveals the emergence of a Soviet propaganda apparatus that involved a regime-controlled publishing house, a government-sponsored art school, and, overall, a government-organized propaganda agenda. The role of the Soviet state in redefining culture is reflected in the emergence of a new kind of art, in which the artist becomes an agent rather than a source of artistic expression. This shift can be found in the style and production of art, as well as the new artistic tradition of constructivism, which transformed art from subjective, personal expression to straightforward, political communication. Thus, understanding the biography of “Under the Banner of Lenin” -- from the artistic approach that conceived it, to the poster’s probable production and distribution route, to its method and impact on Russian society -- reveals a window into the fundamental shift in the Soviet meaning of art and the changing society necessary to experience it.


[ii] Matthew S. Witkovsky, “Works by Gustav Klutsis,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 35 (2009): 77, accessed March 31, 2014.

[iii] Gustav Klutsis, “The Photomontage as a New Kind of Agitation Art,” in Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina: Photography and Montage after Constructivism, Margarita Tupitsyn (Gottingen, Germany: Steidl, 2004), 237.

[iv] Victoria E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin and Stalin (Los Angeles: University of California Press), 157.

[v] Bonnell, Iconography of Power, 155-157.

[vi] Gustav Klutsis, “A Worldwide Achievement,” in Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina: Photography and Montage after Constructivism, Margarita Tupitsyn (Gottingen, Germany: Steidl, 2004), 241.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Bonnell, Iconography of Power, 6.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Peter Kenez, The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929 (New York: Cambridge University Press), 112-118.

[xi] Witkovsky, “Works by Gustav Klutsis,” 77.

[xii] Monoskop, “VKhUTEMAS,” accessed March 31, 2014, http://monoskop.org/VKhUTEMAS#cite_note-Shvedkovsky-1.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Bonnell, Iconography of Power, 6.

[xv] Kenez, The Birth of the Propaganda State, 256.

[xvi] Kenez, The Birth of the Propaganda State, 257.

[xvii] Witkovsky, “Works by Gustav Klutsis,” 77.

[xviii] International Center of Photography, Klutsis Exhibition, accessed March 30, 2014, http://museum.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/klutsis_kulagina/exhibition.html.

[xix] International Center of Photography, Klutsis Exhibition, accessed March 30, 2014, http://museum.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/klutsis_kulagina/exhibition.html.