For Students

Georgy and Vladimir Stenberg Poster from Fragment of an Empire

Georgy and Vladimir Stenberg Poster from Fragment of an Empire

Georgy and Vladimir Stenberg, Poster from Fragment of an Empire, 1929, lithograph on buff wove paper, Gift of James T. Van Loo, 2013/2.230

The University of Michigan Museum of Art recently received a gift of 25 Soviet avant-garde film posters from the Estate of James T. Van Loo (BSE ‘68). This remarkable collection contains many of the most influential and iconic posters from the 1920s, including works by the brothers Georgy and Vladimir Stenberg, who were leaders in the new field of film posters.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 did more than overturn the government and dethrone the royal family—it ushered in a period of artistic experimentation during which traditional forms of representation were broadly rejected. In the following years, the fervor to portray the social ideals of the new Communist political order to a broad audience using an abstract visual grammar dominated traditional fine arts media, architecture, and graphic design. The Bolshevik government promoted moving pictures as a vehicle for celebrating the new Soviet society and communicating its ideals to the masses. Posters advertising films became an important way for graphic artists and designers to create bold, exciting, and highly experimental images in line with such values. The very nature of film demanded a new means of portrayal. Lithography, a stationary medium, was harnessed and manipulated in order to approximate the effects of motion in film. Dramatic fragments that evoke close ups, non-traditional compositional approaches, and the wide use of photomontage (the process of combining multiple photographs into a new whole) to evoke climactic moments from the film resulted in graphic work that is visually dynamic and exciting.

In 1921, Georgy and Vladimir Stenberg, born to a Swedish father and Russian mother in Moscow, were among the founding members of the First Working Group of Constructivists, who sought to extend the formal language of abstract art into practical design work for political ends. Throughout the 1920s they collaborated on designs for film posters, creating nearly 300 posters. Fragment of an Empire recounts the story of a World War I veteran who suffers from amnesia. The film explores the differences between pre-revolutionary Russia and the accomplishments of the new Soviet order as his memory returns. The design is derived from a still shot from the film: a climactic moment of shocked realization for the soldier is translated into a pair of outstretched hands and a cropped detail of his face. In the last years of his life, Vladimir Stenberg spoke about the special power of Soviet film posters during the 1920s: “When we made posters for the movies, everything was in motion because in films, everything moves. Other artists worked in the center, they put something there and around it was an empty margin. But with us, everything seems to be going somewhere.”

Although international films from Europe and the United States were seen in the Soviet Union, nearly all the posters in the Van Loo gift represent domestically made films with a distinct political agenda. But even when promoting films featuring international stars such as Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson, Soviet posters were not about the star power of the actors. So different from American movie posters of the time, these posters derived their strength from their innovative two-dimensional design, which expressed the shifting societal values of the era in a new visual language.

Carole McNamara

Senior Curator of Western Art