Yesterday saw the opening of Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941–1945 at the Art Institute of Chicago, which focuses on posters designed by the Soviet Union’s TASS news agency to bolster support for the war effort. Accompanying this groundbreaking exhibition is Yale’s book Windows on the War, which displays these fascinating images, revealing how preeminent artists of the day used unconventional technical and visual means to contribute to the war effort.
The origins of Windows on the War, which opened yesterday at the Art Institute of Chicago are almost as fascinating as the exhibition itself. Back in 1997, 26 brown paper parcels were discovered in a storage area for the Department of Prints and Drawings. Their presence was completely unknown, their contents a mystery. As conservators and curators carefully worked to open the envelopes, they were surprised and intrigued to find that they contained 50-year-old monumental posters created by TASS, the Soviet Union’s news agency, which had a monopoly on all state information. From this discovery, a major exhibition began to take shape.
Impressively large—between five and ten feet tall—and striking in the vibrancy and texture of the stencil medium—some demanded 60 to 70 different stencils and color divisions—these posters were originally sent abroad, including to the Art Institute, to serve as international cultural “ambassadors” and to rally allied and neutral nations to the endeavors of the Soviet Union, a partner of the United States and Great Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany.
In Windows on the War, the posters are presented both as unique historical objects and as works of art that demonstrate how the preeminent artists of the day used unconventional technical and aesthetic means to contribute to the fight against the Nazis, marking a major chapter in the history of design and propaganda.
For most of the 20th century, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union hovered between uneasy alliance and outright hostility. The period addressed by this exhibition—the years 1941–45—represents a fleeting moment when the nations were joined in a purposeful bond, a coalition attested to repeatedly in the posters of the TASS studio. This spirit of cooperation was short-lived, however; as early as 1945, an “iron curtain” began to descend between East and West, the seeds of which had been stealthily germinating throughout the war years. By the end of 1946, it was clear that the wartime alliance against Fascism would be supplanted by old allegiances and enemies in a budding “cold” war. Likewise, images of camaraderie from the World War II era were quickly buried, and iconographies of fear and suspicion, with their roots in the prewar decades, reemerged.
The Official Exhibition Catalogue
For those unable to make the exhibition in Chicago, Windows on the War is accompanied by a 380-page catalogue, distributed by Yale, which will be the first major scholarly English-language text on the posters’ production. Featuring essays by Peter Zegers, Douglas Druick, Jill Bugajski, Konstantin Akinsha, Adam Jolles, and Robert Bird, the lushly illustrated catalogue will address the founding of the TASS studio, their stylistic choices, and role in the war; the poetic/literary collaborators in the poster studio; the international dissemination and American reception of the works; and a technical study of the posters’ medium and assemblage. The 155 TASS posters displayed in the exhibition will each receive in-depth treatment, reading the unique visual iconography and style of the works against their specific historical context.
Windows of the War is available from Yale University Press.