A collection of newly restored Soviet propaganda posters is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at Sweet Briar College. “Art for the People: Propaganda and Public Service” opens Monday, Jan. 25, in Pannell Gallery, and is on view until April 29.
Fourteen of the posters on display are USSR propaganda posters from the 1920s and 1930s that came out of the College’s art collection, says Sweet Briar College galleries director Karol Lawson.
“In 2010-2011, we began an effort to catalog and research all the USSR posters in the care of the art gallery,” Lawson said. “The whole body of work — which also includes maps and picture magazine — numbers twenty-three objects. I’ve chosen the ones I believe are the most interesting artistically as well as historically, and those that work well together visually and thematically.”
In 2013-2014, Sweet Briar obtained a grant to support conservation of a core group of ten of the posters from the Institute of Library and Museum Services. The College had previously conserved two posters through a cost-sharing arrangement with the University of Virginia Art Museum, which borrowed them for an exhibition in 2012.
“Despite last year’s upheaval, the conservation work went ahead and the project was successfully completed in June 2015,” Lawson said. “The exhibition, thus, is planned as a celebration of these fascinating works — newly repaired and freshly researched.”
The posters were transferred to the gallery from Sweet Briar’s Cochran Library in the 1980s, but Lawson isn’t sure where they came from originally. She has an idea, though.
“My hypothesis is that they were given to the library by a professor who had traveled in the USSR in the 1930s — possibly Gladys Boone, a professor of economics at Sweet Briar from 1931 to 1960.”
Professor Boone, who passed away in 1982, was certainly responsible for some of the other items in the exhibit, including toys, children’s books, photos and postcards acquired in the USSR during the 1930s. These items are normally housed in the Sweet Briar Museum. They, too, were transferred from the library and came packed in a small black suitcase stamped with the professor’s name.
The gallery also is borrowing several public service posters dating from World War I from the library, as well as two sets of posters from other institutions. The Madison Art Collection at James Madison University is contributing three public service posters designed in the 1940s by artist Ben Shahn for the Office of War Information and the AFL-CIO, while Lynchburg College’s Daura Gallery is adding two World War II poster designs by artist Pierre Daura to the mix.
“The Ben Shahn and Pierre Daura posters, as well as the World War I items, are meant to enhance visitors’ appreciation for the widespread use of graphic design to educate and motivate the public — whether in the Soviet Union or in the U.S.,” Lawson explained.
“Powerful graphic design of course is still used to manipulate the public, and was used well before the1900s, but the early to mid-twentieth century really saw a sort of ‘golden age’ of visual propaganda, and it was absolutely central to the governance of the Soviet Union. Posters such as these would have been a key way to disseminate ideological messages to a broad populace across a vast nation.”
“Art for the People” is also an exhibit by the people, as it took many hands to put it together — beginning with the research in 2010 and culminating in the show’s final assembly this spring.
Key among them, says Lawson, were retired SBC professor Margaret Simpson, who is a native speaker of Russian, and Michael Fein, coordinator of library and information services at Central Virginia Community College, who is a scholar of Russian language and history. Former Sweet Briar staff members and Russian natives Olga Rigg and Katia Suntseva helped out early on.
Ashley Rust ’13 was in charge of cataloging the posters, and current students Abigail Schutte ’17 and Madeline Artibee ’16 worked on putting the exhibit together. Independent paper conservator Mary Studt in Richmond repaired and stabilized all the works. Faculty grants officer Kathleen Placidi made sure the grant application process was completed successfully, and Gail and Bruce Curtin of Whitehall Framing in Amherst framed all of the works.
“It takes a village!” Lawson said.
She’s also grateful to John Jaffe for letting the gallery borrow the World War I items from the library, and to Daura Gallery director Barbara Rothermel, as well as Madison Art Collection director Kathryn Stevens.
Lawson notes that this particular collection of posters has never been exhibited at Sweet Briar.
“The material will be of interest not just to art and art history students, but to aspiring historians, political scientists, students of government and law, and young economists and journalists as well. They are quite powerful both visually and sociologically.”
There will be two public programs in connection with this exhibit, including a staged reading of the play “57 Hours in the House of Culture” by Roanoke playwright Dwayne Yancey on March 19, and a screening of the silent film “October: Ten Days that Shook the World” by Sergei Eisenstein on April 8.
Pannell Gallery is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, email Lawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (434) 381-6248.