Over the coming year, a grouping of Soviet propaganda posters in Sweet Briar College’s permanent collection will be brought from the obscurity of storage into the light where scholars, students and art patrons can learn from and enjoy them.
The transition is possible because the Institute of Museum and Library Services has awarded $25,000 to Sweet Briar’s Art Collection and Galleries to conserve the posters. Galleries staff chose 10, circa 1927-1939, of 23 in the College’s possession for professional conservation.
They were selected because they form the “vibrant core” of the collection, sharing a “vigor in their design that highlights key themes in the Soviet Union at the time — defense of the motherland, rooting out dissenters and malingerers, and celebrating agricultural and industrial advances,” according to the grant application.
“I’m happy. It is a genuine vote of confidence from our peers in the quality of our art collection,” said galleries director Karol Lawson upon discovering that Sweet Briar’s is one of only two art museums in the state to receive a Museums for America collections stewardship grant this year. The other is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Akin to the National Endowment for the Arts, the IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums.
“Our grants are highly competitive,” IMLS director Susan H. Hildreth said in a statement provided to the College. “[The institute] enlists hundreds of library and museum professionals throughout the United States to review grant applications and make recommendations on projects most worthy of funding. Receiving a grant from IMLS is a significant achievement.”
The posters’ origins are a mystery. In the mid-1980s, then-librarian John Jaffe was making room on some shelves when he spotted a long flat case under a narrow staircase between the lower-level stacks in Cochran Library. It was stained plywood with a hinged lid, 5 or 6 feet long and about 18 inches deep.
The Soviet collection, dating from the 1920s to the 1960s, was inside.
The “blocky, monolithic” Soviet-style art of the period appeals to Jaffe, who today is director of libraries and information systems for the College. He is happy that money has been found to conserve some of his long-ago discovery.
Lawson became aware of the posters in 2010 during routine inventory and organization of the permanent collection. Almost immediately — after colleagues at the College who are native Russians helped her understand their significance — she and registraral assistant Nancy McDearmon prioritized them for cataloging, research and professional conservation.
They invited Richmond-based conservator Mary Studt to examine them and, working with faculty grants officer Kathleen Placidi, sought funding for the work Studt recommended.
In November, Studt will begin removing acidic cardboard backing and adhesive residue from tape and glue, balancing the pH, relaxing creases, and repairing, minimizing or stabilizing damaged areas. They will be lined with Japanese tissue and housed in Mylar sleeves. The work is slated for completion in September 2015.
Lawson says the colors remain striking since the posters have rarely been displayed.
John Ashbrook, an associate professor and historian of Eastern Europe and the USSR, cited the posters’ excellent but imperiled condition in a letter of support for the grant application. They weren’t meant to last, he said, noting Soviet officials mass-produced them with the cheap inks and papers to save the state money.
“Many of [Sweet Briar’s] are complete pieces that retain much of the color. I have seen very few in private collections that match ours,” he wrote. “However, with each passing year the posters are becoming increasingly fragile and with their exposure to modern lighting, the colors will fade.”
Once stabilized, Ashbrook said, he will use “these windows to the past” in his classes and advise students who want to analyze them for class projects. He also anticipates other scholars will want to study them.
Many of the posters include extensive writing as part of the messaging. Ashley Rust ’13, then working on her B.A. in history, began the process of sourcing and translating the text. With Lawson and McDearmon as advisors, Rust enlisted retired biology professor Margaret Simpson to translate. Later, Mike Fein, a scholar of Russia at Central Virginia Community College, would also help with the translation.
One poster quotes Vladimir Lenin urging the ousting of “kulak,” or “middle peasants,” from the collective farm. Another borrows from a poem called “Enemies of the Five Year Plan” and depicts as types a businessman, “kulak,” drunk, priest, journalist, capitalist, “Menshevik” and Czarist military.
Lawson says one that pictures a Nazi pig striding across the globe toward Mother Russia sends shivers down her spine — despite never having lived in Russia and knowing the Nazis were defeated.
“Another, really creepy, shows how to put on proper clothing for a poison gas attack — the figures look like they could be suited up to fight Ebola today,” she says.
Simpson, whose mother was Russian and father British, says she is “fairly fluent” in the language, but she had no prior exposure to Soviet propaganda, other than through history lessons.
“I was just so surprised to see these blatantly propagandistic posters here. It’s a long way from Sweet Briar to Moscow,” said Simpson, who spent several weeks working with Rust on the project.
She found the intensely communistic language eye-opening in the sense that seeing is believing: They affirm what you’ve always heard about Soviet propaganda and life in a communist country.
“It’s difficult to understand how such messages were accepted by people. But we weren’t there at the time,” Simpson said.
Rust, now an educator at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, did the work to meet the practicum requirement for her Arts Management Certificate. In addition to researching the themes and artists, she accessioned and cataloged the pieces into the permanent collection and built housing to store and transport them.
“I learned more about the USSR and its goals during and before World War II than I thought I would,” Rust says.
“It was like I could feel the way people felt when they saw these posters hanging in a shop window or on a government building. The amount of information and insight they offer is almost overwhelming, and you certainly don’t have to read Russian to understand what they mean.”
The posters’ value as teaching and learning tools runs the gamut, Lawson says.
“They all provide a snapshot for historians of art, of economics and society in general of what was important to a nation at a particular time and what the tone of the era was,” she said, adding it happens to be a nation that played, and still plays, a crucial role on the world stage.
“As artwork, they exemplify the stunning effectiveness of bold graphic design, strong color, and exaggerated figures to catch the eye and to provoke an emotional reaction.
“And they are absolutely critical to understanding the Social Realism style that was the accepted norm for artists in the USSR — and in Nazi Germany and later in Mao’s China, for that matter.”
About the Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. Its mission is to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement. Its grant making, policy development and research help libraries and museums deliver valuable services that make it possible for communities and individuals to thrive. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov.