Artful Coercion: The Aesthetic Extremes of Stencil in Wartime

Fig. 1. Vladimir Lebedev, detail of A Belorussian Landscape (TASS 1017) (July 31, 1944), stencil. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 2010.122.

Fig. 1. Vladimir Lebedev, detail of A Belorussian Landscape (TASS 1017) (July 31, 1944), stencil. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 2010.122.

In the late 1990s, when the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago1 was packing up to prepare for renovations, a batch of brown-paper wrapped parcels was discovered tucked into a small, hidden space above the regular storage bins. They contained posters, most of them never accessioned by the museum, presumably because at the time they were received they didn’t quite seem to be proper “prints.” Among these were 157 enormous, brightly colored, stenciled works produced during World War II by a collective of Soviet artists working under the umbrella of the news agency TASS. Intended to boost morale and report on the war, the posters were designed for temporary window display—TASS almost produced one for each day of the war. After more than a decade of study and restoration, the posters went on view this fall in a mammoth exhibition—the first on its subject in English. This article, by one of the exhibition curators and researchers, looks at how the TASS studio’s eccentric technique led their posters to defy the norms of propaganda.

A Consequential Decision

Seventy years ago, on June 22, 1941, the German army breached the borders of the Soviet Union. With this clash, two totalitarian superpowers drew the European continent into the largest land war in history. Following the invasion, a cohort of Moscow-based artists and writers from diverse backgrounds banded together in a grassroots initiative to form a propaganda studio. Their goal was to produce large-scale images to rouse the Soviet citizenry and aid in the defense of the motherland.1 Supported by the Organizing Committee of the Union of Soviet Artists, under the leadership of the renowned painter Aleksandr Gerasimov, and under orders from Kliment Voroshilov, the Peoples’ Commissar of Defense, the fledgling studio was named the Editorial Office and Studio of the TASS-Window War Defense Posters and incorporated into the TASS News Agency—the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union.

Fleeting in its existence (1941-1946), the studio operated under the direst of circumstances during the most destructive war of the twentieth century. The geographic zone between Berlin and the studio’s location in Moscow—the Eastern Front—was where the most extensive devastation, most horrendous human rights abuses, and greatest number of casualties of the war occurred. The TASS studio’s posters reflect this, exuding hatred for the enemy as well as a fervent patriotism conditioned by two decades of Soviet ideological indoctrination. These designs were developed in an environment of fear, physical deprivation, material shortages, and illness, while the specter of death hovered uncomfortably close to daily life.

Fig. 2. Sergei Kostin, Telephone Conversation (TASS 22-XII-41) (December 22, 1941), stencil. RU/SU 2368, 2370, 2274, 2273, 2272, 2371, Hoover Institution Archives.

Fig. 2. Sergei Kostin, Telephone Conversation (TASS 22-XII-41) (December 22, 1941), stencil. RU/SU 2368, 2370, 2274, 2273, 2272, 2371, Hoover Institution Archives.

Despite these hardships and the brutality of the regime of Joseph Stalin, creativity flourished in the TASS studio. Though the initiative started small in 1941 with about a dozen participants, by 1945 it had grown into a “poster factory” employing 300 workers. For the duration of the war, the studio produced nearly one poster design per day, more than 1,400 different designs in total. Furthermore it did so while maintaining remarkable aesthetic sophistication. Most posters are printed lithographically, but the TASS posters were entirely handmade, using the unconventional, innovative use of an ancient medium: stencil.

When TASS posters are introduced as political propaganda, many spectators look right past their surfaces into the tumultuous wartime stories they convey. Their scale, sumptuous colors, and strikingly macabre imagery are immediately compelling, yet the most remarkable accomplishment of the TASS studio is not the posters’ gruesome subjects, but how those images were made. The creative choices of the TASS studio tested both the limits of stencil as a medium and the aesthetic restrictions imposed by the cultural dogmas of the Soviet state. Using stencil to challenge the hierarchy that divided poster design from fine-art painting in the Soviet Union, the studio forged a new visual language for political expression.

Medium Deliberation: Lithography versus Stencil

Stencil is an unusual medium for war posters. In the realm of propaganda, a poster is meant to serve as a visual device to communicate a political or social message to a vast audience.2 To accomplish this, the design must be immediately understandable, with legible texts and image. It must be emotionally stirring and timely, as well as mass-produced and easily transportable for wide distribution and display. War heightens the need for urgency and clarity, economy, and mass communication.

The medium of stencil has particular advantages and disadvantages in this context. Much larger (between six and twelve feet tall) and more technically complex than standard propaganda posters, the TASS designs also feature a visual language that defies the graphically simple, immediately legible, rudimentary imagery of the lowbrow graphics of persuasion. While their rhetoric and subject matter are topically propagandistic, the more complex TASS compositions are the result of labor-intensive formal explorations that deviate from the forthright goals of propaganda. This deviation, however, was neither part of the studio’s initial mission nor evident in its initial designs. It evolved over a few short, intense years of commitment to an exceptional medium.

Two key factors influenced the TASS studio’s decision to adopt the stencil medium. First, the wartime studio sought to draw upon the militant, revolutionary sentiment conveyed by the old handmade ROSTA posters of the 1920s. Second, at the moment of the German invasion, stencil possessed certain distinct material advantages over other commonly used media—namely lithography.

ROSTA (the acronym for the Russian Telegraph Agency), along with the companion agency Glavpolitprosvet (GPP), began producing political posters in the early 1920s, immediately following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Some key TASS artists got their start working in these studios and brought that experience to the new operation. Initially painted freehand, ROSTA posters were later stenciled in order to reproduce multiple copies by hand. The ROSTA studio typically issued editions of up to, but not exceeding, 150 posters per design.

To the TASS artists, ROSTA served as both a political and an artistic model. The reputation of the Futurist poet Vladimir Maiakovskii, celebrated for composing both text and images for the posters, augmented the revolutionary pedigree of the studio. The poet was at the height of his popularity in 1940, the tenth anniversary of his death. Unlike many of the more pictorially abstract movements of the 1920s, such as Constructivism, with which they coincided, the ROSTA posters did not experience an aesthetic fall from grace in the perilous 1930s, a time of both political purges and tightening of the cultural dogmas of Soviet Socialist Realism. Instead, in the 1930s and 1940s, the posthumous image of Maiakovskii was forcibly refashioned as a cultural icon of the new political milieu.3 Positioning the TASS studio as the successor to ROSTA and reviving the ethos of the great poet must have provided some measure of ideological protection, a laisser-passer, from the authorities. The ROSTA studio thus both inspired the adoption of the stencil medium for TASS and enabled the practice to flourish relatively unhindered.

Fig. 3. Sergei Kostin, An Inescapable Date (TASS 1198) (March 31, 1945), stencil. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 2010.91.

Fig. 3. Sergei Kostin, An Inescapable Date (TASS 1198) (March 31, 1945), stencil. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 2010.91.

For the most part, the designs of TASS posters created in the first six months of the studio’s existence followed the logic of the ROSTA works (Fig. 2). Employing even surface application and a restrained color palette of five to ten tones, artists did not experiment with complex chromatic overlapping or varied brushwork. Graphically simplified forms sequenced like a comic strip often told a satirical or didactic story. These choices reflect a dedication to the style and spirit of the ROSTA posters, as well as a strategy to produce graphically uncomplicated designs that could be easily translated and reproduced in stencil. The works produced in these early months demonstrate an interest in a ROSTA-like house style and uniform graphic identity that would be later abandoned, enabling artists to develop their own signature practices and genres of specialization.

As a start-up operation, the TASS studio may also have been encouraged to consider stencil over lithography by material and equipment considerations. Lithography has the potential for much higher production output (editions of 50,000 to 150,000), which makes it the medium of choice for political or social images with a propagandistic goal. Yet it requires an extensive support structure of equipment, space, supplies, and skilled technicians. The start-up costs to establish a lithographic facility would have been prohibitive in the conditions under which the TASS studio was founded. The choice of a completely manual practice enabled the studio to utilize its most prevalent resource—a surplus of human laborers devoted to the war effort—while bypassing the demands and costs of machine technology. Working in three shifts around the clock, an assembly-line team of artists, stencil cutters, stencil painters, text cutters, gluers, and technicians produced daily editions of between 50 and 1,500 copies of each striking, sizable design entirely by hand.

Stencil also allowed for constantly changing designs. In lithography each color demands a separate lithographic stone or plate; thus, for reasons of cost and expediency—all the more pressing in wartime—large editions necessitate restrictions in color and design. Stenciled designs could be turned around more readily—in the case of the TASS studio, about one per day. Further, a process liberated from machine parameters and standardized paper sizes allowed the studio to be more ambitious and flexible with scale. The TASS posters were created by piecing together individual sheets of paper, each of which was worked on at a separate workstation in the production assembly line. The largest TASS posters are nearly twelve feet tall and comprise between twelve and twenty individual pieces of paper with both text and image.

Fig. 4. Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, detail of Hail the All-Soviet Communist Party (Bolsheviks) (TASS 828/828A) (October 1943), stencil. Ne boltai! Collection.

Fig. 4. Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, detail of Hail the All-Soviet Communist Party (Bolsheviks) (TASS 828/828A) (October 1943), stencil. Ne boltai! Collection.

The choice of stencil did restrict the number of posters that the studio was physically able to produce to between 50 and 1,500 per edition, but it enabled other benefits with regard to paint materiality, color range, scale, speed, and human resilience. The chromatic richness, pigment density, and the subtlety of tonal gradations evident in many TASS posters would have been arduous to achieve in lithography, requiring repeated passes through the press to saturate bright color fields to a degree equal to hand-painting. Hand-mixing pigments allowed for more expansive and experimental colors. Moreover, the oil pigments used for stenciling were heavier in volume and density than commercial lithographic ink. Hand-applied paint, administered with a loaded brush, is dimensional; it sits on the paper’s surface, while lithographic ink, in contrast, is absorbed into the paper. For all these reasons a lithograph remains optically flat even if the image results from considerable ink layering. Because of this inherent flatness, the final image pales in comparison to the physicality of stencil, in which the painter’s unique touch, the variety of mark making, and the relative transparency, opacity, and texture yielded by a single brushstroke are evident. TASS 1017, a design by Vladimir Lebedev, demonstrates the stencil’s potential (Fig. 1). Not only does the poster employ an extensive chromatic range resulting from the layering of multiple tones, but it also shows how pigment density and application were manually adjusted to achieve various painterly effects.

Despite its emphasis on the stencil medium the TASS studio did not entirely shy away from lithographic practices. Though all of its large-scale posters were produced with stencil, the studio chose to replicate some of its stenciled posters in lithographic editions at much smaller sizes (generally not exceeding ten or twenty inches on the longest side.) Designed to be easily transportable, these lithographs often strove to replicate the painterly complexity of their stenciled originals. In 1941 the operation outsourced some early small- scale offset lithographic reproductions to studios like Gopolitizdat, Sotrudnik, and Iskusstvo, yielding editions of 5,000 to 60,000. Beginning in 1942, there is evidence that the TASS studio acquired a small-scale offset lithographic press to produce flyers and postcard-size printed TASS posters. Regardless of this modest acquisition, the primary output of the TASS studio continued to be stenciled posters.

Transgression

Designs that retained the chromatically restrained, ROSTA-inspired style of storybook panel posters—which strongly featured in the 1941 TASS production—slowly disappeared. A growing proficiency in stencil cutting and painting, as well as changes in materials, assembly, and artistic goals, brought about fundamental alterations in the look of the posters. Posters composed of a large single image—like a painting—became more prevalent, and in place of flat zones of homogenous color, stencil divisions increasingly mimicked the look and flourish of a brushstroke on a painted canvas. In lieu of a conservative palette of four to six colors, some of the intricate and chromatically brilliant compositions produced after 1942 on demanded sixty or seventy different stencils and twenty to forty colors. These richer palettes were further extended by innovative and more demanding stencil-painting techniques, including the practice of layering washes of translucent paint over opaque paint layers. This method—the “painterly stencil”—changed the tone of individual colors as the washes were thinly layered; expanding the posters’ color range and making them appear even more complex.

Fig. 5. Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, The Moralistic Wolf (TASS 757) (July 19, 1943), stencil. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 2010.172.

Fig. 5. Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, The Moralistic Wolf (TASS 757) (July 19, 1943), stencil. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 2010.172.

Fig. 7. Alexis Petroff, stencil re-creation of TASS 757 (2011). Set of 15. The Art Institute of Chicago, 210672.

Fig. 7. Alexis Petroff, stencil re-creation of TASS 757 (2011). Set of 15. The Art Institute of Chicago, 210672. 

Two posters produced by Sergei Kostin, an artist who worked with the studio from its inception through its closure, exemplify these changes. The first, TASS 22-XII-41 (Fig. 2), is dated December 22, 1941; and the second, TASS 1198 (Fig. 3), was released a little more than three years later, on March 31, 1945. TASS 22-XII-41 displays a conservative use of both color and form to illustrate the narrative. The features of the figures are delineated in black, with uniform brushwork throughout. Still, even in its economy, the image is completely decipherable, straightforward in its message, and visually effective. In contrast, TASS 1198 represents the mature TASS style of Kostin, who made use of a stenciling technique akin to watercolor painting in the lightness and layering of its translucent washes. A field of fragmented, abstracted forms coalesces into the figures of Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Hitler. The forms defining their bodies overlap and at times the compositional separation of the figures is difficult to discern. This type of loose, curtailed representation seems to have been used exclusively for mocking the enemy and could indicate that the genre of satire opened opportunities for pictorial exaggeration that the celebratory heroism of Socialist Realism did not. The grotesquerie and distortion used to signify the enemy’s moral degeneracy became more exaggerated as the war progressed, and thus more pictorially elaborate and technically accomplished.

The TASS posters sit at a unique juncture between fine-arts painting and mass-produced lithographic posters, forging their own distinct, unprecedented mode of practice. Before the studio fully settled on the stencil program, it experimented with producing freehand paintings on canvas or paper. Many TASS artists trained as oil painters and continued to produce paintings on canvas throughout the war along with their poster designs. This blurring of genre boundaries became quite significant for the direction of the studio. The extreme politicization of painting practices in the 1930s and the shift in painting’s didactic public role led the avant-garde writer, poet and theorist, and member of the TASS editorial committee Osip Brik to theorize in 1944:

Today’s poster resembles a painting. Some of the first issues of “Windows of TASS” were easel paintings in the primary sense of this term: they were exhibited in frames, not in museums—but on the streets. Those were true posters. Their ideological clarity, visual precision, and slogan-like captions attached to their frames gave them the necessary agitational power.4

Fig. 6. Alexis Petroff, stencil re-creation of TASS 757 (2011) video still. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Fig. 6. Alexis Petroff, stencil re-creation of TASS 757 (2011) video still. The Art Institute of Chicago.

A poster, in Brik’s view, achieves its status by a succinct combination of aesthetic power and political impact, a function that a painting, if finely honed, can also perform. If paintings can act like posters, so too can posters aspire to the status of paintings. The painterly TASS posters did just that by combining the seductive and dynamic elements of oil painting with the most salient features of lithographic poster propaganda: immediacy, precision, and agitational straightforwardness. Blur- ring the boundaries of genre and medium led to a new category of a “multiplied original”—the painterly stencil.

Laboring to transform the propagandistic applications of the poster, the studio became engaged with formal experimentation, achieving painterly effects not previously associated with stencil. TASS artists pushed the complexity of their designs to a degree that overwhelmed a fundamental tenet of propaganda: legibility. Where a simple element, a portrait for example, could communicate its message sufficiently with a minimum of color and line, and an economy of labor and cost (Fig. 2), certain TASS artists chose to exceed the base standard of legibility with a surfeit of pictorial elaboration (Fig. 3). Did these more complicated images make their posters more successful or persuasive as propaganda? We have no true measure of their efficacy.

Fig. 9 Alexis Petroff, stencil re-creation of TASS 757 using black 2 stencil template, video still, 2011, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Fig. 9 Alexis Petroff, stencil re-creation of TASS 757 using black 2 stencil template, video still, 2011, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, an artist adept at both satirical and heroic compositions was the only TASS figure to merge satiric distortions of the enemy satire with dogmatic Socialist Realism. A trained easel painter, Sokolov-Skalia became the artistic head of the TASS studio in 1942 and can be credited with helping to push the studio toward more painterly stenciling. The facial modeling on the heroic portraits in TASS 828/828A (Fig. 4) employ a chromatic range anomalous to TASS portraiture. With seven colors applied through almost twenty stencil cutouts on Stalin’s forehead alone, Sokolov-Skalia parlayed the prismatic distortion characteristic of his satirical posters into the most challenging of Soviet art genres: official portraiture.

Re-Creating a TASS Poster

In order to determine, and illustrate, the steps contributing to the production of a graphically advanced TASS poster, the Art Institute’s curatorial team asked the print-media artist Alexis Petroff to re-create a poster using the same processes as the TASS artists. The image chosen was by Pavel Sokolov-Skalia titled The Moralistic Wolf (TASS 757) of July 1943 (Fig. 5), a design that demonstrates the painterly concerns characteristic of mature TASS production.

First, Petroff traced the original image onto a transparent sheet of Mylar to create a color map. All of the color stencils were interpreted and cut into templates using the Mylar map and carbon paper tracing. For the two most complex stencil templates (the color black,) Petroff scanned the Mylar drawing and printed paper copies, which he employed as a key to the color fields to be cut (Fig. 6). It is likely that the process of translating an original design in the TASS studio would have been done with tracing paper. In all, it took Petroff twelve full-size stencil templates and hundreds of cut openings to replicate all the forms and colors of the original.

Fig. 8. Alexis Petroff, stencil re-creation of TASS 757 (2011), black 1 stencil template. The Art Institute of Chicago, 212029.

Fig. 8. Alexis Petroff, stencil re-creation of TASS 757 (2011), black 1 stencil template. The Art Institute of Chicago, 212029.

Petroff matched each of the colors in the TASS poster by hand-mixing Winsor & Newton pigments. Instead of employing powdered pigments mixed into an oil-based printing vehicle, as the TASS artists had done, he chose gouache. About forty colors were needed to match the tonal variation resulting from overlapping translucent colors in the original. Compartmentalizing the painting process into a series of steps, Petroff illustrated the graphic build-up of the composition in eighteen prints, successively adding two to four colors to each stage, demonstrating how the artists of the TASS studio assiduously assembled vibrant images from a puzzle of color separations (Fig. 7). The most painstaking of the colors was black, a tone that outlined all of the features of the wolf and comprised the background (Fig. 8). Petroff used two full-size stencil templates for the black alone (Fig. 9). The re-creation took six hundred hours of labor (the equivalent of twenty-five technicians working for 24 hours each).

Contrary to the goal of producing economical and expedient images, TASS design flourishes resulted in a higher material costs, as well as in longer production times, and did not necessarily intensify the political or persuasive value of their images. The investment of labor and precision craftsmanship suggests that Pavel Sokolov-Skalia and the other artists were committed to something more than the production of mere propaganda. They were exploiting a window of opportunity: a chance for personal development; a chance to intercede in the rigid framework of Socialist Realism; the chance to engender a new political form of artistic practice through a medium that was not chained to the traditional genre and medium hierarchies in the Soviet Union.

Conclusion

There is some debate among scholars as to whether the strain of the war in the Soviet Union led to laxness in the monitoring, censorship, or regulation of cultural practices, thereby opening a window of creative opportunity for artists. Some argue that the demands of the war took pressure off of cultural regulation, while others insist that throughout the war culture was as tightly administered as in the years of internal terror that preceded 1941.5 While proving either of these theses demands deeper research and supporting evidence, a careful examination of the aesthetic innovations of the TASS studio reveals that a substantial amount of technical experimentation was at least tolerated. Dramatic pictorial distortions of the enemy and the corresponding experiments with heroic imagery decreased markedly with the conclusion of the war. The designs of the studio’s final year of operation, 1946, are highly conventional and formulaic Socialist Realist compositions, exhibiting a still painterly but more restrained use of the stencil medium. Ultimately, the propaganda goals during Soviet postwar reconstruction did not align with the mode of practice cultivated by the TASS studio, and in December 1946, it was closed by the authorities.

Petroff’s color separations and stencils are showcased on the Art Institute’s Web site, as is a short film documenting his process. See http://www.artic.edu/TASS.

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  1. This essay grew out of the extensive research on the TASS studio conducted in preparation for the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2011 exhibition and publication “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941–45.” As a member of the curatorial and research team, the author greatly benefited from the insights of a large group of specialists at the Art Institute: Peter Zegers, project head and Rothman Family Research Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings; Douglas Druick, President and Eloise W. Martin Director ; Harriet Stratis, Cher Schneider, and Kristi Dahm in paper conservation; and Mark Pascale, curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings. This essay also makes use of research and conversations with project co-organizers Adam Jolles and Konstantin Akinsha over the course of many years of collaboration. []
  2. The nuance of the term “propaganda” and its relativity to other forms of politicized art practice in the Soviet Union in the 1940s is much more complicated than it initially appears. For the purpose of this paper, when I use the term, I employ it conscious of the meanings it has come to hold in the contemporary United States. []
  3. Chantal Sundaram, “‘The Stone Skin of the Monument’: Mayakovsky, Dissent and Popular Culture in the Soviet Union,” Toronto Slavic Quarterly 16 (Spring 2006) unpaginated.) []
  4. Osip Brik, “Kartina vyshia na ulitsu,” Znamia 2 (1944), pp. 187–91. 5. Clark, Katerina, E. A. Dobrenko, Andreĭ Ar- tizov, and Oleg V. Naumov. Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents, 1917-1953. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 347-51. []