A World War II-era poster now on view at Chicago's Art Institute shows a fearful Adolf Hitler being menaced by a variety of weapons. Among the soldiers' bayonets edging toward the Fuhrer is an unexpected instrument: a sharp pencil.
From 1941 to 1945, artists and writers working for the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union, or TASS, produced a new poster almost every day in an effort to keep Soviet citizens reassured and motivated. The numbered posters, which paired attention-getting images with topical poems and slogans, were tall enough to fill storefronts. Rather than printing them mechanically, the artists of the state news agency hand-stenciled each poster, applying paint instead of ink to produce an eye-grabbing artistic effect and a range of colors that basic lithography couldn't achieve.
These posters form the core of "Windows on the War," a show of Soviet propaganda at the Art Institute through Oct. 23. Eighty of the museum's 157 TASS posters, together with 75 from other collections and supporting exhibits, offer a look at a nearly unknown chapter of design history.
Aesthetically, the posters occupy a world of their own. They avoid many familiar motifs and styles of Soviet propaganda art, generally eschewing both the clean geometric lines of post-Revolutionary Constructivism and the social realism used to extol Communist virtues in peacetime. Instead, they present a rich stew of often cartoonlike storytelling, gruesome caricatures and sensationalistic tableaux.
While battlefield scenes and historical allegories abound, the artists clearly took their greatest pleasure in finding new ways to ridicule Hitler, who appears in dozens of guises. Often he's an animal—a serpent, rodent, wolf or spider. He appears as a man in sheep's clothing when peddling insincere peace proposals; he wears a babushka's kerchief and slippers while fearfully envisioning his impending death.
These images have gone largely unseen in the U.S. since World War II. The Art Institute didn't know it owned the posters until 1997, when an inventory revealed them in a rarely opened closet. Baffled by the unfamiliar material, curators started a long campaign of research and conservation. They learned that TASS posters had been sent to many American and English institutions during the war, in hopes of convincing those countries to establish a Western Front. New York's Metropolitan Museum mounted a show of the posters in 1943, but they were almost completely forgotten once the Cold War soured memories of U.S.-Soviet cooperation.
Among the scores of illustrators who worked for TASS, almost all of them obscure in the West, standouts include Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, a book illustrator and theater designer before the war, and Kukryniksy, a three-man team whose work had been published in newspapers and magazines since the 1920s.