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The Face of the Enemy

Wartime propaganda is usually considered a quick and dirty operation, with the goal of producing simplified but emotionally impactful images on a tight time frame in order to immediately inform and influence the public. As such, its value as an artistic practice has historically been placed below “fine” or “high” art production such as easel painting, which has been misleadingly interpreted as more autonomous conceptually, politically, and stylistically.

The speed and scope of production of the TASS posters might lead one to believe that the imagery would be executed quickly and crudely, with a limited palette and design sophistication to conserve time, labor, and funds. However, this poster, TASS 939, “A Secret and a Counter-Secret” proves this assumption quite wrong.

TASS 939 head of hitler

In this detail from the poster we see an uneasy Adolf Hitler, frowning with furrowed brow. The full poster, from which this close-up excerpt was taken, depicts an exchange of uncertain glances between Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. They appear sheepish, as if they’ve been caught in a lie. The artist, Pavel Petrovich Sokolov-Skalya, satirically demeans Hitler by emphasizing his lumpy, distorted features, including abalding cranium, bestial pointed ears, and greasy comb-over. Yet Hitler’s look of concern, heavy-lidded eyes, and deeply down-turned grimace create a sentiment that is more pitiful than demonizing.

However, unlike other grotesque depictions of Hitler, Sokolov-Skalya uses this as an opportunity to exercise his creative bravado, using no less than twenty different colors to define the ugly features of Hitler’s face. Four different striated tones of blue, alongside pinks, yellows, greens, lavenders, and browns are given definition by black outlining. The vivid unnatural patchwork coloration recalls the painterly experiments of movements within high European Modernism like Expressionism and Fauvism. Similar to Seurat’s pointillist technique, when seen from a distance, the pastel ensemble of colors blends to a neutral-looking flesh tone.

This image demonstrates how the Soviet artists working for TASS strived to achieve both political and artistic goals with their work, using the headline news as a structure in which to experiment and exercise artistic flourishes that were disapproved of under Stalin’s cultural restrictions.

—Jill B., Research Associate, Department of Prints and Drawings

Pavel Petrovich Sokolov-Skalya
Russian, 1899-1961
A Secret and a Counter-Secret, March 23, 1944
Multicolor brush stencil on newsprint
1938 x 870 mm, Edition of 600
Gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries
2010.175

Tags: TASS