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Mightier than the Bayonet?

The word propaganda might initially sound pejorative. Propaganda has been historically perceived as a malevolent method of spreading false rumors. But might we also interpret propaganda as a means of providing a nation courage and willingness to fight in the face of immeasurable odds? Such was the task of the Soviet news agency (TASS) window-posters created in the Soviet Union during the Second World War—and such is the content of Windows on the War, a massive exhibition of these “propaganda” posters that will be mounted at the Art Institute next summer.

Propagandistic posters are usually focused on bolstering support on the home front and distanced from the reality of the battlefield. However, the makers of the TASS Windows had a different idea: to use their creative skills as ammunition in the fight against the Germans. Art became a weapon.

The poster above, number 1000, acts as a visual manifesto for the TASS studio. Above the picture is a quote by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the acclaimed Russian Futurist poet and founder of the ROSTA Windows—predecessors of TASS in the 1920s and the inspiration for the TASS Window project as a whole. The quote reads, in translation, “I want the pen to be equal to the bayonet”—a wish visually manifested in this image. We see Hitler being attacked by three bayonets, alongside a pencil and ink pen. In fact, if we follow Hitler’s gaze, he seems to be staring directly at the hands holding these two tools. The artists, writers, and poets of TASS, it would seem, have succeeded—they have “killed” the enemy’s spirit, while boosting the morale of Soviet citizens with this symbolic defeat. Finally, as Mayakovsky wished, the pen and pencil are on equal footing with the traditional weapons of war.

There was a bona fide sense that producing these TASS Windows was as important as being at the front. In the Soviet Union, the artists who created the posters became beloved cultural icons, as important as military generals. They received state medals and great renown for their work. To this day, surviving former Soviet citizens alive at the time of the TASS Windows can name the artists by heart—artists such as Sokolov-Skalya, Solov’ev, Shukhmin, and the Kukryniksy.

Surrounding the production of the TASS Windows are stories of passion, fervor, and intense labor. The artists would gather, regardless of abominable weather or the advancing enemy attack on Moscow, to create a new poster virtually every day of World War II. Not unlike the Red Army soldiers, the artists and writers labored in inhospitable conditions for the sake of the war effort. Because of the cultural importance of these posters and the iconic status of these artists and writers, heroic or wistful cultural myths came to surround the studio as time went on. According to some anecdotes, TASS posters were carried to the Front by the soldiers and were used to intimidate the enemy. Some TASS artists and writers were even driven to the Front itself so that they might absorb the details of war to imbue later drawings with veracity. The artists and writers of the TASS Windows truly felt their art to be one of the most powerful weapons against the Nazi invaders.

--Julia A., intern in the Department of Prints and Drawings

Image: Nikolai Fedorovich Denisovsky and Pavel Petrovich Sokolov-Skalya, Our One Thousandth Blow, June 5, 1944. Gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.

Tags: TASS