As our 2011 exhibit Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad 1941–1945 draws closer, loans from other institutions and private collections have started to arrive in the Prints & Drawings department vaults. Every time a new shipment of loans arrives the TASS team gathers excitedly to see the posters in person for the first time. As we unfurl each new poster in the vault, we marvel time and again at how powerful these images are in person.
Physical access to the posters also means that we are able to spot new and interesting details—especially as the posters begin the conservation process. Just last week the conservators discovered that a seemingly standard TASS poster was printed on rather unusual paper. Instead of light-colored newsprint, this poster is on a somewhat thicker and more absorbent paper. And, most interestingly, the paper is saturated black on one side and grey on the other, rather than the standard off-white. For the conservators, this anomalous paper presents a challenge—their standard humidifying technique to flatten the posters might cause the dye in the paper to bleed out on to the image.
This paper also presents a number of questions for those of us working to research and understand the TASS studio and its poster production choices. Standing around the table in the conservation lab, conservators and curators alike discussed ideas about the quality of the paper and the reasons for its use. One particularly compelling idea was that the paper might be the kind that was used to black out windows during Nazi air raids on Moscow.
The more we uncover about the conditions at the TASS Studio during the war years, the more we have come to see differences in materials as necessity-driven—rather than as evidence of artistic decisions. Poor conditions and material shortages were deciding factors when it came to what kind of paint or paper to use. We have even found evidence that the TASS artists turned to bug repellent when turpentine became completely unavailable. Literally made sick by their working conditions, the TASS artists continued to churn out posters with whatever they could find around them. Considering the harsh conditions that these people worked under, it is no wonder that they saw themselves as fighters—and their brushes as powerful as bayonets.