History on Display: Windows on the War

There are plenty of good reasons to visit the Art Institute of Chicago:  the Impressionist collection, the Chagall window, the under-appreciated collection of South Asia art, the gift shop.  But the Art Institute usually isn’t my first choice for a history lesson.  In fact, it doesn’t generally take much to set me off on the inadequacy of their labels.  I want context, dang it all.  Not just size, date, and medium.

Last Thursday, I took it all back. The exhibit Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 is an amazing combination of art, intellectual history, military history and curatorial chutzpah.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.  Stalin’s government girded its loins for war.  So did the Soviet Union’s artists.  On June 23, three Russian artists asked for permission to create window propaganda posters as part of the war effort. With government approval, a dozen artists set up the TASS Window Poster Studio.  Unlike the war posters that most Americans are familiar with, the TASS posters weren’t printed.  They were hand-painted using a stencil method that allowed the studio to mass-produce intricate images.  At the beginning of the war, the studio was producing several hundred copies of each design.  As more artists joined the studio, outputs rose.  At its height, TASS could produce 1400 copies of a design.  Between 1941 and 1945, the studio produced a poster for almost every day of the war.

The artists came from many backgrounds: political cartoonists, fine artists, even a children’s book illustrator.  The diversity of the posters reflects the diversity of their backgrounds.  Some were comic book style, telling a story in a series of panels.  Some were gorgeous.  Some were flat out funny.  Many were–disturbing. As the war went on, the level of violence and gore in the posters grew.  (I must admit, I stopped looking at the posters related to the Battle of Stalingrad.) As My Own True Love put it, the posters gave a new meaning to the phrase “graphic art”.

Windows on the War is on display through October 23. (Sorry to give you such short notice, but I wasn’t expecting history.)  If you’re in or near Chicago, be sure you take the opportunity to see it.  If you’re actively interested in war posters or the eastern front in WWII, it’s worth a special trip.  If Chicago isn’t in your plans, the exhibition’s website will give you a taste.  The Art Institute has also set up a tumblir * , where a new poster is added daily.

*Don’t ask me to explain it.  Just trust me and click.

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