Illustrating the Russian Revolution

These propaganda posters and illustrations promoted the Communist dream that began with the Russian Revolution 100 years ago.


The Design Museum’s Imagine Moscow exhibition opens today. This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the exhibition recognises what happened in Moscow after the Revolution in design and illustration, but we soon discovered how completely integrated the design and political spheres were.

Contrary to the Royal Academy of Art's focus on artworks produced during (and post) the heart of the Revolution, and the British Library’s diary entries and propaganda materials, the Design Museum takes a unique angle on the design concepts of the 1920s and 1930s in Russia. 

If you haven't managed to pop down to the new Design Museum on Kensington High Street, here's our virtual tour

Image: Imagine Moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution exhibition. Credit: Luke Hayes.

At the centre of Imagine Moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution - at the Design Museum from March 15 to June 4 - is six architectural designs for landmarks that never came to pass following the Russian Revolution. The entire exhibition explores ideas for a completely transformed and grandiose Moscow, which came to an abrupt end before they could properly begin after Germany invaded in 1941.

Working alongside the exhibition's architectural concepts are posters and illustrations of propaganda in its purest form. In magazines, posters and street theatre, Moscow was deluged with images of a future dreamed of by its architects - the idealistic vision of the Soviet capital that never quite came to fruition.

Artists behind the new movements of Suprematism and Constructivism aimed to transform "the backdrop of everyday life" with a "whole new graphic language", often interpreting people as machines part of a wider working system.

Here are some of the posters, illustrations and architect sketches that caught our eye.

Image: Gustav Klutsis, 1924. Ne Boltai! Collection.


Posters

Propaganda posters encouraged Soviet concepts such as the accessibility of literacy and education for everyone and the emancipation of women and their role in communal living. Artists worked to reinvent the city in the years immediately after the Russian Revolution.

But the exhibition states that beyond forms of state propaganda, artists were looking to question social and cultural facets at a time when it was "turmoil".

Image: Valentina Kulagina, To the Defence of the USSR, 1930. Ne Boltai! Collection.

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Image: Valentina Kulagina, We Build, 1930s. Ne Boltai! Collection.


Illustrations

El Lissitzky, whose abstract illustrations and architect designs are featured throughout the exhibition, describes his - and many other contemporaries of the time - compositions as based on the "communist foundation of steel and concrete for the people of the earth".

His 'architectonic' illustration series from 1923 reimagines characters from the Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun. The opera is about the arrival of the new world - originally staged 1913 as a collaboration between leading members of the Avante-Garde.

Lissitzky’s design for the characters replaced them with mechanical puppets, suggesting a steely perfection. This series is much like his Proun series - Project for the affirmation of the New  - showcasing new utopian architectural forms.

Image: El Lissitzky, The New Man from The Three-Dimensional Design of the Electro-Mechanical Show 'Victory over the Sun', 1923. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.


Communist leadership was fascinated by the idea of creating a perfect Soviet citizen - a direct product of the revolution.

Image: El Lissitzky, Figures from The Three-Dimensional Design of the Electro-Mechanical Show 'Victory over the Sun', 1923. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.

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The movements of figures are suggested by using shifting axes, perspectives and directional signifiers.

Image: El Lissitzky, Sportsmen from The Three-Dimensional Design of the Electro-Mechanical Show 'Victory over the Sun', 1923. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.


This wonderfully obscure illustration is of a UN complex that was planned to be built on an island in the Indian Ocean. It forms part of a larger series of Ivan Leonidov’s architectural landscapes titled The City of the Sun. He began work on the series in the 1930s, which included numerous paintings and sketches of this fictional city that he continued to develop until his death.

Image: Ivan Leonidov, United Nations Building, 1947-48. Tchoban Foundation.


Architectural sketches

Probably the most encapsulating architectural design of the Soviet ideal is the Cloud Iron - a group of striking monstrosities.

Designed as horizontal skyscrapers, El Lissitzky envisioned the network of these enormous geometric structures around Moscow’s Boulevard Ring. The eight offices were planned to directly connect office and living space whilst leaving room for public transport on the bottom levels.

Image: El Lissitzky, Photo by the artist of his design Cloud Iron. Ground Plan. View from Strastnoy Boulevard, 1925. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.

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Other unrealised projects include Ivan Leonidov’s Lenin Institute (1927) and Nikolay Sokolov’s Health Factory (1928-9).

Image: El Lissitzky, Photo by the artist of his design Cloud Iron. Ground Plan. Views from the Kremlin, 1925. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.


We couldn’t leave out this beautiful design by Boris Iofan of the incredible Palace of the Soviets in 1933. This unfathomably large structure would have been the tallest building in the world - higher than the Empire State Building - if built.

Instead, remains of its early construction became the world’s largest swimming pool after World War II and it has now disappeared in the way of a cathedral that currently stands on the site.

Image: Boris Iofan, Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh, Palace of the Soviets, 1944. Tchoban Foundation.