It was cold today in the Baker Mamonova Gallery; though a heater would have been quite welcome, the sub Siberian temperature seemed almost appropriate. The Gallery, owned by artist Russell Baker, is showing a new collection of hand painted posters which are inspired by thewho rose to prominence in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s.
The name Kukryniksy was derived from the names of three caricaturists – Kupriyanov, Krylov and Nikolai Sokolov who studied together at the Vkhutemas Art School in the early 1920s. They were part of a stable of artists employed by the old Soviet News Agency Tass, who supported the Soviet information machine by lampooning effete capitalists living off the backs of the workers or, alternatively, by promoting socially useful activities such as factory work or bringing in the harvest. During the Second World War they were prepared to soft pedal the effete capitalist bit and instead portrayed the allies as the USSR’s heroic partners in the struggle against Hitler and in so doing gained international recognition.
The posters were characterized by strong, clear graphics, bold designs and immense vitality. On display in the gallery there is one striking poster of a cheerful worker happily loading bombs into an aircraft. Each poster was produced not by printing but by using a series of paper stencils which were hand painted. The stencils had the advantage that they could be produced far more quickly than printed posters so that different posters were produced nearly every day of the war to inspire the Red Army and urge the people on to greater efforts. The Kukryniksy trio themselves produced over 70 different designs between 1941 and 1945.
Although Kukryniksy stayed in favour within the USSR; gaining seven state prizes between 1942 and 1975, in the West, during the cold war Socialist Realism was hardly viewed as art and the posters were dismissed as propaganda. Views have changed; these days the originals are rare, expensive and extremely desirable. You wonder what the three of them would make of that.
It was interest in the technique as well as the distinctive style that led Baker to embark on the Tass Windows project in which he invited two other artists – Ed Williams and Mark Godwin to join him in creating a series of works using similar materials and working methods. The results are displayed along with some of the Tass originals to create an exhibition that is not quite Russian but certainly not English either.
Perhaps closest to the Russian prototype are the works, not by Baker himself who has travelled many times to Russia and who met his wife there, but by Williams who has drawn on his interest in industrial landscapes and whose works includes a classic heroic figure standing against an image of Moscow’s Shukov Tower as well as more personal pieces including a portrait of his grandfather who was a miner. Despite the Russian script, the English element remains; for a few moments I was fooled into not recognizing the distinctive shape of St Leonard’s Marine Court. In Baker’s own pictures the images include the icebergs which have become his trademark, though they are bolder than his paintings which are almost abstract and minimalistic. Meanwhile Godwin eschews the Russian text and goes for wording in English with the result that the works, whilst of a similar size and with equally strong graphics, appear more like 1950s railway travel posters but nonetheless tone with the works of the other two artists and with the early Russian posters.
The exhibition marks a departure for the Baker Momonova Gallery which has been open now for three years and which usually specializes in Russian oil paintings. Baker is intending to ask other artists both Russian and English to collaborate further in producing these new Kukryniksies. What I find interesting about the project is that a time when the usual artistic compulsion is on individualism, three artists have created an exhibition where though individuality remains, it is subjugated to a common style. It will be interesting to see how other artists interpret the brief, particularly Russian artists some of whom may remember their parents or grandparents speaking of the originals.
Looking at Tass Windows is running at the Baker Mamonova Gallery, 43 Norman Road, St Leonards on Sea until December 24. Prices range from £200 to £6,000.