I returned to the Baker Mamonova Gallery in St Leonard’s on Sea this week to see the latest exhibition of Tass Posters and a contemporary works inspired by them. I first wrote about Tass Windows in December 2012. I wanted to see how a new batch of artists had responded to the works. Russell Baker who owns the gallery has organised a split exhibition: upstairs on the mezzanine were some dozen original Tass posters; these were produced in great numbers in the 1940s to deliver propaganda messages in the Soviet Union. They were not printed but stencilled, which, along with the sans serif font, gives them a distinctive appearance. On the ground floor were works by some seven contemporary artists. whom Baker had invited to make their own posters using the same kind of methods.
I had seen the Tass posters three years earlier and then had been rather more interested in the contemporary works. Unexpectedly, for me, this time, it was the Tass works which stole the show. Looking at them again I was struck by their optimism and idealism. We know now that communism does not work, or perhaps, less categorically, we know that it has not worked in any society so far and tends to lead to inefficiency, corruption and oppression. But the artists themselves did not know that then. They were convincingly and spiritedly able to exhort the public to work hard for the public good.
What was so touching was their romantic view of any kind of work. Men and women look noble whilst producing or mending tractors, making industrial chemical or tyres.
My particular favourite is a 1945 poster of women making chocolate.
A notice on the wall helpfully gives a translation,
Comrade confectioners! Let’s respond
To heroic work with Stakhanovite production,
So that young and old alike remember us over tea,
And there are enough sweets for every table.
There were of course overtly political messages as well; one poster shows fascist rats, leaving the sinking ship of Hitler’s regime. In all cases there was passion.
Downstairs the passion was largely absent. The seven invited artists had used the same kind of fonts and drawn from the same kind of techniques to produce some attractive images. But there was no exhortation to do anything, and as the original Tass posters were packed full of faces, surprisingly few people. Of course, these works were not supposed to be pastiche but an artistic response. Even so, however pleasing, a picture of the pier, or of nearby Dane Road, might be, it somehow didn’t have much connection with the originals. I felt Ed Williams got nearest to the spirit of Tass with his poster of Nomura, apparently a building designed by the firm of architects of which he is a member. But the whole concept of the Tass posters is more than just observation.
I also liked Wittgenstein’s dog by Patrick Adam Jones though didn’t see much connection with Tass and little with Wittgenstein – though I guess that was part of the point.
Working out who did what was difficult. The numbering and labelling of the works is confusing not just for me but, so it turned out, also for the staff on duty. When I first admired a small collage on an easel, nobody was able to tell me the artist. It turned turned out to be by Baker himself.
But my overriding feeling was that this was a great ides which had failed to deliver all that it could have done. I understand that the exhibition will be staged in Moscow later in the year which might be part of the reason that politics appeared to be so absent. I couldn’t help but wonder what the original Tass artists would have wanted to portray if they had time-travelled to today: refugees perhaps or the nobility of those helping them. A final thought, all the seven invited artists were men; given the importance of women artists in the Russian avant-garde movement and the fact that the Tass artists consistently showed women labouring and striving alongside men, I felt they would not have approved.
Looking at Okho Tass is showing till 4 March at the Baker Mamonova Gallery, 43-45 Norman Road, St Leonard’s on Sea TN38010