Monday, March 31, 2008

The Stenberg Brothers – Revolutionary Poster Design

Presently, it is easy to take for granted dynamic compositions of graphic work, and more specifically, film poster art, but when the Stenberg brothers designed their film posters produced for the movies during the early part of the 20th century, there was little or no precedence for them. In order for the Stenbergs to create their radical and extensive oeuvre, a large number of factors had to be involved to galvanize inspiration, production and wide distribution, including the influences of Futurism, the brotherhood of Constructivism, new technologies, the Stenberg brother’s intimate knowledge of avant-garde theater and set design, and a burgeoning film industry with a supportive Bolshevik regime, factors that all worked together to create a veritable perfect storm for innovative graphic movie poster art. The three posters below, all created during a two-year span in the late 1920s for the movies The Man with the Movie Camera, A Commonplace Story, and The Last Flight, capture the essence of the Stenberg brother’s visual style and language. By the time Josef Stalin’s Social Realism crushed the output of these avant-garde Constructivists, it was too late – the Stenberg brothers had already created a huge body of work that would influence future generations.

Post-revolutionary Soviets in the 1920’s loved film. In an era where illiteracy was endemic, film was crucial in the conversion of the masses to the new socialist order, a sentiment not lost on Vladimir Lenin. With a 60% illiterate adult population, films did not just function as entertainment; they could be used to spread the gospel of Bolshevism. Heavy funding and support from the government gave the film industry the ability to produce not only patriotic movies and easily digestible narratives like detective stories for the masses, but cutting-edge, avant-garde cinema as well. The most notable experimental Soviet filmmaker of the time was the director who called himself ‘Dziga Vertov’, Russian for ‘Spinning Top’. His nom de guerre wasn’t the only indication of his distaste for convention. Vertov felt that the glut of traditional narratives, which he described as “bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios,” were corrupting influences, performing a disservice to the proletariat.

The Man with the Movie Camera 1929. Offset lithograph.

In the poster for Vertov’s film, The Man with the Movie Camera, the Stenberg brothers showed similar sensibilities by disjointedly displaying tidbits of the film’s elements in a formal narrative, inviting the viewer’s eye to move clockwise from the camera eye down to the legs and up towards the gunman, rather than depicting the more customary narrative snapshots or movie stars. Vertov believed the camera eye could “create a man more perfect than Adam,” reflecting the Bolshevik idealization of the machine, a trope the Stenbergs also infused into their poster. This camaraderie and cross-pollination was typical of their Constructivist peers like El Lissitzky and Vladimir Tatlin, who like the Stenberg brothers openly embraced different mediums and technologies to create art in the service of revolution.

Another element the Stenberg brothers incorporated to eschew more traditional narratives was to present instead the mood of the movie. In their 1929 poster for the German movie A Commonplace Story, a terrified woman is formally incised by shadowy male figures in a palate reminiscent of a dark alley, only suggesting the movie’s content – a story of a woman abandoned by her husband and mistaken for a prostitute.

A Commonplac Story 1927. Offset lithograph

The Commonplace Story poster is also a wonderful example of the amalgamation of the Stenberg’s contemporary influences at the beginning of the century. Quickly evident is the dynamic formal qualities of the posters, from the heavy diagonals that Constructivists employed in their kinetic compositions, to energetic, diagonal text championed by Filippo Marinetti and the international Dada Movement. Their strong geometric shapes and diagonals were also advocated by another group of Russian artists, the Suprematists Malevich and Kandinsky.

Zang Tumb Tumb 1914. Filippo Marinetti

Suprematism 1916. Kazimir Malevich

Composition VIII 1923 Wassily Kandinsky

While the film poster commissions provided the Stenberg brothers with relative success during the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution, their true legacy lies in the subsequent quotations of their visual style.

Vertigo 1958. Saul Bass

The Last Flight 1929. Offset lithograph

Hitchcock utilized Saul Bass’ graphic design talents for this poster for the movie Vertigo, but what Bass is most remembered for is his motion picture title sequences. Like the Stenberg brother’s work, the lines between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, between still images and motion, were often blurred. For their poster for the Russian director, Ivan Pravov’s movie The Last Flight, the Stenbergs created a dizzying snapshot of suspension and implied motion simultaneously. The concentric black circles implies both expansion outside the frame, and at the same time, an inward, inexorable fall towards a yellow, bottomless abyss. In a 1981 interview, Vladimir Stenberg explained, “When we made posters for the movies, everything was in motion because in films, everything moves.” Many of the Stenberg brother’s images borrowed heavily from film. The extreme close-up, while not having precedence in two-dimensional work was clearly borrowed from cinema, and the split frames they employed were nods to split film frames. The utilization of technology to expose different angles gave them the ability to create compelling posters like The Last Flight, which challenges the viewer’s perception of space and motion. The Stenberg brothers also benefited from their early, pre-graphic design theatrical experience, creating sets that manipulated three-dimensionality, from their sculpture work like Structure in Space, created as an exploration into spatial territory, and from the influences of Malevich and Tatlin’s kinetic works. The typographical approach, while mechanical and sans serif in form, are similarly treated as a survey in motion.

The Storm 1924. Alexander Ostrovsky. Set design by the Stenberg Brothers

Structure in Space 1919. Sculpture

Menu Enoteca 2008. Teddy Vuong. Still from video

There are few works of graphic art, especially film poster design these days that don’t bring to mind the compositions of the Stenberg posters. While it is true that an inordinate amount of convention is still produced, the film posters that deserve merit by pushing the boundaries of compositional dynamism share some characteristics of the film posters of the Stenberg brothers. In redesigning the menu for the Austin restaurant Enoteca, I too wanted to challenge the audience’s perception and their perception of food itself. By channeling the Stenberg brother’s spirit, I found it fitting to employ the technology of video cameras and photography to express their ideas. I attempted to portray the food in a different light by displaying each item in motion or in auspicious moods, by using them as characters or highlighting unusual angles. The text itself was to mirror the Stenberg’s playful dynamism through movement and agitation. In the spirit of their Constructivist brethren, I wanted to create a menu for diners who are unable to read or translate the menu items. I call it “art in the service of hungry stomachs.”

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