In Conversation with a Soviet Propaganda Poster Artist: Vladimir Tverdokhlebov

Credit: Vladimir Tverdokhlebov
Credit: Vladimir Tverdokhlebov

What or who contributed to you becoming an artist? 

Art runs in my family. My father Sergey Grigoryevish Tverdokhlebov was an artist and spent most of his life working as an art teacher. My uncle Ivan Grigoryevich Tverdokhlebov was  a prominent artist in Russia and Chechnya. Despite a difficult upbringing, I would often spend hours in galleries and museums looking at sculptures and paintings. I was determined to be an artist, I couldn’t avoid it.

Vladimir Tverdokhlebov in his studio
Vladimir Tverdokhlebov in his studio

Little about the outside world - including art trends - made their way into the Soviet Union up until its collapse. Were you aware of trends in other parts of the world in your active years? If so, how did they impact the art you made?

We knew very little about the West, but some information did make it past censors. Classical Italian art was considered the pinnacle of all art in the Soviet Union. The state allowed the Artist Union of the USSR to import the Italian magazine, Domus, whose mission was to “renew architecture, interiors and the decorative arts in Italy”. We’d copy the idealised body that artists like Michangelo created with David. In later years, just before Perestroika reforms, we’d get Finnish, Czech and Polish magazines. Even though Poland and Czechoslovakia were Soviet satellite states, those countries were more exposed to Western culture and art, and that was reflected in their magazines.

A mosaic by Vladimir Tverdokhlebov
A mosaic by Vladimir Tverdokhlebov

In the Soviet Union, art production was limited to state sanctioned ‘official’ art. Did you create any art that wasn’t sanctioned by the state? If so, what art and why?

I was lucky because I attended the famous Vera Muchina Academy of Art & Industrial Design in Leningrad. Some of my teachers were alive during the 1917 October revolution and the Great Patriotic War (WWII), and they encouraged freedom of expression and to experiment with different styles of art and techniques. Because monumental art was considered closer to architecture and industrial design, we had access to fully equipped studios and workshops, where we could experiment with materials like glass, wood, mosaics and metal. As part of the curriculum, students had to produce designs of various posters. A few of mine were even chosen and added to the university museum for display.

What is the process of creating a propaganda poster? How are they commissioned? Who is involved? What are their roles? How long does it take?

Many artists applied to join the Union of Artists of USSR, but just a few were accepted. In order for your application to be considered, you needed to have produced and exhibited artworks, and have a minimum of two recommendations from prominent artists. It was an exclusive club. I became a member in 1970.  

The state was our primary customer. In every city, there was an artist cooperative which advertised new projects on a board. We’d apply for the projects we were interested in. One day I saw a notice calling for artists to create a series of posters for the Red Cross of Kazakhstan. Their theme was educational rather than ideological propaganda, so I applied. The posters called for citizens to become blood donors and join the Red Cross. I created the first sketches in pencil in small format. They were then sent to the Red Cross commissioner for approval. Once approved, I replicated them in colour and at full size, typically A2 or A3. After final approval by the Red Cross and Artist Advisory Board, they were sent to be printed.

Ideological and film posters were printed on the best printing presses with the high-quality paper. Health and safety posters, and other lesser subjects were printed on lower quality paper using pre-revolution printing presses.

Not all posters are created equal. In your opinion, what makes a good propaganda poster?

The image should speak by itself in a well designed poster. The main message should be understood without needing to read the text, and from a distance. That is why I designed my posters to be bold and eye-catching. Colour attracts attention to the image, so it is important. If the design was impactful, people would remember it. The words came last. The posters which work best are minimal in design, rich in colour, without small details or too many words.

During your active years in the 60s & 70s, the Soviet Union was going through a period of reconstruction after the Great Patriotic War (WWII). Many new buildings were grey and uniform, a style that came to be known as Khrushchyovka. Yet, most posters from that time have bright colours and bold text. Why was Soviet art so different from the environment within which it was created?

The Soviet state was the only country in the world which promised every citizen a home. After the war, it was tasked with building homes for millions of people whose homes were destroyed in the war. This had to be done quickly and cheaply. To reduce costs, most of the apartment blocks, government buildings, schools, factories, stadiums and recreational facilities such as Houses of Culture, were built using a limited number of designs. 

Local governments could apply for funding up to 5% of a building’s budget to put towards artistic elements like mosaics. On approval, local administrations would approach the artist cooperative with a design brief. Despite their initial costs, mosaics were popular because they required little maintenance, were durable, and memorable. As the head artist for a few monumental works in Kazakhstan, I was able to dictate the quality of the materials used, and even went to different factories across the republics of USSR to choose the most appropriate suppliers. I could also request more people to help and suggest more designs if necessary. 

Credit: Vladimir Tverdokhlebov
Credit: Vladimir Tverdokhlebov

Despite their beauty, the average citizen often treated mosaics and propaganda posters as state commissioned propaganda, not worthy of their attention. In your experience, what was the reaction to your posters and mosaics at the time?

This isn’t quite true. While mosaics and propaganda posters were a part of the landscape in the Soviet Union, they didn’t entirely fade into the background. They were designed to be remembered, with striking colours and bold slogans. I would say that while they were seen and remembered, they weren’t appreciated. That comes down to context. When an artist shows his artwork in a gallery, it’s appreciated, but because our works were part of everyday life, they weren’t appreciated as art at the time. 

But that is beginning to change, especially as people become more nostalgic for the Soviet days when everyone had a job and a place to call home. As more public art is destroyed, people are beginning to acknowledge the important role it plays in our community.

Looking back at your works and their message, what do you think about them now?

I tried to avoid taking on any ideological projects. The subjects of my posters and monumental art are health, safety and the environment. I wasn’t a communist, and I was sometimes critical of the Soviet Union. For me, it was about creating something beautiful and amplifying messages which I agree with. 

Most of my posters were hung in kindergartens, village halls, workplaces, and medical facilities. While many posters didn’t survive, some of my mosaics still do. But unfortunately, some people and businesses in my home country of Kazakhstan still don’t see the beauty of public artworks. They associate monumental art with the Soviet era. There are no government regulations protecting them, and many public artworks have been destroyed by the new owners of buildings. The owners should be responsible for the preservation and protection of our shared history. 

I heard in Ukraine, there is a decommunisation law which requires communist art and artifacts to be removed. It’s really unfortunate. This is the history of people, not communism. Eventually they will regret that they destroyed them. Hope there are people working to protect them. 

You can learn more about Vladimir Sergeyevich Tverdokhlebov’s work through his website here. This interview was co-authored by Stephane and Vladimir’s daughter, Anara Forrester, who also translated her father’s words. 

Vladimir Tverdokhlebov and his daughter Anara
Vladimir Tverdokhlebov and his daughter Anara
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