Under the Roman Empire, two things were critical to keeping the people happy: panem et circenses. Bread and Circuses. If they were fed and entertained, they were pacified.
Centuries later, the Soviet Union took this philosophy to heart. Bread had always been a sore point – it was a protest about bread shortages that had catalysed the October Revolution and brought the Communist party into power. But the circus was something the Soviets did well.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, ‘The Moscow Circus’ – a loose collection of acts from across the USSR – rose to international attention. It became an emblem of the Soviet state and was used to covertly communicate the Communist ideology to audiences both at home and abroad.
CYRK posters do the same thing – but not in the ways we might expect. Visually surreal and thematically subversive, their bright colours belie a darker take on life under Soviet rule.
A political circus
The circus was the peoples’ entertainment. It had been a cultural touchpoint – as it was in the US – for some time. But in the USSR, the circus came to symbolise something more than just a fun family day out. Unlike the ballet (Russia’s other great cultural export), the circus was accessible. It was the art form of the proletariat, costing only a few dollars for a ticket. It was Communist.
The ideological message of the circus wasn’t only figurative, however. In the West, circuses centred round animal acts, clowning and acrobatics. Those were all features of the Soviet circus, too. But the Soviet circus also included more of a narrative element – something that’s been revived by modern circus acts like Cirque du Soleil. Alongside all the big action sequences were dance numbers which told folk stories and legends, usually with an overtly nationalist message.
This wasn’t a coincidence. In 1929, the USSR had become the first country in the world with a state-run circus training facility. The Moscow Circus School was a point of national pride and being a circus performer was a well-respected and highly coveted career. It was also financially rewarding, offering benefits that were otherwise hard to come by in the Communist state. Retirement and childcare benefits were guaranteed, as was maternity leave. Performers were allowed to travel outside the USSR. They might even get access to better housing – a privilege usually reserved for government officials. Thousands auditioned for the 70 spaces available at the school.
Surrealism and subversion
But by the 1960s, with the Soviet stranglehold over culture showing signs of weakness, the traditional image of the circus needed a facelift. The state turned to poster artists to come up with a more modern aesthetic that showed the USSR was keeping up with the times.
The most famous posters to come out of this period were created by the artists of the Polish Poster School. Poland, by then, was governed by a Soviet-supported Communist regime. Though largely autonomous, they were still subject to heavy censorship – especially when it came to the arts. So the brief from the ZPR (the state agency that oversaw the circus) was surprisingly ambiguous. The posters needed to excite the public about the circus that was coming to town. But they wanted art, not advertisements. The posters shouldn’t contain literal depictions of any of the acts.
The resulting CYRK posters are notorious. Characterised by bright colours, striking typography and aesthetic playfulness, they were hugely influential in the later development of graphic design. And because governmental oversight was relatively loose, a lot of them also got away with taking discreet swipes at the Soviet regime.
It’s not just their unique aesthetic that makes CYRK posters so popular with collectors today. It’s unpacking their hidden messages, too. Magicians and clowns masquerading as spies appear frequently, suggesting the double dealing and misinformation of the Communist regime. Tightropes and tumbling acrobats suggest its imminent demise. One of the more obvious motifs is the bear. Bears in CYRK posters are often seen riding bikes or balancing on balls – references to common animal acts of the time. But bears are also representative of Russia, having been used as symbolic shorthand in plays and cartoons for time immemorial. Read as such, bears in CYRK posters take on a different meaning: one critical or even mocking of the USSR’s attempts at world domination. CYRK posters may have been intended to promote a nationalist pursuit, but their subtext reveals a much more critical position.
The final curtain
The Moscow Circus reached the peak of its popularity in the 1980s – just as the USSR started to disintegrate. Circuses were still touring the West when the Cold War was officially declared over. Clowns were some of the first to cross the cultural and national borders between East and West.
The CYRK posters of the Polish Poster School show us that internally, the disintegration of the state had started much earlier. Ultimately, the show of the circus wasn’t enough to keep the population pacified. The Cyrk posters were literally papering over the cracks.
To browse our collection of CYRK posters from the Polish Poster School and beyond, click here.