Through a Glass, Lightly

A collection of World War II Russian posters has happily been preserved.

In April 1996, Karen Zukor, an art conservator based in Oakland, California, received a call from the East Coast. A client had recently acquired a collection of Soviet posters from World War II and he wanted them restored. They were very large, he explained, and very rare. The next day, an aluminum briefcase arrived in her studio, taped shut because the hinges were broken and looking like it had, quite literally, been through a war. Inside, Zukor found a pile of folded, discolored sheets of brittle paper, and at the bottom of the suitcase were hundreds of fragments. She faxed her client a succinct reply: You must be kidding.

The client was not kidding. His collection consisted of some of the few remaining examples of the ephemeral TASS Window posters which publicly displayed information about battles during World War II, or the “Great Patriotic War,” as it was called in Russia. Although TASS posters had been printed daily for the duration of the war, only a handful of these designs survive, archived in Moscow and England and in private collections. This group had probably never been viewed since they were printed and folded for storage over 50 years ago. Like an anthropologist who researches a site before digging, Zukor investigated the history of the TASS posters as a prelude to her conservation work.

On June 22, 1941, two days after Germany invaded Russia, a group of Moscow writers and graphic artists formed the Windows studio. The group revived a tradition of protest and propaganda from World War I, when massive posters were hung in storefront windows emptied by rationing and food shortages. These colorful, satirical images provided a disheartened and largely illiterate public with much-needed wartime information and amusement. Many artists who had participated, such as Vladimir Lebedev and Mikhail Cheremnykh, became founding members of TASS Windows. Membership quickly grew to include younger talents—for instance, the Kukrynski collective, a group of three artists who had been prominent book illustrators before the war.

The Windows studio was affiliated with the Soviet information bureau, TASS. Twice daily, the studio received telegraph dispatches of news relating to the war. An artist-writer team condensed this information into a powerful assemblage of words and pictures. Within 12 hours, 100 copies of a poster were hanging in storefronts and on buildings throughout Moscow. Every second day, a larger run of 600 Windows appeared across the Soviet Union. The studio was also equipped with a darkroom where posters were photographed onto portable filmstrips or slides, for projection in hospitals and factories.

During the first months, the Windows office was staffed by only a few designers; at the height of activity, about 200 artists worked in three shifts around the clock. “Since the first day of the war,” boasted TASS Windows director Pavel Sokolov-Skalya, “the light has never been turned off in our studio.”

In contrast to the feverish pace of the TASS artists, Zukor’s restoration methods proceeded at a painstaking rate. “The project was challenging because of sheer scale,” she explains. “We had never seen anything like the posters before, and they were in terrible, terrible condition.” Beginning with six of the folded sheets, she developed a process that could be applied safely to the entire group.

First, Zukor’s team carefully opened a poster, facedown, on a worktable. Some were nearly 4 by 5 feet and formed of several smaller sections of coarse paper that were glued together. Many had come apart at the folds. The reverse sides of these fragmented posters were given a surface cleaning with erasers and a soft cloth to remove dirt. Next, they were humidified and flattened. Once dry, the entire piece was anchored onto an archival backing with adhesive. Finally, the conservation staff could turn the poster over and see the image. It was often a revelation.

“We’ve become really fond of them,” says Zukor. “When we first started working on them, we thought they were ugly and scurrilous in their depiction of the Germans. After a while, you understand the humor behind them and realize they contain terrifically powerful images.” The posters were created with an elaborate series of stencils, and sometimes 25 or 30 colors on a single piece. Because pigments were applied by hand, each poster is unique; variations in brushwork depend on the artist. The finishing touch for a TASS Window was a serial number pasted to the upper-right corner that corresponded to the day of the war.

“They have a smell that’s quite distinct,” Zukor notes. “It’s acrid and industrial, and makes me think that these were produced under terrible conditions, which they probably were.”

After nearly a year and a half of careful work, the entire collection of 55 posters has been restored. Zukor’s efforts could not completely remove the stains or repair tears; however, she has stabilized and protected the posters. “They’ll never be beautiful and they’ll never be whole,” she says. “But if they are the only representations we have of communication of that period, then I think they say what they need to say quite well.”

This article was originally published in Print Magazine. © Philip Krayna.