There is a terrific exhibition of Soviet Revolutionary Movie Posters currently running, through next Friday, at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York. Of the 95 posters on display (many of which are the sole surviving examples and have never been publicly exhibited before) almost half are by Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, my choices for the two greatest movie poster designers of all time.
Back in 1997, MoMA mounted a retrospective of the Stenberg Brothers’ work which is what turned me on to them. The catalogue, a must-have for anyone interested in movie posters and graphic design, is out of print but used copies can still be found.
Born in 1899 and 1900 to a Swedish father and a Russian mother, the brothers initially studied engineering and fine arts. Pioneers of Constructivism, they worked as sculptors, architects and designers of everything from railway carriages to theater sets to women’s shoes, always working in collaboration with each other. But it was as movie poster designers, in the glorious spring of Soviet Cinema, that they excelled. From their first poster for The Eyes of Love in 1923 until Georgii’s untimely death ten years later in a motorcycle accident, they designed more than 300 posters. (Vladimir continued to design film posters, though with less distinction, and was appointed Chief Designer for Moscow’s Red Square. He died in 1982.)
What is extraordinary about the Stenbergs' posters, beyond their amazingly expressive and dynamic use of color, composition and typography, which has rarely been equalled, is that, though they look like photomontage they are actually almost entirely illustration. The ever-inventive Stenbergs had constructed a prototype overhead-projector which would allow them to project filmstrips onto their posters and to copy and embellish faces and bodies (as well as to distort them if necessary), hence their photorealist look. This gave their posters a consistency and quality that would have not been possible to achieve, due to the limitations of the printing processes available at the time, by cutting and pasting photographs onto paper.
There are way too many great Stenberg posters to do justice to them in one post, so for now I thought I’d show ten of my all-time favorites. I didn’t repeat the two that I placed at the top of my recent Dziga-Vertov post, even though they are certainly two of my favorites.
The poster above is for the German film Six Girls Seeking Shelter (Hans Behrendt, 1927). I love its combination of realism (two women’s faces and legs which are repeated three times) and abstraction (the grid of yellow, black and grey for their dresses) and the way the woman's arms spill into that grid.
This enormous poster (104" x 80", the size of 8 one-sheets) for the international export of Eisenstein's October (1927) was created in collaboration with Yakov Ruklevsky who is occasionally credited with the brothers. All of the Stenbergs’ posters are dynamic, but there is something especially thrilling and three dimensional about that blue gun-wielding sailor looming out of the top diagonal of the poster and the red revolutionaries pulling the cannon, straining towards the edges of the frame.
This playful and energetic poster is for The Last Flight (Ivan Pravov, 1929), a film about a circus troupe marooned in southern Russia during the 1917 revolution. The Stenbergs' use of concentric circles is one of my favorite elements in their work. I’m also especially drawn to their deep black backgrounds.
Another German film, Which of the Two or Manhunt (Nunzio Malasomma, 1926). With its concentric circles and dual figures, it nicely echoes the poster above, though to very different effect. Brilliant use of perspective and depth. Note the Stenbergs' signature bottom right, which reads 2 Stenberg 2.
A 1927 poster for the German film High Society Wager or The Weather Station (Carl Froelich, 1923) about a social climbing couple who fall victim to gambling, beautifully symbolized by the staircase they are ascending and their emerging nemesis below. The spiral staircase is reminiscent of the Stenbergs' own Constructivist sculptures, and also Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International which is also on display at Shafrazi.
Though this looks as if it might be a poster for a noirish thriller about a man on the run, Cement (Vladimir B. Vilner, 1928) is actually a film about the lives of workers in a cement factory. The man’s head and hand are the only obviously realistic elements in what otherwise could be a Malevich geometric abstraction. The representation of refracted light (which I assume is sunlight streaming into the dark bowels of the factory) and the reflection of light from window panes is exquisite.
Though it looks like a science-fiction film with aliens invading on surfboards and some outlandish air-sea contraption, SEP (1929) was actually a training film for army personnel, one of two equally bizarre posters the Stenbergs produced for it. Though the Stenbergs apparently never saw a skyscraper, they frequently appear in their posters which are almost exclusively urban in their settings.
The Man from the Forest (Georgi Stabovi, 1928). Apparently little is known about this Ukrainian film but the poster is one of the best examples of the Stenbergs’ use of extreme close-ups (attuned as they always were to the grammar of cinema) most of which are of women's faces, as also seen below.
A 1927 poster for Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923) also done in collaboration with Ruklevsky (see their combined signatures). An exquisite and unusual composition, one of many bissected Stenberg designs, but especially interesting in the way the two images merge in those angled bars at the bottom right and the way the credits perfectly marry the curve of the woman’s face.
And finally, one of two posters that the Stenbergs made in 1929 for Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) (the other one is amazing too). Both of them are quite different in color and composition from most of the brothers’ work. The use of non-Cyrillic typography (though the N is rendered as an H) to create Buster's suit is just one of many examples of the Stenbergs' inventive use of type.
If you’re in New York and can brave the heat, go see the the Shafrazi show before it ends on Friday (note that the gallery is closed Sunday and Monday). If you can’t, there are some great photos of the show here and you can scroll through all the posters on the Shafrazi website. It's a treat to see the originals, because the colors on a lot of these posters are often reproduced inconsistently in print. Also, you can really study the Stenbergs' illustration technique up close. But on the website you have the advantage of the posters being labelled, which they are rather frustratingly not in the gallery.
I am indebted for many of the scans to New Zealander Giovanni Tiso, who in 2010 was posting a "Daily Stenberg" on his blog. I was sorry he stopped at #48.
Since these ten are just the tip of the iceberg of the 300 posters the Stenbergs produced, of which at least 100 are extant, expect more Stenberg posts in the near future.