Eugeniusz Get-Stankiewicz, Satyrykon 90; courtesy The Alternative Museum
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Art as Activist: Revolutionary Posters from Central and Eastern Europe gathered together eighty-two political posters made during the tumultuous changes that marked the end of Communist rule in 1989. Encouraged by democratic movements and ideologies like Solidarity and perestroika, artists from countries as diverse as Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania and Russia created posters that put forth ideas and images that never found their way into government controlled media. Organized by Dr. Marta Sylvertrová, curator at the Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czechoslovakia and Dana Bartelt, a graphic designer from Raleigh, North Carolina, Art as Activist posited the poster as a referendum on politics that dared to stray from the party line.
The majority of posters address the issues with a wry subtlety that doesn’t cushion the bluntness of the message; a result, no doubt, of years of censorship where metaphor was the lone avenue of political discourse. Latvian artist Yuris Dimiter’s 1937 “commemorates” a year in which Stalin ordered the summary execution of citizens without explanation. Made up of a back view of a figure whose shirt pattern resembles prison bars and whose head carries a red star (the “target”), the muted colors and symmetrical composition of 1937 cannot belie its rage, albeit conveyed with profound solemnity. Poland’s Eugeniusz Get-Stankiewicz is no less angry, but opts for a caustic wit that, like a lot of truly funny humor, is defiantly tasteless. His Satyrykon depicts Poland as a dumpy cartoon figure, complete with a dildo-nose mask (homage to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange?), pissing away the red of the Communist regime.
Political posters, by their very nature, depend on their “natural surroundings”–both social and physical–for their impact; context may not be everything but it counts for a lot. Indeed, the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe gave Art as Activist the air of a relic–of time passed. In effect, it became an exhibition of artifacts rather than of art. In the handsome exhibition catalogue, Hungarian poster designer and film director István Orosz admits as much when he writes that his essay is less a foreward than an epilogue. In light of their social function, a pristine gallery space cannot be the best place to view these posters. This is not to deny the visual eloquence in which the artists espoused their ideas, however, or the relevance of Art as Activist. As history, these posters serve as a cogent reminder of the preciousness of free expression–a reminder that, despite the lip service paid, can never be too strongly expressed.
© 1993 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the January 1993 edition of New Art Examiner.