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ART REVIEW : Graphic Tale of the USSR During WWII

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“I am fighting the war, and my weapon is 300 posters,” wrote the Soviet artist P. Sokolov-Skalya during World War II. “I see my posters in the streets of Moscow, on the walls of houses and in shop windows. . . . I visited the front lines, and there too I saw our posters in dugouts, in pillboxes and trenches, even on tree trunks and telegraph poles. But perhaps my most vivid recollection of the front was a tank ready to enter battle. The driver threw the turret hatch open and climbed inside. The tank turned, and I saw my poster pasted on it.”

Soviet political posters were everywhere during the war, especially where their makers and sponsors most wanted them to be--deeply embedded in the nation’s psyche. There, they could bolster the country’s morale, enhance the public’s sense of solidarity during a time of danger, inspire support for Red Army troops, encourage productive labor at home and, naturally, fuel hatred of the enemy.

All of the Allied powers used propaganda posters during the war. They were integral to the strategy of psychological warfare exercised more during that war than during any other until then. One historian has called the posters “paper bullets.” They had both aim and force.

An excellent overview of the Soviets’ graphic campaign is now on view at the Oneiros Gallery. The show, “Russia Under Fire in the ‘40s,” includes 74 works from the collection of recent Soviet emigre to San Diego, Victor Kholodkov, who has assembled an array of paper memorabilia from his former life as a Soviet art critic and dealer.

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Each poster in the show is dated and identified by artist, and its main slogan translated. They are not further annotated here, but by nature of their propagandistic intent, their messages blare loud and clear. Some glorify the memory of Lenin and the leadership of Stalin, others eulogize the Red Army soldier, and many belittle the character and power of the Nazi aggressor.

A vibrant physicality emboldens all of the works, a realism infused with the message that physical, moral and military strength have a common root. The crisp, modern geometric graphics of El Lissitzky may have spoken in a revolutionary language in the teens and ‘20s, but the war effort called for a direct appeal to the emotions that only such socialist realism could deliver.

We see a wild-eyed child, for example, standing before his fallen mother, their village burning in the distance. “Daddy, Kill the Germans!” reads the emphatic caption. In a simpler, but equally effective image, a woman wearing a head scarf holds her finger to her lips, warning, “It’s not far from chatter and gossip to high treason.”

Melodrama abounds in images of women, children and older people (“Sonny, Avenge!”), each delineating the valuable role they can play in supporting the war. Caricature shows up, too, in the posters that take a bulgy eyed, sneering Hitler as their target, labeling him “the Fascist bigot vampire” or “the reptile.”

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These extraordinary documents represent a fascinating convergence of art history and political history. Kholodkov should be hailed for preserving them, and gallery director Larry Urrutia thanked for giving them this public presentation.

Alexia Markarian’s last two local shows confirmed the artist’s gifts as a painter while denying her a vision easily categorized. In one body of work, she dissected the mass media’s perpetuation of traditional gender roles with dispassionate realism. In the other series of paintings, she gave birth to a fantastic and rich realm somewhere between the organic and the surreal, where base instincts ruled and a seductive gleam filled the air.

Now, in a show at the Oneiros Gallery, Markarian presents an odd series of images that is both harder to interpret and harder to like than the earlier work. Most of the current “Torso Park” show consists of small antiquarian engravings that Markarian has selectively overlaid with a range of disjunctive images. To a picturesque view of a lake, for instance, Markarian has added a seated nude woman in outline and a large sea monster. She has also turned a quiet hillside village into the scene of a disaster by engulfing one of its homes in flames.

Many of these are obvious but seamless intrusions, in which Markarian has kept the sense of scale and space consistent between the original and the overlaid imagery. In many others, however, she breaks that pictorial unity by floating disparate elements over the tranquil scenes--three pigs in profile over a rugged mountain range, a huge rose abloom amid snowy peaks, a skeleton wading through still water, a human brain hovering in the sky like an untethered balloon.

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The nearly scientific and precise style of the underlying engravings clashes with Markarian’s more whimsical imaginings, but the tension ignites few sparks. The larger paintings on view here feel equally static. Markarian’s visual vocabulary of anatomical parts and vaguely threatening disjunctions evokes curiosity but no real intrigue. There is a randomness and a remoteness to her approach that prevents her clues from coming together as an engaging riddle.

* Oneiros Gallery, 711 8th Ave., through Saturday. Gallery hours are Thursday through Saturday 11-5 and by appointment (696-0882).


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