Five Year Plan – Constructing the Railway

This is a post about graphic communication. The poster image, Transport, above, is by Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938) and dates from 1929. There are a number of things to say about it…

You can tell from the red star that the poster is associated with the revolutionary politics of the Soviet Union.

The Russian revolution (1918) was one of the big political consequences of WW1. The Russian autocracy failed miserably in its prosecution of the war. The Russian army was left starving and ill-equiped. The misery provided the perfect conditions for a revolutionary coup, led by Lenin and Trotsky. The immediate objectives of the revolution were to modernise the Russian economy and to provide a more egalitarian society for their people.

Remember, the Russian autocracy had maintained a feudal system until the beginning of the 20C. Military force and religious superstition combined to oppress the great majority.

The new politics attempted to fast-track Russia into the 20C. This involved a number of dramatic policies that extended the railway network, industrialised the Russian interior, collectivised the agricultural production and so on. It was heroic stuff; but mostly misguided.

The accelerated process of modernisation, required to shore up the new regime against counter-revolution, undermined quality-control and administration. You can read all about this in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1929-1930). The result was a descent into the chaos and recrimination of show-trials, purges, enforced poverty and mass-displacements. That’s not was intended. David Lean’s great film, Doctor Zhivago (1965) is a romance played out against the vast Russian landscape and the backdrop of this political upheaval.

Anyway, back to the poster… Klutsis is providing an information graphic that illustrates the great progress in transport infrastructure under the new leadership.

The Rusian artistic avant-garde understood that the new politics would require a new visual language. The signs and symbols of the past were obviously freighted with meanings associated with traditional forms of command-and-control.

Accordingly, the artists of the Suprematist movement conceptualised a new visual language around the idea of pure geometric forms – the square, the triangle, the circle etc. The most famous image associated with this is the famous Black Square (1915) by Malevitch.

The pioneer graphic designer, El Lissitzky, applied this new language to the modernist discourse of revolution. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) shows the Red Army as a dynamic triangle attacking the defensive position of counter-revolutionary forces.

Lissitzky, Malevitch and Klutisis each understood that the triangle is always a dynamic shape. It adds focus and precision to the implied percussive force of momentum. The obvious visual association with arrows and daggers further re-inforce this idea. These qualities are intrinsic to the form.

Malevitch defined the basic elements of the new graphic language. Lissitzky experimented with position, orientation and scale to make meaning. Klutsis applied this theory to practical issues of communication. Lissitzky and Klutsis are Constructivists.

In the Klutsis poster, the Red Wedge is re-cast as a quantitative symbol. The triangle implies a soaring, upward-only, trajectory of industrial production and modernisation. The poster is visual communication, propaganda and information graphic combined. The camel and the out-of-date steam train probably undermine this vision slightly.

The graphic avant-garde in Soviet Russia were amongst the first to make widespread use of photographic elements in mass-produced visual communication. Printing these images in large numbers and in large poster formats required a particular form of assembly, or montage. You can see that the Klutsis poster is made up of parts; some photographic and some typographic. The trick is that the the whole thing appears coherent and meaningful, even from a distance.

Of course, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as this. The technological base of the Russian print industry was 19C and it wasn’t possible to print from high quality half-tones. So, they used lithographic draughtsmen to draw photographically. Mechanical reproduction, as promoted by modernist design philosophers, took a long time to arrive.

Not surprisingly, the political benefits of mass production and mechanical reproduction were contested by the vested, and reactionary, interests of print and media control.

Even worse, the Soviet leadership after Lenin became increasingly paranoid. Klutsis was arrested and executed in 193

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