Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 Review – A Treasure Unearthed

The story told by the posters that make up the current exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago tell stories that are interesting but not nearly as interesting as the story that made it possible for this exhibition to take place.  This amazing exhibition, Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-45, offers a look into another time, place and culture that is compelling and unique.

It is also interesting to note that this is only one of six visual arts exhibitions on view throughout Chicago as part of The Soviet Arts Experience (, which continues through January 2012.  The exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago runs from July 31-October 23, 2011 and is a major exhibition there.

A large poster tells a story

In1997 during construction at The Art Institute of Chicago, 26 tightly wrapped brown paper parcels were unearthed from deep within a storage area for the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Prints and Drawings. It took about three years to find out that these parcels contained 50-year-old monumental posters created by a collective of artists and writers working under the auspices of the Soviet Union’s news agency, TASS (an acronym for the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) and about another 10 years to mount the current exhibition and the accompanying richly illustrated catalogue. The catalogue, published by the Art Institute of Chicago and distributed by Yale University Press, is available for $65 at the Art Institute’s Museum Shop. The exhibition marks the first time the hand-made posters, originally designed for window displays in empty storefronts, have been displayed in the United States since World War II.  It is likely that when The Art Institute of Chicago received the mailings, no one knew what they were and for about sixty years no one knew they were there.

Studying the posters

These posters are at once unique historical objects and works of art.  They are almost like commercials, conveying ideas clearly and powerfully.  These artists believed in Art as a weapon.  When the material was sent to the States, there were also packets of posters that went to other parts of the world in attempt to share ideas the artists thought were critically important.  

There were themes for the posters needed approval and a different poster was created for each day.  This project began with about twelve artists and swelled to many hundreds and there were even satellite offices in Uzbekistan and elsewhere.

The multilayered stencil process

The posters were made using the unconventional technique of stenciling and are impressively large (all between 5 and 10 feet in height) resulted from the collaboration of leading Soviet artists and illustrators with some of the most significant writers of the day. By war’s end, the TASS agency had generated approximately 1,250 individual designs—one for nearly every day of the conflict. The ambition and devotion of the TASS artists are palpable: they produced, assembly-line style, daily editions of between 100
and 1,000 striking and sizable posters entirely by hand, through the means of painting through cut stencils and with a labor-intensive technical virtuosity previously unheard of in poster production (some of the most intricate and chromatically brilliant designs demanded 60 to 70 different stencils and color
divisions). This exhibition is comprised primarily of the Art Institute’s 157 TASS posters, which were mailed to the museum by VOKS (the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) as part of its campaign of international cultural diplomacy during the war.

War on trial

Visiting the exhibition with a friend who spent these war years in Uzbekistan, I was fascinated both by the posters themselves and my friend’s responses to them.  For her, they brought back a different world, the one dominated by Stalin’s messages.  For me, who spent those years in Chicago, it brought back the stress and tension I saw in the adults around me.  As the exhibition moved toward the end of the war, I remembered learning about the way each of the countries was repatriated, as I saw this history conveyed in the posters. The final poster in the exhibition depicted the fall of Berlin and a trial. It was haunting.  This remarkable, powerful and rare exhibition is to be shown only in Chicago.


The Art Institute of Chicago

111 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60603
(312) 443-3600

Open Mon-Wed,Fri-Sun 10:30am-5pm; Thu 10:30am-8pm

Photos: B. Keer


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