When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, signs and symbols that had been fearfully powerful not long before, quickly became reduced to the status of over-šriced junk, bought only by tourists previously too nervous to visit the former Communist world. In flea markets across re-unified Berlin in the 90s, everything, but everything was for sale. From old newspapers and books to obsolete militaria, the daily fabrics and visuals of the old Soviet bloc were reduced to being novelty curiosities for Westerners. Part of the ‘Cold War dividend’ was the appearance of a number of books on Soviet grpahic and poster design. Wartime posters became particularly popular, with some of the more po-faced social messages- on alcoholism, for example- invoking outright laughter.
Soviet iconography, type faces and poster designs are endlessly ripped off in the photoshop age, for everything from club nights to the branding of nod-and-a-wink hipster T shirt stores. It was a trend probably started in the late 1980s by the Pet Shop Boys in their Go West! tour, and one which accelerated hugely in the following decade.
Such a process has not yet happened for the graphics and posters of the former Yugoslavia. Niche blogs catering to interest in the visual culture of ex-Yu, such as the Once Upon A Time in Yugoslavia tumblr blog, are out there, but are not yet high profile. Whereas a google image search for Soviet propaganda posters will throw up dozens of pages of results, a parallel search for Yugoslav images barely throws up half a dozen *images*, let alone pages of images.
The reasons for such an absence are pretty obvious- the effects of the war, and the parlous situation of museums across the region, the institutions responsible for maintaining such collections. But, a couple of exhibitions in Sarajevo this week may well begin to change this trend.
On Monday night, a new gift shop opened at the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina, where amongst other objects, a new selection of eighteen posters were available for sale. The posters date from the earliest times of post-war Yugoslavia, to the late 1970s. Even this small selection- the tiniest sliver of what can be seen in the museum collections- reveals a lot of fascinating parallels between Yugoslav poster design and developments elsewhere in the different art scenes in the country.
The early posters are fairly crude, produced on cheap paper, and seem to follow the simple-message-by-numbers formula of the less interesting Soviet poster. Of course, in the three years after the end of the war, Yugoslavia followed Soviet prescriptions very closely. The poster for the First of May celebration, in 1948, is an image that would have fitted in perfectly in any Warsaw Pact country; the three elements in society, worker, farmer and intellectual, standing together under the socialist-era Bosnian flag, against an abundant landscape backdrop, with industry booming. Of course, this highly idealised version of a country where food shortages were still common, and where the post war reconstruction process was only just getting underway, was somewhat different. Images such as these were matched, in discourses of high art, by a small handful of orthodox socialist realist images, the best known of which is probably Boža Ilić’s Sounding the Terrain in New Belgrade of 1948.
In Sarajevo, posters were mainly produced by the same printing presses that turned out Oslobođenje, the daily newspaper. Towards the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, the cruder political messages of the earlier posters have been replaced by a subtler series of messages grouped around advertisements for events such as art exhibitions, the annual women’s day and, later still, the commemoration of the anniversary of important battles. The 1960 poster advertising an arts festival shows the clear influence of French modernism. Although Informbiro had been replaced by detente in the mid 1950s, a generation of Yugoslav artists and designers had during this period taken a great interest in contemporary art from Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States.
Perhaps the most charming of this new selection is shown above; a young pioneer, all spanners and overalls, proudly shows off a robotic invention, all bolted together and ready for use. Whilst funny by today’s standards, the poster also conveyed a serious message; instructing and educating youngsters in building, electrical work, and ‘disciplines of the future’ such as robotics and computing were seen as a top priority for a society which, according to official dogma, future prosperity depended on a mastery of contemporary technology and an ability to predict new areas of development in the future. Formally, the work is quite similar to some contemporary posters found in East Germany. A similar lightness of the pen and cartoonish two dimensionality can be found in the Trabant poster shown below, although developing a concrete link between the two design cultures may well be more difficult.
The opening of a new poster exhibition at Collegium Artisticum is a happy coincidence and is really a rather important show. Collegium have raided their archives for posters illustrating the gallery’s exhibitions and programmes from the mid 1970s to the early twenty first century. There are some memorable exhibits from the early period of this show- in particular, a Petar Lubarda poster stood out, as well as an early 80s image by Ismar Muježinović. This exhibition has a vital historical function, not only in showing the great breadth and invention of poster design in late Yugoslav Bosnia, but also how designers and institutions have had to adapt to the to the awful conditions of wartime, and to a very different peace that followed. As well as providing a really good whistle stop history of this historic institution, it also gives the viewer a snapshot of the art and artists- ranging from Max Klinger and Henry Moore to all the familiar Bosnian names- that have underpinned its sometimes uncertain existence. As such, the show is both a look back and a sober appraisal of how Collegium came to its present state in our own times, and is very well worth half an hour of any visitor’s time.
It may be that one day poster design from Bosnia- both from the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav eras- becomes much better known. If that happens, historians will look back on these two poster events that happened this week, as being an important starting point.
The sample of poster reproductions are for sale in the shop of the Historical Museum, priced 15KM. The exhibition of posters at Collegium Artisticum opened on Friday, and runs until the 12th August, admission free.