“Propaganda is hyperbole rendered urgent,” according to the exhibition’s catalogue, written collectively by a team of art historians, curators and media studies professors, accompanying the Smart Museum’s “Vision and Communism.” The exhibition centers on Cold War posters and maquettes by Soviet cultural worker Viktor Koretsky, and is the Smart’s contribution to the citywide conversation regarding the visual language of Russian posters, The Soviet Arts Experience. Koretsky’s incendiary posters take aim at the myth of capitalist democracy and give shape to its external threat (whereas more common Soviet realist images exhorted workers toward productivity) to the communist vision with images of Klansmen hugging bombs, a black man about to be hung by a rope in the shape of a dollar sign, and unemployment lines.
Cops, soldiers and Klansmen dancing in silhouette against a yellow background around a bomb with a skeleton and a dollar sign called “Witches’ Sabbath of the Bomb Worshipers,” from the 1960s, embody an evil economic cabal of arms dealers, the military and civil society. In contrast to the racism depicted in the US and South Africa, Koretsky’s images of Asian, African, Russian and Middle Eastern men grasping a flagpole and moving resolutely forward toward “A Solid Peace for the World” provide a positive vision of internationalism during the civil rights struggles in the US, but quite a while before a contested full-fledged multiculturalism took hold here. The reductive but brilliant Koretsky employs the same urgent empathic appeals he uses in his vivid denunciations of American racism in his work against apartheid. In true dialectical fashion, the Smart’s curators post quotes by Nelson Mandela: “For many decades communists were the only group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings,” and Solzhenitsyn (“Communism… will always present a mortal danger to mankind”) side by side. In contrast to the images of our alliance with the USSR against Hitler depicted in the Art Institute of Chicago exhibit of astonishing WWII posters, Koretsky’s work provides the American viewer with a glimpse of herself as a part of a society that evoked these hyperbolic images of the diabolical other leaving her with the disconcerting task of sorting out the strategies of visual rhetoric from the uncomfortable grains of truth in the reflection. (Janina Ciezadlo)
Through January 22 at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 5550 South Greenwood