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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

September 29, 1996|Kenneth Turan

BUILDING THE COLLECTIVE: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-37. Selections from the Merrill C. Berman Collection, edited by Leah Dickerman (Princeton Architectural/Chronicle: $34.95 paperback, 186 pp.). What the late, unlamented Soviet Union's deserved reputation for repression often overshadows is how thrilling and open a place it was for design and poster artists during the first decades of its existence, a period that's been called the most important in modern graphic design. For one thing, the Soviet hierarchy, starting with Lenin himself, believed in posters as a key means to transform the unruly working class into a disciplined political unit. More than that, the posters gave the artists, most of whom were non-proletarian, a place to connect with the new society.

Flipping through this splendid grouping of some 100 posters from a key American collection, you can almost feel the excitement and spectacular inventiveness that gripped the artists, from celebrated masters like El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko to lesser lights. The posters are divided into three groups, each offering an opportunity to galvanize public interest: the civil war that immediately followed the revolution, Lenin's new economic policy and Stalin's first pair of five-year plans. Covering a variety of styles from caricatures of bloated plutocrats to stylish Constructivist photomontages, these posters remain considerably more alive than the moribund regime that spawned them.

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