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Two Brothers' Revolutionary Ideas

Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg's use of assemblage and montage in 1920s and '30s film posters remains innovative today.

May 30, 1999|LEAH OLLMAN | Leah Ollman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Long before our infatuation with computers, another love affair with the machine erupted that radically altered the visual landscape. The mechanical age of the 1920s and '30s, like our digital age, was decentralized and multifaceted, buoyed by a cross-fertilization of enthusiasts who revolutionized the look of things in the name of modernity and social progress. Italian Futurists glorified the speeding-bullet pace of modern life, joining Dadaists in liberating words from the conformity of the straight line. German artists, architects and designers at the Bauhaus preached the integration of art and life, emboldened by faith in modern industry as one of the keys to a utopian society.

And in Russia, the visual revolution went hand in hand with a political one. Art and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 served each other: The new state gained a powerful vehicle for mass communication, while artists, designers, filmmakers and theater directors gained a new, officially sanctioned role in the shaping of society and society's perception of itself.

Moscow-born Vladimir (1899-1982) and Georgii (1900-1933) Stenberg came of age during the vexed, fertile years of the revolution and its aftermath. They attended art school together and began a collaboration in 1917 that flourished until Georgii's death, yielding a diverse, extraordinarily dynamic body of work in print and theater design, sculpture, architecture and, most remarkably, film posters. The first critical survey of their work, "Stenberg Brothers: Constructing a Revolution in Soviet Design," opens Wednesday at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood.

The show, organized by Christopher Mount, assistant curator in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, originated at MOMA and traveled to Amsterdam and Stockholm before making its final stop here. Having Los Angeles on the tour was important, Mount said by telephone from his office, because of the city's role in film history and the film industry. The Stenbergs' innovations in film poster design remain innovative today, he added.

"Most film advertising today, and traditionally, is about a star and a simple narrative scene--Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts looking attractive and doing a little something. The Stenbergs broke from that by trying to capture the whole mood of the film, trying to capture two hours and put it on one sheet of paper. What they were trying to do was to capture the essence of film in a contemporary visual vocabulary."


In 1923, when they designed their first of more than 300 film posters, that vocabulary consisted of many of the same stylistic elements found in Soviet photography and film at the time--plunging diagonals, disjunctive use of scale and extreme perspectives from above or below.

"We must revolutionize our visual reasoning," photographer Alexander Rodchenko urged, justifying the dizzying perspectives of his images. Meanwhile, film director Sergei Eisenstein, maker of the 1925 classic "Battleship Potemkin," was conceiving of film as a sequence of shocks or collisions, conflicts of scale, mass, darkness and light, views from close up and afar.

The Stenbergs' posters distill that same dynamism into single images. "We employ everything that can make a busy passerby stop in their tracks," Vladimir Stenberg said in 1928.

Their poster for the Dziga Vertov film "The Man With the Movie Camera" does just that, with its vertiginous combination of skyscrapers jutting upward, the disjointed figure of a woman free-falling through space, and text spiraling out from the center. The Stenbergs based their poster design for the German film "Symphony of a Big City" on a photomontage by Otto Umbehr (known as Umbo) that transforms an observer of Berlin into a conglomerate of mechanical parts--a camera for an eye, phonograph horn for an ear, typewriter for a chest.

The elements in Stenberg posters join together without the lubricating benefits of natural transitions. Shifts are purposefully abrupt, disjunctions stark. In the '20s and '30s, graphic design underwent a shift in sensibility that Mount characterizes as a sea change, from the illustrative to the nonlinear. Assemblage and montage took over as dominant principles, with designers piecing together images from preexisting parts, often photographs, rather than creating a unified, descriptive representational image. The montage aesthetic mirrored the fragmented simultaneity of modern life like none other, and the process of its making reinforced the machine-age idea of the artist as engineer.

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