The Stenberg brothers and the art of Soviet movie posters

Alma Law: Let’s begin, if you’re agreeable, simply with some biographical information.

Vladimir Stenberg: My father was born in Sweden in the town of Norrkoping and he finished the Academy in Stockholm with a gold medal. Then he was invited to come here to Moscow to do some kind of work. At that time [1896] there was an exhibition in Yuzovka — now it’s called Donetsk — so there in Yuzovka my father worked on an exhibition. Later at the Nizhninovgorod fair he did some kind of work. In Moscow he met my mother. They married and had three children.1

My father lived and worked in Moscow and I wanted to enter a technical school. I was very fond of technology, mechanics, and so forth.2 But conditions were such that I had to enter Stroganov, the art school. My father worked as a painter, and from the time I was six years of age, we had pencils, brushes, and the like in our hands. We began to draw very early. Well, like children, they see their father drawing, and so we drew too. And here’s what’s interesting about our father. When we were going to school, we would bring home our drawings at the end of the year. My brother, Georgii, and I would play a trick and switch some of the drawings. But my father always knew. We would sit together and draw figures. Everything. And it seemed to us that we had everything the same. But nevertheless our father would still distinguish the hand of one son’s work from the other’s.

When we had to do perspective, to study all that, we told the teacher that our father was an artist and he had taught us a little. The teacher gave us a test assignment and we did it. He said, “That isn’t the way it’s done. The plan should be at the bottom, and at the top, the representation of that perspective.” But our father had another method: the plan on top and underneath the representation. Because when you’re working, it’s more convenient to have at the bottom what is most important. Therefore we had it the other way around. When the teacher asked, “Why do you do it that way?” we answered, “Our father taught us that way.” “Well, of course,” he said, “with foreigners, they have things the other way around.”

Here is another story of our father’s method, how he taught us. In Petrovsky Park, where Dynamo Stadium is now, there was a summer restaurant. Our father did his work there. Housepainters were there painting those windows, and our father sent us there to work for practice. He said, “Go there tomorrow at eight in the morning.” But before we went, he showed us what we had to do: “Think about what you have to take with you to do the work.” Well, we went. We took big brushes and little ones for where the glass was. We took rags, a scraper, and so forth, so that we could put a rag on the other end of the brush and wipe the window where it was smeared. In short, we worked, we tried hard. About ten or eleven, our father arrived. He looked at us and laughed and then he said, “To hell with such work!” That was the only expression he had of that kind. “To hell,” he said, “with such work!”

There was some thick paper lying on the table. He took it, tore off a piece, laid it on the glass — covered the glass with that paper — and with the big brush, did like this: one, two. Then he turned the paper: three, four. “There,” he said, “that’s how it has to be done. No rags, no little brushes, nothing.” He said, “First, you have to think, then do. If you’re going to work like that, it’ll take six months. This is a summer restaurant. It must be done in two or three days. Like that.” So it was clear to us. I mean, before doing, one must… We had thought of everything, but we were thinking in the wrong direction as far as neatness went. He had it all neat and good. Like that.3

When we studied at Stroganov, we had a lot on art and on the history of art. Our father also had books on style, on everything. We were already prepared so that for us all that was a repetition of what we’d already done. For example, when we drew the figure of Michelangelo’s David, or the figure of Apollo, we were no longer interested in the usual poses, that is, there stands the figure, everyone sits and draws it at a great distance. We would sit close to the figure and look at it from below, with a strong raccourci. The same if we drew a plaster head. We did the same thing, lighting also from somewhere below. That’s how we did all kinds of tricks during our studies. It’s true, some of the teachers didn’t welcome it, but we were clever. We said there wasn’t a seat and we had to sit there, but then they understood that we were being tricky and we were interested in such points.

Parallel with Stroganov School we worked in the theater. At first we worked in the operetta theater, then in other theaters. But we didn’t go to work as some student-artists, as assistants to the stage designer. We went to the theater only to execute some assigned work. Take Fedorovsky, or another artist, say, Kazokhin;” all the students dreamed of being his assistant. But we said, “No, we’ll go to work in the theater when they ask us as artists.” And we took part in exhibitions, organized exhibitions too.

At that time, Stroganov was the Imperial Stroganov School. There were professors and teachers. They even had some kind of government rank, and the pupils were like university students. Then came 1917, and in 1918, Stroganov became the Free State Art Studios, without uniforms.5 All that was abolished. They organized the school differently. Fedorovsky, Konchalovsky, Yakulov, Tatlin, Osmerkin,6 and so forth were masters, and we were the apprentices — their students. Each master in a workshop had about thirty, or let’s say, forty to fifty apprentices.

And Mayakovsky, Kamensky, Khlebnikov, these writers often came to the Free State Art Studios to talk with us, and to read their works. Well, of course, they infected everyone, so to speak, with their method of behavior.7

At one time we were living together with Medunetsky.8 That was in 1918. was eighteen, my brother, seventeen, and Medunetsky also seventeen. When we got home after going around to all the workshops to see what was going on, we had to make some kind of response. It was all wrong. At Tatlin’s they were making those sculptures out of samovar metal. At Konchalovsky’s, everything was like Konchalovsky. At Fedorovsky’s, like Fedorovsky. Well, to make it short, we composed a text. Just as Mayakovsky often said, “Me and Pushkin…, “ we had such an opening too. We often changed it, but the meaning was always this: that we three, the most remarkable painters born on the earth’s sphere, proclaim… Then there would be the text. So here, too, was a proclamation like this: Down with the titans, Picasso, Gauguin, and others of these French artists. All those Impressionists. Further on we wrote an address like this: No more manufacturing! It begins: “No more manufacturing Tatlins Konchalovskys Lentulovs… “9 And we wrote a full list of all our teachers. No periods or commas, nothing. The signatures: Stenberg Medunetsky Stenberg.

Now, where to hang it? In the school there was a large lobby on the left, and on the right, coatrooms, and straight ahead in the corner, a huge window. On the other wall, a mirror and a landing. A wide, wide staircase to the second floor. That was the only entrance, so all the teachers, all the masters and apprentices had to pass. We got to school early, a half hour before classes, and hung the poster while no one was there. Then we stood and watched what would happen.

The apprentices began to pass and they read, at the very beginning, this: “We three, the most remarkable born on this sphere.” All of them, you know were filled — some with envy, some with disdain. Imagine, the three of them! Well there were all sorts, and each reacted in his own way. But the next thing was, “Enough manufacturing!” And what do you know, his favorite teacher, he went to him to learn, and suddenly — enough manufacturing! And, “Down with the titans!” They adored the French, French painting. And now, “Down with the titans! Picasso, Gauguin, and the others!” What then? This excited them, so there were arguments. Some were for us, some against us. The matter ended with classes being called off on that day. No one studied anything.

All the teachers read the proclamation too and also reacted. They gathered and discussed what kind of prank it was, and what did it mean. At four in the afternoon a meeting was called in the assembly hall. Everyone came, and we had to answer for our prank. The chair called for speakers. Then those activists, young fellows, began to speak, all those very apprentices who had been so upset. And we, too. They gave us the floor. So we explained what it was all about. Then it was the turn of the teachers/masters. One after another they began to speak. “Well, of course,” they said, “that opening is very impertinent, and an impertinent text. It should be done, but more politely. It’s an art school, after all.” So the teachers said, “Well, they’re right, after all. How is it possible to copy one’s teacher? You’ll get thirty Konchalovskys. That means Konchalovskys from Konchalovsky. And further, what then?”

Well, in short, we felt cramped working in that place, in those State Art Studios, and we often went to all sorts of debates, meetings. We spoke, and often organized exhibitions. We’d make several works and then organize an exhibition, somewhere in a lobby, or on a staircase. Always with some kind of proclamation and besides, without permission. We’d make some works, hang them up, then after awhile we’d do it in another place. The thing was, when Mayakovsky, for example, spoke, there was the impression that he spoke not only to the audience, to us, but that his voice and all his gestures flew over our heads, far away, maybe across all Europe to America. He spoke so powerfully, so energetically. We could speak, too, but not as poets, we couldn’t read our works. But when we showed our work, we always accompanied it by all those proclamations.

At that time there was a State Purchasing Commission. They bought works from each artist. They would buy one from a sculptor, one from a painter, and so forth. When we showed our work for the first time to the Purchasing Commission and signed it, “Vladimir Stenberg, Georgii Stenberg,” they said, “No, only one, we’ll take only one. Two are not allowed.” But how can it be, one work? After all, there are two of us! We each have an appetite, desires. We began signing our works, on one “V. Stenberg,” on another, “G. Stenberg.” They’d give thirty thousand for paintings, and for three-dimensional sculpture works they’d give fifty thousand rubles. So we did three-dimensional works too. And something would go through every time for sure. If not one thing, then another. In most cases constructions and also colored things.

There we had to fill in a questionnaire. Who we were, a university student, pupil, or artist. We wrote “artist.” We didn’t write that we were students because we didn’t bring student work. What the teacher in class set, we drew. But we also did our own compositions, our fantasy — everything our own — so we wrote “artist.” And our things were accepted like all the other artists. The price for everything was the same.

Well, our comrades in school saw what we were submitting and they also began to work for the Commission. But we warned them that for students the price was fifteen thousand, not thirty. We warned them not to write that they were studying. Well, some were wary. What if the thing didn’t go? It was better to be sure of fifteen thousand. But we, never. We were, in general, very sure somehow. You know, even provocatively sure. But they were afraid and signed themselves as students. And what happened? The Commission bought from half of them, there were about ten, and from half they didn’t buy. And they bought them for only fifteen thousand. But we submitted two works each, both sculpture and flat, and they took both. In short, our pockets were full, and in the others’ there was nothing. We said, “What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you write that you were artists? After all, you created your own works. Those aren’t student works that you did in class. You made them specially for this, didn’t you?” “Yes.” “Well, then, why write student?”

In short, our youth passed very stormily. We began to work early, and early we understood everything. We always had friends, good friends. There were people twenty years older than us who recognized us because of our work. At that time it was somehow different. Now it’s considered this way: twenty years — that’s a kid. But then, it was different among the artists. They looked at who did what. They judged on the quality of the works. And then, of course, those exhibitions. They gave a person an image, so to speak, who and what he was.

So time passed, and there was an exhibition at the Café of Poets on Gorky Street. Then it was Tverskaya Street. As with all our earlier exhibitions, we accompanied it with a kind of proclamation that we put up just before the opening so that it wouldn’t be published earlier. It went like this:

Constructivists to the world. Constructivism will bring mankind to possess the maximum achievement of culture with the minimum expenditure of energy. Every man born on this sphere, before returning to its covering, could master the shortest route to the factory where the unique organism of earth is fashioned.

To the factory of creators of the highest trampoline for the leap towards universal human culture. The name of this road is CONSTRUCTIVISM.

The great seducers of the human breed — the aesthetes and artists — have demolished the stern bridges on this road, replacing them with a bundle of mawkish narcosis: art and beauty.

The essence of the earth, man’s brain, is being wasted to fertilize the morass of aestheticism.

Weighing the facts on the scales of an honest attitude toward the inhabitants of the earth, the Constructivists declare art and its priests outside the law.10

And here are the signatures: “K. Medunetsky, V. Stenberg, G. Stenberg.” The point is the style of that writing. Then there were poets like Kamensky, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov. Especially there was one, Kruchenykh, whose words were such expressions as: tyr, pyr, myr.11 Words, you see, that is sounds that don’t mean anything. They could only express some kind of sound. Therefore we wrote in language like that because we were affected, as it were, by that period, the performances by these poets, and so forth.

Now whom did we call aesthetes? Those artists, those non-objectivists, abstractionists who made works for no reason. We called our works “laboratory work.” Actually we believed in this, and correctly, I think. Whatever we did further — if you take the theatrical productions, if you take the movie posters — all were built on that same principle,12 that is, on Constructivism. There was a short period when we made ceramics. All kinds of ware and other things. Nowadays, they make some object and somehow it’s not comfortable to take hold of. Look! One finger here, two fingers… You see? Take a teapot. The teapot is hot and the cover is too. Today our contemporary designers make it in this form: here is the lid and there is the whole pot. And when it becomes hot, you can’t take it with your fingers. To pick it up with something is impossible too. Or here is another teapot. When you begin to pour, the lid flies off and into the glass.

At that time, Malevich and some other artists worked on ceramics for awhile. But they made it something like this: here are paintings, say some kind of stripes or circles, and what they did was to translate them to a plate or saucer. That somehow didn’t take into account the form or anything. And these paintings people were supposed to hang on the wall instead of a landscape. When a portrait hangs, that’s understandable. It recalls something, gives emotion to a person. But such completely abstract things are unnecessary for an artist. There were many such things — no reason, no basic principles, nothing. For that you don’t even have to think. You can shut your eyes and make it. At that time there were painters who argued that it was necessary. We had arguments. We spoke out sharply. We declared their art, that is, the art of those priests, outside the law.

We knew when we were studying at Stroganov that artists, if they had done well, were rewarded with a trip abroad when they graduated. But when we were finishing, it turned out differently. There was the war of 1914, so sometimes a person who was finishing his studies wouldn’t submit his diploma painting. From 1914 to 1919, there were a lot like that. We called them “eternal students.” They didn’t submit because of the war. If a student had already received the tide “artist,” they’d send him to a military school to make camouflage, or to the front. So at the Stroganov School from 1914 to 1919, there were no graduations.

In 1919, a group of artists decided to set up an exhibition. We announced ourselves as artists, printed up posters and invitations, and found a place for ourselves, a large circular hall, a sculpting workshop. There we set up an exhibition and invited all the members of the government, artists, and so forth. There were ten of us, even fewer, and later a viewing was arranged, a kind of closed exhibition, at which Lunacharsky and the Commissar of the Arts, David Petrovich Shterenberg, were present.13

So then Lunacharsky recognized us as artists — there was a Commission from Narkompros — and they called us the “First Group of Red Artists.” Some artists from those ten were invited to receive diplomas. But we didn’t go to get them. An artist doesn’t need a diploma because an artist works all his life, exhibiting, and that, so to speak, is his diploma. It’s only an engineer who needs a diploma, or somebody like a doctor. We weren’t afraid of the civil war because we were already making posters for the front. When we were proclaimed “Red Artists,” we were given an exemption. But my brother and I didn’t need it since we were Swedish citizens.14 Besides, we were serving, making posters for the front and for the liquidation of illiteracy, and we did all other kinds of work.

This continued until 1923. There were four exhibitions of Obmokhu.15 And yes, when we were thinking of a name, someone proposed “Soul Hole.” Soul hole? What’s that? What’s a soul, and a hole to boot? So we were very inventive. Someone said we could call it “the Society of Young Artists.” All our institutions at that time used syllables for their names: “Narkompros,” for example. So we made “Obmokhu.” That was right and good, and at the same it time was obscene — the last two letters especially. So that’s how Obmokhu got started. We found a place, we proved we had permission, and we all worked well. But in 1923, this society broke up. Everyone went off in his own direction. And we took up theater.

Anna Law: The Third Obmokhu Exhibition in 1921, where was it held?

Vladimir Stenberg: There was a kind of salon café on Bolshaia Dmitrovka Street and Kuznetsky Bridge. That’s where the exhibition was, in that hall. It had an all-glass ceiling. When we brought our constructions, Rodchenko and Ioganson’s constructions were already there on pedestals, and all were the same height. When they saw our stands, they said, “Listen, why didn’t you tell us you were making stands like that?” We answered, “What do you mean? A construction like this you have to show at one height, and this one at a different height so, that they can be looked at.”16

The next day or a couple of days later, Ioganson brought new stands and put his constructions on them. He had, you see, a triangle above and below. Rodchenko couldn’t do that. He stretched wires and hung his constructions on the wires. There were four — circles, hexagons, ellipses, and triangles.

Anna Law: What kinds of works did you exhibit?

Vladimir Stenberg: We exhibited constructions of spatial apparatus made of various materials. We also displayed drafts of constructions built on a large scale. Not, you see, as they usually did then. The other artists made objects of very small dimensions. But since this was an exhibition, we thought it wasn’t right to make things like that. You ought to make the dimensions close to natural size.17

Everything we did was on a large scale. It was always like that. If you make a small object, people gather and they interfere with one another. But if you make a large object, you can look at it from a distance.

Anna Law: So then, there were drafts and color constructions?

Vladimir Stenberg: Sometimes we worked with texture, made them like a bas-relief. In addition, there were simple color constructions and there were spatial color constructions. They weren’t simple color constructions on a flat surface like other artists made. We saw what other artists were doing and then tried to do things differently.

Anna Law: And the bas-reliefs, what were they like?

Vladimir Stenberg: How can I explain it to you? Well, if we were working on a surface, if we were working with texture, then we would use all kinds of things: grain or something else, some sawdust, and so forth. Also little pieces of veneer, say, pieces of wood, or metal. All this was on a plane. We also made things like this: on a plane and there would be a spiral going into space. And there was a corresponding colored background.

So we had color constructions of four types: one, simple color constructions; two, color constructions involving texture; three, color constructions that were like bas-reliefs; and four, those color constructions that involved perspective, that is, they were spatial. These were all lost in a fire. You see how lucky we were! Even in the Bakhrushin Museum, all our works were there, and ah were lost. Only some things were saved in our place, some sketches, you know, preliminary drawings. And we even saved some photos of models so that we could reproduce them. Right now I am working on recreating those works that distinguished us from other artists.

Anna Law: Turning to the theater, how did it happen that Meierkhold invited you to work?

Vladimir Stenberg: He was at the exhibition at the Café of Poets and after that he invited us to work. We knew him earlier, but he saw our work at that exhibition, so he invited us to work, to do the production of The Magnanimous Cuckold.

We were supposed to meet with Meierkhold several days after reading the play in order to hear his wishes. But we said, “No, we’d rather first think and work out our own solution, and propose to you our solution.” That way we could work more freely. In three days, after we had decided what we would do and how we would do it, we went to him. We didn’t have any sketches, but we took a sheet of paper with us and on the paper we showed him what we wanted t do. We made a drawing of that composition and of those elements on which the production should be built.

Well, Meierkhold liked it so much, he was so enchanted, and he laughed so. In general, he was like that when I got to know him better. He was an amazingly infectious person. When he laughed, everyone began laughing. Well, some kind of connection with the theater had to be worked out officially. There was some administrator there who proposed that we receive a percentage of the box office. But what kind of percent could it be when a loaf of bread cost a million rubles at that time? Our wish was to receive three Red Army rations, because the Red Army ration was a stable thing, modest, but it would be fully enough to feed each of us for a month. We asked for it for the full time we were working, beginning when we started. But it was delayed somehow.

Once we met at the movie theater — the theater was on Maly Dmitrovka. They showed those hit movies there and we always went to the openings. There at the opening, when the audience was strolling in the lobby waiting for the show to start, we saw Meierkhold sitting with a student of his on either side. We greeted him from a distance. “Hello, Vsevolod Emilevich!” He asked, “Well, when will we have the maquette?” And Medunetsky made a gesture with his thumb and fingers like this, as if to say, how about the money, the pay, so to speak. Well, several days after that we suddenly received a letter saying that if we didn’t bring the maquette in three days, they would give it to another artist. They gave it to Popova.

At the premiere all the artists came, including our former teacher, Yakulov. But Yakulov had turned from a teacher into our good friend and we often met and talked with him. He was always interested in us and we told him that Meierkhold had invited us to work. Yakulov was already working then, doing productions for the Kamerny Theater.18 He asked, “And what are you doing?” We answered, “The Magnanimous Cuckold,” and told him how we wanted to do it. We even, maybe, sketched it for him, I don’t remember exactly now. Well, and there at the opening, Yakulov suddenly spoke.

At that time in the theater it was like this: when the performance ended, people didn’t leave as now when everybody runs quickly to the coatroom to get their coats. They stayed in the auditorium to discuss the production. The art historians, artists, sculptors, writers, actors present in the auditorium all spoke out and gave their opinions. And the general audience, too. They would go up on the stage and from the stage give their opinions. Suddenly Yakulov went up to speak. He called Popova a “Soviet young lady,” and said that the set design wasn’t her work, that it was plagiarism, and in general spoke very sharply. Such a fiery Armenian!

At that time we were all members of the Institute for Artistic Culture (INKhUK) in the [Working] Group of Constructivists and were good friends. Suddenly neither Popova nor Vesnin, who was her good friend, would greet us. They shunned us.19 Then a hearing of our peers was organized. Before the hearing what it was all about came out. It turned out that they had submitted a statement alleging that we had persuaded Yakulov to speak and that he had spoken at our request. That was ridiculous, of course, because after all, he was more than twenty years older than we were. How could we ask him to say that we were offended? We weren’t even offended. If Popova did it, she did it. At the hearing it turned out that there wasn’t any plagiarism and that Popova was completely innocent. Meierkhold had been so enchanted by our proposal. Even when he talked to us he had said, “Well, what I had in mind I won’t talk about. I like this very much.” So, he didn’t tell her his preliminary proposal either and he gave her what we had told him. The idea was very simple: a mounting, a set of stairs up, the chute from which the grain runs down, and these wings that rotate. When those wings rotated, then the whole thing was already completely clear. The whole subject and all.20 And she had done all that. So it turned out that Meierkhold had given her a theme, a task. She carried it out. She also liked it. Well, we would have done it differently, if we had done it. But that’s another matter. Everyone has his own style.21

Anna Law: And after the incident with The Magnanimous Cuckold, you went to work for Tairov? At the Kamerny Theater?22

Vladimir Stenberg: Then Tairov made us an offer. He told Vesnin to tell us he wanted us to drop by. And Vesnin said to us, “Tairov wants you to make him a new emblem for the theater.” Well, Tairov was quite a diplomat and he only asked us to make an emblem. We went to see him in the evening during a performance. After the Institute for Artistic Culture, we stopped in a store to buy some wine. When we got to the theater, we went right into Tairov’s study in our topcoats. He had a wardrobe, with a separate place below for rubbers. We took off our topcoats — it was autumn — hung them up, but we didn’t have any rubbers. And Medunetsky said, “Let’s, instead of the rubbers, put the botdes of wine there.” We put them there, my brother and I. And Tairov saw it, of course, and said, “What kind of behavior is that, putting botdes on the floor?” We told him we didn’t have any rubbers and so they were in place of them. He said, “You shouldn’t put bottles on the floor.” We asked him then if we could put them on the table. “Well, of course,” he said. So we put them on the table and he called and ordered some sandwiches from the buffet.

So we began our talk. Well, it turned out he wanted to have us work for him because in the first ten years or so he had had more than ten artists. Almost twenty.23 And he told us he wanted for the next ten to twenty years to have one artist in the Kamerny Theater. We told him there were three of us and that it was either three or no one. He agreed and then he explained about the future, that the theater was going abroad on tour, and that we, as artists, would go with the theater. From our group of thirteen artists, only one, Denisovsky, had been abroad. That was with Shterenberg to Germany with the exhibition in 1922.24 So we were ready to give our agreement to Tairov immediately. But we decided to hold off. We were greenhorn kids, so we had to appear important. We said, “Aleksandr Yakovlevich, we’ll think about it and tell you in three days.” After we’d left we thought maybe we should go right back and tell him immediately.

So we began working for Tairov. In the Institute, all the artists called the Kamerny an academic theater. In general, we Constructivists didn’t recognize the theater,25 so we told our comrades that we were going to work in the theater in order to carry it to the absurd. We had that idea. But there wasn’t any kind of “absurd.” We enjoyed the work. Our first production was The Yellow Jacket.26

Anna Law: And you went abroad? You were in Paris?

Vladimir Stenberg: We were in Paris in 1923. That was really some event. Can you imagine? Five artists travelling with the Kamerny Theater. A troupe of fifty, and five artists.27

Anna Law: And there in Paris you met Picasso.

Vladimir Stenberg: Yes. There was a rumor in Moscow that Picasso had become a Realist. There was a war between the left and right artists, between the Constructivists and the Realists, that had been going on since 1917. Suddenly in 1922, the rightists, that is the Realists, told us, “Your king and god, Picasso, has become aRealist.”28 Well, of course, all the artists hung their heads, that is the Constructivists, the leftists. And the others took heart. So when the artists found out we were going abroad with the Kamerny Theater, they asked us to be sure to visit Picasso and verify if this was really so.

When we arrived in Paris, Tairov was already there ahead of us. He had met with Larionov who had earlier worked in the Kamerny Theater, and Goncharova too, his wife.29 Larionov was interested in who Tairov’s artists were. When Tairov said his artists were the Stenberg brothers, right away Larionov said, “Oh, I’ve seen their work in Berlin.” Because you could travel from Paris to Berlin freely, as between Moscow and Leningrad. Larionov came to the first performance, and after the performance he looked for us in the theater. He found us and took us around Paris, made us acquainted with other artists, professors, and so forth. Paris at night! We didn’t stay in just one café. We would drink a glass of wine in one, then go on to the next and the next in order to see everything. We met more people that way. When we would tell our names, all the artists would say, “Oh! We’ve seen your work.” Because our works, of course, against the background of others’ paintings and sculpture — our constructions of metal and so forth — stood out.

We very carefully, cautiously told Larionov of our desire to visit Picasso and he said, “I’ll arrange it!” It turned out that Larionov and Goncharova worked for Diaghilev. Picasso also worked for him, and Picasso’s wife, Olga Khokhlova, too. That is, it was all one theatrical family, so it was very easy for him.

In Paris, an exhibition of the Kamerny Theater was set up in a gallery.30 This gallery wasn’t free until evening. We had to make a curtain, organize the display of the Kamerny Theater works, and our works too that we had brought along. When we were preparing this exhibition — it was on for just one day — Picasso came. He got interested in the work of Exter, Goncharova, and the other artists. We showed Picasso where things were because it was impossible to display everything. We showed him and he started looking. We were busy with our work. When we were doing our last corner, he approached and saw this maquette [of The Yellow Jacket]. He was terribly interested. There were ten little globes hanging and we showed him how when you would pull at them, the scenery would change. And when you let go, it would go back again. There were four different positions. One thing, for example, would begin to spin around. This [with the wheels], would creep along the track here and out that way, and another would rise upwards.

Picasso got very interested and stayed until the opening. At eleven o’clock when the exhibit opened and people started coming in, well, everyone — the people engaged in art — they all greeted him. Everyone knew him. When they came up to greet him, he pointed at our model and demonstrated how you had to pull on it. He was very excitable. This got back to Tairov right away, of course, that Picasso had been explaining and demonstrating to everyone this model and our other works. (Our constructions were exhibited there too, and sketches of costumes.) After this, for a month and a half in Berlin, Tairov wouldn’t talk to us at all.

Anna Law: How did you work with Tairov? Did you make proposals to him? Did you read the play and then present him with your ideas, or did you work it out together with him?

Vladimir Stenberg: Never together. With Tairov, we set the conditions. You understand, we couldn’t do it together. Even with Medunetsky, our friendly association didn’t last long [they broke up in 1924 following the production of The Storm], because from childhood my brother and I had grown up together.31

Anna Law: You always worked with your brother then?

Vladimir Stenberg: We always worked together, beginning in 1907. We did everything together. It was this way from childhood, because from the first grade my brother and I studied together. The second year I was kept back because I was sick a lot and when my brother entered school we sat together at the same desk. It was that way until the end. There’s nothing surprising in that because we were the same size, brought up in one family, and by the same system. We ate alike and followed the same work routine. If we, for instance, were decorating a square working in bad weather at night and I caught a cold, he caught a cold too. If, by chance, I was going down the street alone and saw something, some shoes I liked, I’d buy two pair. If my brother saw a shirt or something, he’d buy two: one for himself, one for me. There was a time, that was in 1927-28, when we wore dokhas. A dokha is a long coat with fur on both sides that reaches to the ground. We dressed alike, only with a little difference. At that time there wasn’t much choice. You could only buy something by chance. Well, my brother’s coat was pony, and mine was deerskin.

When my brother and I were working together, we even made a test. What color should we paint the background? We would do it like this: he would write a note and I would write one. I had no idea what he had written and he didn’t know what I had written. So we would write these notes and then look, and they coincided! You think maybe one was giving in to the other? No. We would make one variant, say, look at it, maybe one of our comrades would come over. We would talk, say something here is very good. And you know, there was no bargaining, nothing.

We worked like this: there was a production, that was Negro, at the Kamerny Theater.32 We had a large board and my brother and I would sit next to each other talking. We told each other a lot of amusing things. There was laughing, and all the while we were drawing something. We just couldn’t work out an approach for Negro. We sat and sat and then we looked, you know, to see what we had drawn. Well, that we could use for something, and that for something else. Suddenly we found it! That one we could make into Negro. It was a tiny, tiny drawing. I can’t remember now which one of us drew it, me or my brother.

Anna Law: How long did you work for Tairov?

Vladimir Stenberg: About ten years. We began in 1922 and broke up in 1931.

Anna Law: Broke up? What was the reason?

Vladimir Stenberg: What can I tell you? There were a lot of reasons. Whoever went to work at the Kamerny was immediately a slave of that theater. Nothing outside existed, not family, not anything. The theater was absolutely everything. But we couldn’t be that way. We were working, making posters, decorating the city — we decorated various squares during that time — and that didn’t interfere. But in 1928, when we began to decorate Red Square, there was the October Celebration, and the May Day Celebration, then there was MYUD (International Youth Day), and Anti-War Day, on the first of August. That was a month and a half each time. That meant four times a year, six months a year we had to devote ourselves fully and completely to that work. We missed coming to the theater sometimes, when we had to be there. There was that conflict.

Then when the theater was being rebuilt, we did the auditorium. The architectural construction didn’t allow for even distances to be made from the floor to the first circle, to the second circle, and to the ceiling. Those differences occurred because of the lobby which was already in existence. The lobby was under the protection of the Monuments of Art and Antiquities. But we found a way out of the situation: to make the back wall of the theater and the whole ceiling in the auditorium all black. When we began, Tairov said, “Why black?” We said, “Aleksandr Yakovlevich, that will be very good because we’ve done lighting for the circles and it’ll be very effective.

Do you know how we persuaded him? When the painters put on the first coat — it was a primer — it turned out such a messy daub. Tairov called us up. “Come immediately.” “What’s the matter?” “You primed the walls and it’s impossible even to look at.” We said, “That’s right, we did. It’s impossible to look at the first coat, but when we cover it the second time, then you can look. Then it will be velvety black.” But Tairov just wouldn’t listen. He demanded, “Come, and that’s final. We need another color.” We said, “No. It mustn’t be another color. If after we’ve done the whole thing it turns out to be bad (we always argued this way), we’ll repaint it at our expense.” The next day we talked to the painters. And in two days they had painted everything. After they finished we came. We hadn’t come after the first coat to have a look because we knew it would be impossible to look at. We looked, everything was perfect. We went in to Tairov. “Well, were you there?” “Yes, I was, unfortunately.” “And so, then?” “I never thought it would turn out so well.”

Then, when the theater was being rebuilt, we had an idea about the under stage area. For The Line of Fire,33 we could take out the entire floor. Here, I have that décor. It starts from beneath the floor, from a floor lower than the auditorium. Here we see the top of the decor. All the actors come out from below. They don’t come out on the level of the former stage. But Tairov, out of habit, just the same had some actors come out on the level of the regular floor. Well, that was one thing. The second was that when we were doing the decor, we arranged with the engineer how it should be done, so that it would be dismountable. There, in other words, is the floor, and here the girders could move back and forth on rails. But the engineer who was doing it, his name was Trusov and he was a coward like his name. That means he was afraid of everything. He persuaded Tairov to do it so that these girders would be shorter, like this: half of the girders would be here, and the other half here. Tairov agreed to that. But we didn’t know anything about it. At that time we were also busy with Red Square. There was a phone call. “Your décor won’t go into the hold.” “Why won’t it go in?” And when we arrived, we saw that there were these girders coming from here, and from there on the other side. And there was a meter difference here, and a meter there. Also, there were two electric transformers — they were decorative — and now they didn’t fit. We had to remove one transformer in order to get the girders in. Tairov said, “You gave us the wrong scale, and the decor was made wrong.” But everything was correct. It turned out that he had made it his own way. We said, “How could you do it like that?” If the actors had come out from below, that would have been a new effect. A construction. Here is the line of fire, and all the actors come out from there, and not from the wings, you see. Ballerinas run in and out from the wings. But here there is no floor, only the narrow forestage, and further all the action comes out from below. But he didn’t use that.

Well, all this piled up. And Tairov had a grudge against us. He thought we should give ourselves over completely to the theater. But how could we give ourselves to the theater? To the theater or to Red Square? For us, it was Red Square. There, a million people passed by on celebration days. Four times a year.

Anna Law: And you did all the décor for the celebrations?

Vladimir Stenberg: We did everything beginning in 1928 to 1963. For thirty-five years I decorated Red Square. At first with my brother, then after his death with my sister, Lidiya, and then with my son beginning in 1945. In 1963 I began to lose my sight, then I had to stop.34

Anna Law: And when did you do this mural here on the wall?

Vladimir Stenberg: There’s a whole story with that mural. An architect was building a new apartment building, not far from the center, on a main thoroughfare, Bakunin Street. He asked us to do a mural. It was included in his project. The building was already built, only the internal finishing was going on. The mural was to be like this: Lenin on the Construction Site. My brother and I did a sketch of the mural. When we had made the sketch, we took it to show him and he liked it a lot.

Anna Law: It was like this one here?

Vladimir Stenberg: No. Here, Lenin is on an armored vehicle. And in that one, Lenin was against a construction site background. That director liked this sketch. He said, “We are a workers’ coop. We haven’t got much money so don’t name a large sum. Make it cheap.” We said, “Do you want us to do it for nothing?” “How can it be for nothing?” he said. “You must have something in mind.” We said, “Yes. The house has four stories.” (That’s how they built in the twenties, and without elevators.) “Now on the fifth floor, in the attic, give us a corner there. A studio.” He said to the architect, “Listen, can we do that, make a studio?” The architect said, “A studio? Yes.” He thought for awhile. “You know what,” he said, “we’ll use the attic over the whole house and make a fifth floor under the roof. We can put so many people there. Make apartments for that many inhabitants.” They were pleased. “Let’s go ahead and make the plans right away,” the director said. The architect made them and he gave us what we had asked for. Well, we had asked too modestly: one room of thirty-five meters. But they made a room like this for us, and with this room they made a bathroom and a corridor with all the conveniences. In the corridor was a little corner with a stove. Something like a kitchen. Even when all that had been done, we somehow didn’t believe it would be so simple.

We settled there and there we lived. And we did the mural. There was this artist who had an invention: special paints that could be painted on plaster. They were advertised at all the construction sites and organizations. We could paint with them and neither rain nor snow — nothing — would affect them. We did the mural in the fall, and in early spring, when everything began to thaw, it dripped, it rained, and the paint flaked off. You know, you could just run your hand over it and only naked plaster remained. Well, we called the organization that made the paint. They tried all sorts of excuses, said they’d give us new paints and all that. But we decided that to risk it… We would have to put the scaffolding up again and do everything over. Well, we began to discuss the matter. Where was the guarantee that the next spring again… Then there was this: during the winter, various defects had already appeared there. So that, well, on such a theme — the figure of Lenin — it was just impossible.

So time passed. In 1930, they asked me and my brother to make for the front page of the newspaper Izvestia, “Lenin on the Construction Site.” Well, we had that theme already resolved. We had a sketch and we did it. That was published in the newspaper. The work on the facade was lost. And I somehow wanted to restore that work we had done there. But construction is already different, because by that time there were already missiles and sputniks flying. But the right side I decided to leave. You see that brick wall there, and from the left side, there is that border.

Anna Law: When did you begin making film posters?

Vladimir Stenberg: The first poster we did was The Eyes of Love.35 That was in 1923. On it we wrote “Sten,” the first four letters of our last name, because we didn’t know if we were going to make more or not. The second poster we signed “Stenberg,” and the following ones, “2 Stenberg 2.” When we made posters for the movies, everything was in motion because in films, everything moves. Other artists worked in the center, they put something there and around it was an empty margin. But with us, everything seems to be going somewhere. One time they asked us to make a poster for the movie theater at the Metropole, an outside advertisement for a movie called Pat and Patashon. We made these huge figures, and they spun. They were illuminated from below. It was very effective.

Then there was a film called To the Virgin Lands, that is, where earlier nothing was plowed. And we did a book cover advertising it.36 On the cover we showed a peasant against the horizon, with his wooden plow and a skinny nag. When we brought that cover to Novy Mir, one of the editors, Tugendkhold, a famous critic of ours and a character, took one look.37 He said, “You know, draw a shadow here from the horse and the plowman.” We said, “It wouldn’t fit the style. Here there’s no shadow, nothing. You can’t do that.” He gave us a look. “No, draw it,” he said. “If you don’t do it, then I won’t accept your work.” We said “Very well, we’ll do it. But all the artists will understand that we didn’t think it up, that it was your idea. You forced us to do it like that.” He said, “Just the same, otherwise I won’t take it.” He was stubborn like that. We thought, really, they will guess that it isn’t ours. We wanted to do the cover because we thought it was very effective.

Tugendkhold had a huge office. There were two tables here and two tables there where other assistants were sitting. And here was his table. When we came, Tugendkhold said, “Well, did you do it?” We answered, “We did it.” We gave him the cover. At first he looked at it this way, then he looked at it that way, then he looked at it the other way. “Yes, yes. What’s this you’ve done?” he said. We said, “Well, you told us. You forced us to do it. And we did.” “Do you know what?” he said, “Take out the shadow!” We said, “No! We’re not going to take it out. Let the other artists see. They’ll understand that you forced us to put in the shadow. We did the shadow. Now everybody is going to laugh. That’s why we won’t take it out.”

Then to spite him we put several artists up to a trick. Friends of ours. “When you’re at Novy Mir,” we said, “drop in on Tugendkhold. Say something about the shadow he forced us to do.” “What, what’s this? What did the Stenbergs do? That shadow? That’s not theirs!” So they went to him and said that. He got so angry that he wrote an article. It was a very loud article. He wrote that the Stenbergs, without considering our streets, made posters with such sazhen-size heads. (A sazhen — that’s two meters.) He said, “They make two-meter heads. Not only the passers-by, but even the horses shy away from these posters.”

Well, we read that thing, the article of his, my brother and I, and we decided to go and thank him. After several days, we went to see him. When he caught sight of us, he said, “Comrades!” And turning to his assistants, “Help me out. There are two of them, and I’m only one. They came to beat me up. From them, you can expect anything.” My brother and I had already agreed what we would do. We both approached him. We went shoulder to shoulder. We approached the desk, called him by his first name and patronymic. “We’re very happy. We’re very grateful to you for writing an article like that. Thank you very much!” We bowed so, and a long pause. We stood like that. He looked at us and then said to everybody, “You saw what they did? They came to thank me. That’s some kind of trick on their part.” Then we straightened up. “No, we sincerely thank you. Write more articles like that.” “Why?” he asked. “Because after your article, people don’t just walk by our posters. They stop and look to see the name. Who made that poster? The people are interested, and after that, mere’s always a crowd. Everyone who reads the article goes out on the street to see where those big heads are that the horses shy away from. Write more articles like that.” Then he turned to everybody and said, “Well, I did say they were bandits. What can be done with them. You see what they’re like.”

With Tairov there was also an interesting thing. We noticed that Tairov, like every director, of course, when he looked at a poster, he didn’t look at what was portrayed. He only looked to see the size of the letters in Alicia Koonen’s name, and what size were the letters of the others’ names. Well, we decided to do this kind of a trick. We made a poster on a black background. A little square in the middle. Then in that little square we used different colors and wrote in small letters that on such a date there would be such-and-such a premiere, the name of the play, the director is so-and-so, and the star, Alicia Koonen, and the others too. Everything smaller and smaller. And we brought the poster to show him. He looked and said, “Well,” he said, “you’re joking. You’re going to put a poster like that up on the street?” We said, “Yes, exactly, on the street. We did it for the street.” We’d worked in the cinema and knew this style of publicity. We knew what kind of posters would be pasted up tomorrow and the day after. They had a program for the week. And if tomorrow they hung a poster like this… All the others would be white posters with the text written in black and red letters. A poster like this on a black background would stand out. We knew that. We said it had to be done precisely that way. He said, “What do you want, for the theater to go broke completely? No one will read it, no one will come.” We said we were certain it would be exactly the other way around. But in case it did happen, we would make him a new poster and pay for having it printed. We convinced him. In general, we didn’t usually have to convince Tairov. But in this case we had to.

When the poster was put up, the artists, that is the actors, going along the street on the day before the premiere saw a crowd. They went up. What’s this? They’re standing near that black poster. The actors didn’t know what kind of poster there would be. They went up and there was a crowd of people. They went further, and again a crowd of people. Everybody was pushing, they wanted to read it. There on the poster was an announcement that said, “At the Kamerny Theater, on such-and-such a date, there will be a premiere.” They came to the theater and told Aleksandr Yakovlevich, “Listen, do you know what’s happening on the street right now? Everywhere where there’s a poster with a black background… We didn’t even know that it was the Kamerny Theater. There’s a crowd of people standing. Everyone’s pushing, everyone wants to read it.” Well, of course, we knew when it was going to be put up and we went too. We got to the theater. “Well, Aleksandr Yakovlevich? Will we have to make another poster?” He answered, “How could you do it? You took a risk.” We said, “We didn’t risk anything. We were certain. And actually, we did tell you what would happen.” “Yes,” he said, “actually, you’re right!” You know, there were many such amusing and interesting episodes like that in my life.


1 Vladimir Avgustovich Stenberg, born 4 April 1899; Georgii Avgustovich, born 20 March 1900. The third child was a sister, Lidiya Avgustovna, born 1902. Additional biographical material on the Stenberg brothers may be found in: A. Abramova, “2 Stenberg 2,” Dekorativnoe Iskusstvo, 9, 1965, 18-25; 2 Stenberg 2. exhibition catalog, Galerie Jean Chauvelin, Paris and elsewhere; The Avant Garde in Russia. 1910-1930, exhibition catalog, Los Angeles, 1980, 244 — 45.
2 In 1933, when Georgii died (in a motor bike accident), VS considered abandoning art and returning to his first love, engineering. See Abramova, 24.
3 They also helped their father paint the ceiling of the Hotel Metropole restaurant in 1912. It is clear from the way VS talks that his father had an enormous influence on the two brothers.
4 Fedor Fedorovich Fedorovsky (1883-1955). Also a graduate of the Stroganov Art School, Fedorovsky began his career as a theater artist in 1907 at the Zimin Opera Theater in Moscow where he worked for a number of years. In 1921 he became assistant, and later chief set designer at the Bolshoi Theater. I have no information on Kazokhin.
5 All of the state-subsidized art schools were renamed Svomas (Svobodnye gosudarstvennye khudozhestvennye masterskie). The Stroganov Art School and the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture were combined to form the Moscow Svomas. In 1920, it was renamed VKhUTEMAS (Higher State Art-Technical Studios) and in 1926, VKhUTEIN (Higher State Art-Technical Institute). Characteristic of the new spirit that prevailed in these art schools at that time was the resolution passed by art students in Petrograd in April 1918 that “art and artists must be absolutely free in every manifestation of their creativity… art affairs are the affairs of artists themselves…” (Quoted in John E. Bowlt, ed. and trans., Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902 1934, New York, 1976, xxxv.)
6 Pyotr Petrovich Konchalovsky (1876 — 1956), Georgii Bogdanovich Yakulov (1882-1928), Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin (1885-1953), Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Osmerkin (1892-1953). For biographical information on these artists (except Osmerkin), see entries in The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930.
7 All three poets were leading figures in the Russian Futurist movement. The artist Vasilii Komardenkov (1897-1973) also recalls in his memoirs (Dni Minuvshie, Moscow, 1972, 53-54) how Mayakovsky would come to the Free State Art Studios and read his poetry to the students. One of the first artists to support the Bolsheviks, Mayakovsky proclaimed in one of his poems, “The streets are our brushes! The squares — our palettes!”
8 Konstantin Konstantinovich Medunetsky (1899-1935). Very little is known about Medunetsky aside from the fact that he was a pupil of Tatlin and the Pevsner brothers and was an active member along with the Stenberg brothers in Obmokhu.
9 Aristarkh Vasilevich Lentulov (1882-1934), painter and theater artist.
10 Konstruktivisty, exhibition catalog, Moscow, 1921. The cover and page with the text are reproduced in Von der Flache zum Raum: Russland 1916-1924/From Surface to Space: Russia 1916-1924, exhibition catalog, Cologne, Galerie Gmurzynska, 1974, 29. In the catalog are listed three types of “Constructions”: color constructions, projects for spatio-constructional apparatus, and spatial apparatus. Four of the spatial apparatus from this period have been reconstructed. See 2 Stenberg 2, 70ff.
11 Aleksei (Aleksandr) Eliseevich Kruchenykh (1886-1969). A Cubo-Futurist poet who called his style of writing zaum (beyond the mind). Designated by Kruchenykh as the language of the future, zaum was intended to communicate directly the internal state of the speaker.
12 In connection with their work in the theater, at a meeting at INKhUK on 19 January 1924, the brothers gave a report tided, “New Principles for the Material Design of Theatrical Stage Space,” in which they critically analyzed various traditional forms of scenic design and stated that the basic principle of their work was “the use of all the material resources of the stage exclusively for utilitarian objectives, a striving for the maximum of scenic possibilities with a minimum of construction.” From the archives of A.B. Babichev, quoted in Abramova, 22.
13 Anatolii Vasilevich Lunacharsky (1875-1933), head of the newly-established Narkompros (People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment); David Petrovich Shterenberg (1881-1948). The exhibition referred to here is the first Obmokhu (Society of Young Artists) Exhibition. It was held in May of that year. The group was given the former Faberge shop on the corner of Kuznetsky Most and Neglinnaya Street as their workshop. Here they installed metal cutting machines and welding equipment and set to work turning out stencils for postcards and badges, constructing travelling libraries and decorating streets and squares for holidays. See Bowlt, xxxvii-xxxviii.
14 Vladimir Stenberg became a Soviet citizen in 1933.
15 The second Obmokhu Exhibition was held in the group’s own workshop in May 1920, the third exhibition a year later (see below) and the final one in 1923. By 1923, the Stenberg brothers were no longer participating in the group’s activities.
16 See Von der Flache zum Raum, 18, for a photograph of the invitation to this exhibit. The photograph is one of two extant photographs of the exhibition, both taken by Rodchenko. Unfortunately, the wall on which many of Vladimir’s works were exhibited is not shown in either photograph.
17 In the photograph, according to VS, the large work by his brother in the center of the right hand wall was about 1.5 meters in height and the large standing construction in the center about three meters tall.
18 Yakulov’s productions at the Kamerny Theater included the Cubo-Futurist baroque setting for E.T.A. Hoffman’s Princess Brambilla (1920), and the Constructivist set for Lecoc’s operetta Girofle-Girofla (1922).
19 INKhUK was formed in May 1920 as an autonomous group for analyzing and discussing the properties and effects of art. It was originally headed by Kandinsky, but the group soon rejected his psychological approach to art and he left at the end of 1920. The group was then reorganized by Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, the musician Nadezhda Bryusova, and the sculptor Aleksei Babichev who drew up a more rational program based on objective analysis. In early 1921, the Stenberg brothers and Medunetsky joined a number of these artists at INKhUK — Rodchenko, Stepanova, and Ioganson, all of whom were by then rejecting “pure art” for industrial Constructivism — in forming the Working Group of Constructivists. Popova was a part of another faction, “The Working Group of Objectivists,” andVesnin, although a member of INKhUK, was not an active member of either of these groups. However, by the end of 1921, all of these artists were united in heeding the call for INKhUK members to take up “practical work in production” (cf. Bowlt, xxxv-xxxvi). For a more detailed study of these groups see: Christina A. Lodder, Constructivism: From Fine Art into Design, Russia 1913-1933, New Haven and London, to be published 1982.
20 The play, by Fernand Crommelynck, is about a poet-scribe, Bruno, and his wife, Stella, who live in an abandoned mill. Bruno is so insanely jealous of his wife that he forces her to go to bed with all the men in the village in order to find out which one is her lover. In Meierkhold’s production, the three wheels and windmill all rotate at different speeds to reflect the intensity of Bruno’s jealousy. In the climactic scene, all the village males line up at Stella’s door. In assembly-line style, each one enters, exits, and then comes down the “chute” to the stage floor. For a fuller description of Popova’s construction and of the production see Alma H. Law, “Le cocu magnifique de Crommelynck,” Les voies de la création théâtrale, vi, Paris, 1979, 13-43.
21 From the available information, the actual genesis of the construction for Cuckold is not at all clear. Ivan Aksyonov, who had translated Crommelynck’s play from the French, maintained that the planning of the set was worked out in open discussion in the Meierkhold Theater Workshop. He also assigns a key role to Popova for the final conception and execution of it (“Proizkhozhdenie ustanovki ‘Velikodushnyi rogonosets,’” 3 Afisha TIM, 1926, 7-11). Meierkhold also takes a similar position in regard to Popova’s role in a letter to the editor or Izvestiia (9 May 1922). As Christina Lodder points out in her article, “Constructivist Theater as a Laboratory for an Architectural Aesthetic,” Popova’s accomplishment isn’t diminished by the fact that the original idea of a skeletal apparatus may have come from the Stenberg brothers and Medunetsky {Architectural Association Quarterly, no. 2, 1979, 30-33). In fact, the works the Stenberg brothers were exhibiting in 1921, and particularly the stands they had constructed for displaying them, are much more suggestive of the design for the Cuckold construction than are either Popova’s earlier theater designs in 1920-1921 at the Kamerny Theater (which Lodder characterizes as “a complex construction of perspectival confusion and ambiguous planes defined by color”) or her “preparatory investigations” in the “5 × 5 = 25” exhibition which had prompted Meierkhold to invite Popova to join his Workshop. For a further discussion of this question, see E. Rakitina, “Liubov Popova, iskusstvo i manifesty,” KJmdozhnik, stsena. ekran, Moscow, 1975,152-167.
22 Aleksandr Yakovlevich Tairov (1885-1950) formed the Kamerny Theater in 1914 together with his wife, actress Alicia Koonen, and a group of young performers. The theater was at 23 Tverskoi Boulevard (where the Pushkin Theater is now located).
23 Among the prominent artists who had worked for the Kamerny Theater up to that time were: Pavel Kuznetsov, Natalia Goncharova, Sergei Sudeikin, Aristarkh Lentulov, Aleksander Exter, and Boris Ferdinandov. See Abram Efros, Kamernyi teatr i ego khudozhniki, 1914-1934, Moscow, 1934. The fact that there was no love lost between Meierkhold and Tairov may have had something to do with Tairov’s invitation to the Stenbergs and Medunetsky at that time. In a review of Tairov’s book, Notes of a Director, Meierkhold called the Kamerny Theater, “imitative and amateurish” (Pechat’ i revoliutsiia, 1, 1922, 306).
24 The Erste Russische Kunstausstellung at the Galerie van Diemen in Berlin. Three constructions by Georgii Stenberg were in the exhibition (Nos. 563, 564, 565, in the catalog) and one construction (No. 566) and one Technical Apparatus (No. 567) by Vladimir. See 2 Stenberg 2, 64. Nikolai Fyodorovich Denisovsky (1902-1981).
25 The only justification the productivist Constructivists saw for working in the theater was either to hasten its demise (they felt it should go out into the streets and transform itself into useful work such as building houses) or to use it as a laboratory (as Stepanova did with her “furniture” and costumes for Meierkhold’s production of The Death of Tarelkin in 1922). See Rakitina, 152-153. The opposition of the Constructivists to theater explains why Popova was so reluctant to get openly involved in the design of the Cuckold construction until the very last moment.
26 A short-lived production staged by the students of the Kamerny Theater School-Studio, directed by K.G. Svarozhich. Tairov had himself directed a production of this “poetic romance” in the Chinese manner by George C. Hazleton, Jr. (1868-1921) and J. Harry Benrimo (1875- 1942) in 1913 at the Free Theater in St. Petersburg.
27 The theater left for Paris on 20 February 1923 and spent ten months abroad. In addition to visiting Paris, where they performed at the Theater des Champs Elysees, they also toured Germany, performing in numerous cities including Berlin and Munich.
28 “Picasso’s ‘realism’” is no doubt a reference to his second Neoclassical period of the early 1920s.
29 Mikhail Larionov and Goncharova had designed the decor for Goldoni’s The Fan in 1915. The two artists settled in Paris in 1917.
30 The exhibition was in the Galerie Paul Guillaume on 23 March 1923.
31 The trio worked together on only three productions at the Kamerny Theater: The Yellow Jacket, The Babylonian Lawyer by Anatoliya Mariengof (1923), and Ostrovsky’s The Storm (1924).
32 All God’s Chillun Got Wings by Eugene O’Neill (1929). Tairov also staged two other O’Neill plays: The Hairy Ape (1926) and Desire Under the Elms (1926). The Stenberg brothers designed the sets for both of these productions as well.
33 A play about the construction of a hydroelectric station by Nikolai Nikitin (1895-1963). It had its premiere on 6 June 1931, and was the last production the Stenberg brothers did at the Kamerny Theater.
34 An operation for cataracts partially restored Vladimir Stenberg’s eyesight.
35 According to Stenberg, he and his brother designed about 300 film posters. Many of then rank, along with those of Rodchenko, Klucis, and Lavinsky, as among the best Soviet posters made in the 1920s.
36 This was a popular way to advertise films in the 1920s.
37 Yakov Aleksandrovich Tugendkhold (1882-1928).

6 thoughts on “The Stenberg brothers and the art of Soviet movie posters

  1. Great find this blog. I’m working on a book of Cuban Posters from the Revolution onwards, so this is great material to refer to. Obviously Cuban artists were influenced both by progressive American Pop artists plus Russian pioneers like these brothers, Rodchenko, etc. Hope we stay in touch.

  2. Pingback: “Que Viva Mexico!” Eisenstein in North America (1931) | The Charnel-House

  3. Pingback: 365typo: The Stenberg brothers and their Soviet movie posters

  4. Pingback: Exercise 2.6 – Soviet remakes – GD2 Working with a client

Leave a Reply