Gustavs Klucis — also known as Gustav Klutsis, the Russian spelling of his name — was one of the pioneers of Soviet agitprop graphic design, particularly prominent for his revolutionary use of the medium of photomontage to create political posters, book designs, newspaper and magazine illustrations. He was born in the small village of Ruen in Latvia. He studied art in Riga from 1913 to 1915, and later in Petrograd from 1915 to 1917. He then continued his education at SVOMAS-VKhUTEMAS in Moscow. It was there that he met Valentina Kulagina, his future wife and a prominent poster/book designer herself.
As a student, Klucis worked with Tatlin, Malevich, Lissitzky, and other representatives of the new artistic order in the new state. In his early works he was particularly preoccupied with the problems of representation of three-dimensional space and spatial construction. In 1919 he created his first photocollage Dynamic City, where photography was used as an element of construction and illustration. In 1920 Klucis joined the Communist party; his works around this time sought to transform the logic of political thought and propaganda into Suprematist form, often using documentary images of Lenin, Trotsky, and eventually Stalin in his radical poster designs.
After graduating from VKhUTEMAS, Klucis started teaching and working in a variety of experimental media. He became an active member of INKhUK and a militant champion of Constructivism. Klucis advocated the rejection of painting and was actively involved in making production art [proizvodstvennoe iskusstvo], such as multimedia agitprop kiosks to be installed on the streets of Moscow, integrating radio-orators, film screens, and newsprint displays. Two such structures were constructed for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922 and subsequently enjoyed great popularity as their plans were published and models exhibited. Through these constructions Klucis developed his own individual method of combining slogans and functional structures built around simple geometrical figures — this method would later lie at the core of his works on paper as well.
Klucis’ first photomontage designs for books and magazine covers were published in 1923, around the same time that Rodchenko was experimenting with the medium in the magazine LEF and the publication of Mayakovsky’s poem Pro Eto. Klucis recognized that the “fixed reality” of photography offered endless possibilities for a new form of propaganda art that was accessible and effective. He acquired his own camera in 1924 which enabled him to incorporate his own photographs in the collages. Thanks to Klucis, Rodchenko and Sergei Senkin, by late 1924, the use of photomontage in publication of books and illustrations had been consolidated.
After Lenin’s death in 1924 his image dominated Klucis’s propaganda designs, up until 1931 when it was replaced by the image of Stalin. Klucis’ photo-slogan works comprising the image of Lenin published in the magazines Molodaia Gvardiia and Smena in 1925 confirmed his reputation as a leading exponent of political photomontage. It was in 1926 that Klucis started to work specifically on political posters promoting socialist reconstruction, in accordance with the ideological discourse of the Party at that time. In 1927 the All-Union Printing Exhibition initiated by El Lissitzky took place, which represented Soviet poster art in all its manifestations. Klucis not only exhibited a large number of works, but also played an active role in organizing the exhibition. Klucis’ work was also included in the 1928 International Press Exhibition in Cologne, where the main exhibit was El Lissitzky’s photomontage.
In 1928 Klucis joined Oktiabr — an association that united leftist artists, whose aim was “to promote the class-proletarian tendencies in the sphere of three-dimensional art.” The shared conceptual approach and variety of creative interests of Oktiabr members was an important factor in Klucis’ artistic development. Starting from 1929 Klucis worked on the Struggle for a Five-Year Plan series of photomontages and posters that would become classics of Soviet design just like his earlier Lenin series. His works of this period often combine methods of posed photography, reportage and double-exposure images.
Starting from 1930 Klucis lectured at the Moscow Printing Institute, and became a vice-chairman of ORRP, a group that united poster artists. By 1931 he was concentrating almost entirely on poster design, however the political climate was gradually changing and soon all posters were subject to Party censorship. Portraits of Stalin began to dominate the propaganda imagery. Klucis’s new posters began including huge portraits in the photomontages: photographs of marchers, shock workers, and, most commonly, Stalin. Klucis also worked on photomontages for front pages of Pravda newspaper and photo-panels for celebrations. Stylistically these works signaled a move away from Constructivism towards a monumental propaganda approach in glorification of Stalin. The spread of the Stakhanovite movement (dedicated to increasing labor productivity) from 1935 provided Klucis with yet another subject for his work. Around 1936 Klucis realized the limited decorative potential of photomontage compared to the new Soviet monumental art, and started to work in paint.
In 1933 Klucis exhibited twice at the State Tretyakov Gallery: in a major visual arts exhibition entitled Fifteen Years of Artists of RSFSR, which he also helped to organize, and the poster exhibition Against the Imperialist War. By the mid 1930s Klucis was one of the leading exponents of propaganda art, however his relationship with the authorities was gradually deteriorating, particularly with IZOGIZ, the Soviet publisher of mass propaganda. The last major exhibition he participated in and helped to organize was the Soviet Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition.
On 17 January 1938, Klucis was secretly arrested and he was shot soon after. His wife worked for decades to earn his rehabilitation, a goal she finally achieved in 1956. It was not until 1989 that the records of Klucis’s assassination were revealed.
Photomontage as a new problem in agit art
A photomontage is a complex of elements organized according to a specific method, the so-called montage method. These elements are:
- the political slogan — a quotation, a caption, etc.:
- the photograph of some social act or event as the pictorial element (including documentary photographs);
- color for activation;
- graphic elements;
- the planar and perspectival design for the synthetic execution of photomontage and graphic representation.
The method of photomontage is divided into two organically related processes:
- preparation of the individual elements (the photomechanical processes);
- the process of montage itself (combination and organization of the elements).
To ensure the utmost activation of the materials photomontage employs the following principles for the organization of its materials (montage):
- use of different scales (with the aim of heightening the impact of the work and replacing the traditional and restrictive use of perspective) which itself offers very significant compositional possibilities;
- use of highly contrasting colors and forms;
- activation through liberated placement of elements (cutting them out from the passive background and actively coloring them; employing extreme contrasts of chromatic and achromatic color).
The production of a poster proceeds in the following sequence of steps:
- IzoGIZ commission;
- development of the theme (the content of the poster);
- development of the overall structure (construction of the poster);
- taking the relevant photographs in the factories and plants;
- process of montage (organization).
The principal task as far as organization of the materials is concerned is to manifest the class significance of the issue (the significance of the political slogan involved). One of the great merits of photomontage is precisely the way in which it has facilitated a new method for producing essentially militant posters. It is a characteristic feature of the latter that the poster surface is articulated and defined by the political content of the presented materials rather than by aesthetic principles. The old system for the composition of posters, based on the aesthetic principle, must be liquidated (by eliminating the framing border within the poster). The new principle is based upon the combination (montage) of topical materials (political slogans, documentary photographs, quotations, color, graphic elements, etc.) that present a consistent political line and take account of the concrete position of the viewer precisely in order to achieve the maximum expressive impact, political clarity and effective influence. This is the reason for the political significance and formal specificity of this principle. This also clarifies the fundamental difference between photomontage on the one hand, as a synthetic art that presents a number of essentially interdependent elements, and photography as a technical category on the other.
The photograph fixes a static moment, an isolated shot. Photomontage visualizes the dialectical unfolding of a theme of the given subject, the dialectical unity between political slogan and representation. Photography and the photograph are technical means for creating a representational form, they constitute documentary material but they are not ends in themselves.
Like any other art, photomontage solves the problem of so-called pictoriality by presenting the manifold and interrelated character of reality, by revealing the concrete manifestations of the constructive socialist project precisely through the combination of elements (the method of photomontage).
Photomontage is not a form but a method — a method that does not start from form, but from the conditions that determine all form: the task specific to the individual poster (or book, etc.), the broad mass for whom the individual work is intended, the relevant location (square, street, window display, department store), the processes of mass production (printing techniques).
Each work is treated in a different manner in accordance with the specific conditions of the individual concrete case. By its very essence, the technique of photomontage resists canonization and excludes the clichés of aesthetic convention. Its fundamental aim is to foreground the given phenomena in a dialectical manner, i.e. in their relationship to other forms and according to their significance for further development.