Cantor Center’s 'Revolutionary Tides' examines the language of political posters


A 1931 Soviet poster, above, and a 1942 U.S. poster, below, are among the political images on display at the exhibit "Revolutionary Tides: The Art of the Political Poster, 1914-1989" at Cantor Arts Center through Jan. 1, 2006.

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The carefully framed and artfully illuminated posters hanging in the exhibit Revolutionary Tides: The Art of the Political Poster, 1914-1989, at the Cantor Arts Center weren't intended to be seen that way, said Jeffrey Schnapp, professor of French and Italian and the exhibit's guest curator.

The mass-produced posters were meant to be seen on the street by hurried passers-by, glimpsed among dozens of other posters clamoring for attention, said Schnapp, director of the Stanford Humanities Lab, which organized the exhibit. The exhibit is part of a larger collaborative research project, Crowds, which examines the rise of the masses and modernity.

The pressure to be instantly understood in crowded places led the creators of political posters to develop a kind of "graphic vernacular"—a vocabulary of images capable of efficiently conveying complex ideas to a broad audience, Schnapp wrote in a catalog that accompanies the exhibit. It is that visual language—made up of images including pointing fingers, clenched raised fists and iconic symbols like hammers and flags—that ultimately is on display in the Revolutionary Tides exhibit. The exhibit also fabricates some of the acoustical and visual din that historically would have accompanied the posters with excerpts of scratchy radio broadcasts and archival film. The exhibit, which displays more than 100 posters from the collections of the Hoover Institution archives and Wolfsonian-Florida International University, will be on view at the Cantor Arts Center through Jan. 1, 2006.

Exhibit organizers considered thousands of posters printed between the beginning of World War I and the fall of the Berlin Wall and created in political settings ranging from Nazi Germany to the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Although, many of the posters in the exhibit are by well-known figures, including the German Dadaist John Heartfield, American illustrator Norman Rockwell and the avant-garde Soviet artist Gustav Klutsis, more than half were created by now-unknown artists. Those that ended up on the exhibit walls were chosen on the basis of the degree to which they illustrate the development of a political and cultural graphic vernacular, Schnapp said.

They are displayed not in chronology but in clusters that show how groups of artists working in different decades and circumstances used virtually the same conventions to communicate ideas. The graphic language of political posters "transcends local political circumstance and bridges different historical periods, operating as much in Moscow in 1925 as in Warsaw in 1980," Schnapp said. The point is easily grasped by exhibit visitors: The images of a 1942 U.S. "Buy War Bonds" poster, for example, are uncannily similar to the 1931 Soviet poster, "Let's Build a Squadron of Dirigibles in Lenin's Name."

Crowds in modern lifeThe exhibit posters also advance a central story line, which is the underlying idea anchoring the larger Crowds project, Schnapp said. "Namely, the story about how multitudes are the dominant political actors on the stage of modern political life."

The notion that "crowds are the actors of modern life is an idea that goes back deep into the 18th century," Schnapp said. The topic is also hugely, even outrageously ambitious, inherently beyond the capacity of any single scholar, he added.

The Stanford Humanities Lab, established in 1999, aims to upend the notion of humanists "working as monks in their cells, gathering knowledge and then producing essays and books," he said. For Crowds, faculty members and graduate and undergraduate students in disciplines including art history, classics, comparative literature, French, film studies and history at Stanford and other institutions contributed scholarship. Such collaborative projects are analogous to the model of "Big Science" projects, which combine the work of many researchers and build piece-by-piece upon the expert knowledge of scholars in different domains, like the tesserae of a mosaic, Schnapp said.

The project extensively uses digital information technology. Images of all the exhibit's posters, along with interpretative text, are available online at the Crowds website at The website also contains a database of seminal writings, semantic histories of terms relating to crowds in multiple languages and a "Galleries" section, presenting projects completed by nearly two dozen scholars. Also archived on the site are two films that are part of the Revolutionary Tides exhibit. (Andrew Moisey, the creator of the film Will the Party Lead Me When the Time Comes?, will give a talk in the gallery at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11, preceding a 2 p.m. docent tour of the show.)

The upcoming book, Crowds, to be published early next year by Stanford University Press, is "built around a series of 16 essays largely produced by people who have been part of the project in one form or another over the course of its five years," making it more a group reflection that the typical multi-author volume, Schnapp said. Like the project, the book's disciplinary span is extremely wide, ranging from economics to art and literary history to political science, he said.

After the exhibit closes at the Cantor Arts Center, it will travel Wolfsonian-Florida International University in Miami Beach, where it will be on exhibit from Feb. 24 to June 25, 2006. The virtual exhibit will continue to be available online at the Crowds website.

"The most volatile of the media is going to become the most permanent record of the exhibit," Schnapp said.