AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 10, “Confronting Stenciled Posters: The Discovery, Conservation and Display of Soviet TASS World War II Stenciled Posters”

Presented by Cher Schneider, Senior Special Collections Conservator, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; and Harriet Stratis, Head of Paper Conservation, The Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1997, in preparation for a major renovation, collections at the Art Institute of Chicago were inventoried and temporarily relocated; during this inventory project, curators discovered two thick rolls and 26 parcels of folded newsprint tucked away on a closet shelf. This discovery turned out to be a long-forgotten collection of 157 World War II Soviet propaganda posters. Created by artists and writers under the auspices of the TASS news agency in Moscow, these large “TASS Windows” were produced and displayed daily during the war in order to boost Soviet morale. Over the course of the war, the TASS Studio produced over 1,200 individual designs and nearly 700,000 hand-stenciled posters. In addition to being displayed in shop windows around Moscow, the posters were distributed internationally to sympathetic cultural institutions; the Art Institute of Chicago began receiving posters in 1942. The Art Institute’s posters were never exhibited during the war; in fact, they had never been accessioned into the collections and though a few were mounted on linen, most remained untouched. All of the posters received conservation treatment and research was conducted on the stenciling process and materials used by the TASS studio in preparation for last year’s exhibition Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad 1941-1945.

The posters were created by a collective of artists, poets, and writers; at the height of the war, they were working 24/7 to produce 1500 copies of each poster daily. The artistic style of the posters falls into two broad categories: social realism, used to promote national pride and patriotism; and caricatures/political cartoons that expressed anti-German sentiments. In the very early days, TASS posters were oil paintings on canvas. They quickly moved on to the stenciling process, which became more complex over time. Posters were comprised of four parts – header, TASS #, imagery, and footer (a poem or translated text). Imagery was often one large, unified image but there were also some “comic strip” style posters. Creating the posters was a seven step process: writing the text, creating the art, editorial approval, stencil cutting, stencilling/painting, gluing, and dissemination. The studio suffered materials shortages at various times and towards the end of the war the studio was evacuated and materials were destroyed.

Just as the posters were created by collective effort, so was their conservation a collective endeavor. The posters are large – up to 12 ft tall and 5 ft wide – and were found in very poor condition. The support paper, made from highly acidic wood pulp, had become extremely brittle and discolored, especially along the fold lines and in areas where adhesive had been applied.  Treatment goals were to stabilize the paper and fill in areas of image loss in preparation for exhibition. Due to the extreme fragility of the paper, the conservators made every effort to minimize handling. Posters were placed face down on Pellon and sprayed overall to humidify; wetted Mylar was used to aid in moving and aligning detached poster pieces. The posters were then lined with custom-made Korean paper adhered with a mix of methylcellulose and wheat starch paste. Lined posters were placed face up in a drying stack. Schneider and Stratis included a series of images of the lining process step-by-step, which provided a nice illustration of the scale of the project and the collective effort required.

Visual compensation in areas of image loss took place after the posters were lined.Conservators found that colored pencils dipped in turpentine or mineral oil to soften the pigment provided a good match to the original colors. Large losses were filled with acrylic-toned Korean paper and inpainted with watercolors. After treatment, the posters were encapsulated in Mylar to protect them during further handling. For exhibition, the posters were sandwiched between artcare foamboard and UV filtered Plexiglass; these “plexi packages” were sealed at the edges with J-lar and attached to gallery walls with metal clips.

The second phase of the project was to study the posters in order to understand the materials used, trends in damage, and the stenciling process. In addition to the Art Institute’s collection, Schneider was able to look at the Ne Boltai collection of TASS posters in Prague. Many of the Prague posters had received previous conservation treatment, so this provided a good opportunity  to see how the posters responded to treatment and to gain more in depth understanding of the materials and processes used by the TASS studio. Local Chicago artist Alexis Petroff assisted with the project by recreating a TASS poster to demonstrate how the stencils were produced; click here for more information on the stencil technique and a video of Petroff at work.

Q: Tell us more about the paints used in the TASS posters. Were they oil- or water-based?
A: True nature of the paints was elusive. Conservators originally believed them to be water-based, but the fact that they could get the posters so wet without bleeding media led them to explore the oil-based option. The fact that many of the posters gave off a pronounced turpentine smell lent credence to the oil-based theory. Further inspection revealed that the stencilers used a combination of handmade and commercially available paints. As the war went on the studio’s supplies dwindled, forcing them to modify their process – they began mixing their paints with turpentine, but when that became unavailable they moved on to acetone, and then finally had to resort to using bug repellant.

Q: How did you finesse the water content of the lining adhesive?
A: The conservators working on this project were lucky – nothing moved as they wet out the posters. Posters were placed face down on a piece of Pellon and sprayed out evenly. No transfer or bleeding was observed. They experimented with the water content of the paste/MC mix in order to get the right amount of wetness so it could be applied easily; again, the conservators were lucky – the lining went on easily and without incident. The lining paper was toned to closely match the original poster paper, so it is possible that some discoloration moved into the lining paper and was just not very noticeable.

I had the pleasure of visiting this exhibition at the Art Institute last fall, so it was very exciting to hear a little more of the “inside scoop” about the conservation process. Schneider and Stratis illustrated the talk very well, using images taken inside the TASS studio by Margaret Bourke-White (a Western photographer allowed access to the studio) juxtaposed with images of the posters and visitors inside the gallery.