The visual demonization of Hitler and his gang was a lively business during the Second World War, but no one did the job more colorfully or with greater urgency than TASS, the Soviet Union’s news and propaganda agency.
In a five-year span, beginning with the German invasion of Russia in 1941, a volunteer group of artists, writers, and poets produced more than 1,200 morale-boosting posters—sampled here in this fascinating exhibit—that showed the Nazis as cornered beasts, cowardly buffoons, and brutal thugs. Cartoonish caricatures borrowed the fluid lines of 19th-century political satire, but also prefigured the nasty exaggerations of 1970s underground comics. Portrayed as a greenish long-nosed troll, Hitler succumbs to a bucketful of orange molten metal from a steel workers’ vat; he scampers in his underwear along Napoleon’s famous route of retreat; and he lies prostrate on a map of Europe with his ass on fire.
Because printing presses were mostly melted down for armaments, TASS actually used an assembly line of stenciling to print the posters—a massive, time-consuming effort that perhaps only the Soviets could have mustered. The technical limitations, a relatively narrow palette, and a need to present forceful messages led the artists, largely uncensored, to make their designs simple and bold. The metaphors were never subtle. A slack-jawed gorilla, bearing the German cross and holding a machine gun, stalks across the bodies of Russian citizens. Elsewhere, surrounded by the enemy’s red flags, a desperate, three-legged German wolf bleeds into a snowy expanse. After the Allied victory, Stalin’s bland socialist realism once again dominated the visual arts, but it was the regime’s rare wartime support for creative satire that had helped trounce the Nazi scourge.
Alex Webb: ‘The Suffering of Light—Thirty Years of Images’
In the early 1970s, street photographer Alex Webb was pursuing a familiar gig—black-and-white shots of America’s desolate fringes—when he happened to read Graham Greene’s The Comedians, a literary thriller set in Haiti during the despotic rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Intrigued, Webb soon took a flight to Port-au-Prince, and there, in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, he found himself embarking on what would be a decades-long effort—wonderfully surveyed here—to capture the restless life of hot-climate locales.
Webb has a great talent for finding poignant juxtapositions of near opposites—the ordinary and the ominous, beauty and menace—and making the shot vivid with a painterly attention to color, composition, and the balance of forms. A Brazilian boy leans out playfully from a shack’s open window, but his presence seems to foretell doom—he’s the sole figure in a desolate village surrounded by a serene, milky-white flood; numerous vertical lines (fence posts, wooden slats, a central tree) stand like measuring rods for the water’s inevitable rise. In Panama, U.S. soldiers huddle against a distant building in a war-game exercise while—against a foreground of mowed grass and green Wizard of Oz smoke—a flimsy enemy mock-up stares at the viewer with a girlish face. From 1979, another remarkable image shows two Mexican men being apprehended by border patrol in a field near San Diego. Webb masterfully uses the horizon to split the shot between idyllic yellow flowers and a threatening sky, where a police helicopter hovers like an omniscient god.
The show’s title—a clue to Webb’s overall vision—comes from Goethe’s poetic claim that “colors are the deeds and suffering of light.” The notion essentially defines the world’s hues as mixtures of light and shadow, never without influence from the viewer. Likewise, Webb’s vibrant colors, emerging foglike from darkness or making sharp contrasts with areas of black, often echo his subjects’ mood. In a café scene from Grenada, softly glowing wall panels of red, yellow, and green lend a sense of spiritualism to a trio of listless men who seem to be awaiting some bleak fate. On a street in Mexico, where several people mourn a murder victim, various shades of blue take you from one expression of grief to another. Wherever he travels, Webb finds those fleeting examples of the human condition, and then turns them into art. Aperture Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, 212-505-5555. Through January 19.