It felt like a trip back in time, said Yuri and Halina Henas about their visit to the Handwerker Gallery last week. While they now live outside Toronto, Canada, the married couple visiting Ithaca once lived under the communist regime of the Soviet Union.
For the couple, memories of censorship and propaganda resonated throughout the gallery. A portrait of a powerful, strong woman, with dark eyes and hair, holding her fist in the air and wearing a red scarf around her shoulders, hangs on the wall. A brightly colored painting, “After Work, to the Stadium,” portrays a dark-haired, well-dressed man with a smile on his face taking his suit jacket off, as people behind him play sports in the shadow of large buildings and construction sites.
The individual pieces portray a certain message, either encouraging people to accomplish the Soviet’s “five-year plan” of production or advocating collective farming, with a poster showing a happy family in the fields. The collection’s works include themes of family, social life, work, military and ideological beliefs.
The opening reception last Thursday of the Handwerker Gallery’s new exhibit, “Darker Shades of Red: Official Soviet Propaganda from the Cold War,” attracted more than 100 students, faculty and guests from around the area.
Having seen these images firsthand in the Soviet Union, Yuri Henas said the collection portrays Soviet propaganda realistically.
“These are very crude aspects of propaganda,” he said. “They were not aimed at the sophisticated, they were aimed at a general level.”
“Darker Shades of Red” features 55 framed posters as well as assorted artifacts, including banners, postcards, pins and sculptures, the Soviet Union circulated during the Cold War. It comes from the private collection of Gary Hollingsworth, an art collector and restorer from Florida. The posters are all original, with only a few bust replicas in the collection.
In 1991, Hollingsworth took his first trip to Russia just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a flea market in Moscow, he found many people trying to get rid of Soviet symbols, and the idea to collect the propaganda came to mind.
Hollingsworth took 13 trips to former Soviet Union countries, tailoring his visits to locating and purchasing his kind of artwork.
Junior Ebe Kiis found the exhibit’s posters familiar. She came to the U.S. from Estonia, a former Soviet state, when she was 12 years old.
“It’s kind of interesting to see these images I was used to seeing when I was little,” she said. “I remember my mother, she was part of these youth organizations [portrayed in the paintings], and it was so normal to look at these kinds of things. It was something they had to do.”
The collection has traveled to seven other galleries. Hollingsworth said of the seven, four college galleries have exhibited “Darker Shades of Red” for its historical importance.
Senior Shannon Ramos said the exhibit lends itself well to the college community by giving students new historical insight.
“I’m able to relate to the artwork,” he said. “The concepts of social life [in the exhibit] are pretty close to home with pretty much any college student at least.”
Ramos said the poster, “Our Country Must Become the Most Educated and Cultured in the World,” reminds him of a college admissions brochure. The poster projects in bold, red letters “that 202,000 people will graduate from high-level institutions.” It shows several young students in the front of what looks like a university building in the background.
Senior Blagoy Kostadinov moved to the U.S. from Bulgaria three years ago to attend Ithaca College.
“There was a lot of propaganda in Bulgaria, too,” he said. “And not Bulgarian propaganda, a lot of it was just Russian.”
Howard Erlich, former dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, attended the opening and said the propaganda share a generic message, as portrayed in an image of Fidel Castro in a poster depicting the dictator as an almighty leader.
“Propaganda posters tend to be somewhat stylized in some ways,” he said. “Some are quite militaristic.”
Erlich said “Rope, Bullet & Ax,” which depicts Augusto Pinochet, fascist dictator of Chile, hanging from a noose, is an example of violence as a generic theme of propaganda.
Junior Zachary Klein said he wasn’t sure if the collection is meant to make a statement or if it is just up as historical content.
“I don’t necessarily know what to think,” he said. “I don’t really know if we’re looking at it as art or if we’re looking at it as artifacts, or history.”
Cheryl Kramer, director of the Handwerker Gallery, said “Darker Shades of Red” is the school’s historical show for the year.
“We thought it would be interesting, given that this is an election year, to have an exhibition that dealt with propaganda, since there’s so much of it in print and on-screen,” she said.
Hollingsworth said he finds the collection relevant for its historical value, as well, but would not relate it to today’s media.
“These people had no competing images or no competing information,” he said. “The government controlled everything. The difference is that we have competing image. We have a real wide range of opinions.”
As those who attended the opening began to file out, the largest poster in the exhibit loomed over them. In it, a portrait of a man in a hard hat holds a flag in the air. Behind him, the poster shows factories with smoke spewing from their chimneys and a clear message of a country bound by fear.