Power of Images, Images of Power

Communist propaganda poster exhibition at Galerie U Křížovníků, until March 30th, 2005

Maybe communism wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Heading down tourist-clogged Karlová street, lined with overpriced restaurants and shops selling generic eurotat, I'm not seeing capitalism at its best.

I'm on my way to Moc obrazů, obrazy moci ("Power of Images, Images of Power"), an exhibition of Czechoslovak and Soviet propaganda posters, in a newish gallery at the Old Town end of Charles Bridge.

Avoiding a group of black guys dressed in sailor suits, eagerly handing out flyers for some boat trip or other, I head inside and pay my 100 Kč.

The exhibition is divided into five sections, and all explanatory texts, including some relevent quotes from writers and intellectuals, are in Czech and English.

On the downside, someone's set up a stereo system in the entrance area, and the sound of jaunty Latino-style muzak follows me round the exhibition, even drifting into the dark depths of 1950s Stalinist repression.

The exhibition begins with a selection of idealistic works, titled "Brave New World," from a period when the communists believed that heaven on Earth was within their grasp.

Along one wall, there's a selection of 1930s Soviet posters.

My favourite of these, from 1931, features an imperious looking Lenin against a sky full of blimps. The title is translated as "We will build Lenin's escadron of airships."

I make a mental note to slip the word "escadron" into conversation more frequently.

There's also a poster by El Lissitzsky here, promoting a Soviet exhibition at Zurich's Museum of Applied Arts.

The Czechoslovak posters on the opposite wall, mainly from the 1940s, are generally bolder, more colorful and more stylish than their Soviet equivalents.

Like all design, the simplest ideas are usually the strongest.

A simple red-and-white 1948 Czechoslovak election poster, for instance, carries far more power today than Soviet exhortations to producers of "iron, alloy and rolled materials." (These mysterious "rolled materials" seem to have preoccupied the Kremlin, and resurface later in the exhibition.)

The second section, With Lenin For Ever, looks at communism as a pseudo-religion, which means lots of posters of Lenin and Stalin plus a few posters showing an utterly anonymous man with no chin.

This, I later realize, is Klement Gottwald. It must've been galling for Czechoslovak propagandists that their revolutionary icon was one of the most ordinary looking men ever to walk the planet.

There's also an "inspirational" quote from Pravda:

"Should you ever run into difficulties at work, or suddenly doubt your abilities, think of him - of Stalin - and you'll find the necessary self-confidence. Should you feel tired at a time when a man should not be tired, think of him - of Stalin - and work will become easier. Should you be at a loss as to how you should act, think of him - of Stalin - and your decision will be the right one."

I intend to apply this to my own life, but substituting Steve Jobs for Stalin.

On another wall, Czech poet Vitěslav Nezval offers some equally uplifting thoughts:

"The Prague Castle, a breathtaking sight, flies the flag of a workers' president. Gone are the ministers in their top hats, gone annuities and businessmen. Not a single paper in Prague now invents sensational stories of murder; idlers were replaced by Stakhanovites and these will never surrender."

Elsewhere in this section, several posters show workers eagerly reading some not-particularly-interesting-looking newspapers - Rudé pravo ("Red Truth"), Rovnost ("Equality"), Odborář ("Trade Unionist"), and Rozsevačka ("Seeder") - "the newspaper for working women."

The third section - In The Grip Of Power - deals with the spread of totalitarianism into every aspect of life.

Idealism takes second place to conformity here, and there are lots of crowd scenes and shows of hands on display.

A chilling Soviet poster from 1931 shows a giant red hand pointing out three shifty looking characters, while a crowd of workers glares in their direction. The text reads: "To help the industrial and financial plan, we are organizing a court of comrades."

Another Soviet poster, from 1950, depicts a giant worker slamming his fist down on a table surrounded by puny-looking Western leaders. The slogan, unintentionally ironic, is, "We Ask For Peace!"

The fourth section - Reconstruction of the Earth - concerns industrialization and five-year plans and their impact on the environment.

One of the exhibition's most effective posters is here, marking Czechoslovakia's third five-year plan. Another simple red-and-white design, from 1960, it shows a numeral 5 being hoisted onto two others.

Elsewhere, though, the efforts to spur the workers on become increasingly absurd, lumbered with titles like "Pioneers let us fight for Bolshevik plans in black metalurgy, for quality of production, for better working discipline, for alloy steel, rolled materials."

A poster from 1975, by heavily featured Soviet artist Viktor Korekij, depicts the construction of the Baikal-Amur railway as an almost Wagnerian act of heroism.

Part of the reason communism failed, you begin to realize, is that it was essentially dull, and no amount of propaganda could disguise the fact.

Czech poet Ivan Skála works himself into a froth at the thought of "firm breasts of young girls that lean against lathes, and the bosoms of young mothers arched like the rainbow," but ultimately it all comes back to boring old manual labor.

The fifth and final section of the exhibition, Masquerade of Evil, is - for Western visitors, at least - the most fun, dealing with the regimes' most blatant and shameless propaganda.

Here, patriotism blends into outright bigotry.

The most outrageous poster, from 1950s Czechoslovakia, shows a sickly green caricature of an American - vaguely reminiscent of the cartoon germs you see in TV commercials - poisoning an Asian family with a test tube full of flies and smoke.

"To court with the American barbarians," declares the text. "We will punish the instigators of bacterial war."

This depiction of Westerners crops up several more times before the end of the exhibition, sometimes augmented with Nazi insignia or a slightly effeminate appearance.

Another approach is to compare life under communism, where there's "no place for unemployment" and capitalism. While a gainfully employed Soviet youth learns engineering, for instance, his New York City equivalent begs for food amongst top-hatted toffs.

Mixed in with this increasingly hysterical sloganeering is a series of gloriously mundane Czechoslovak posters celebrating the plentitude communism had supposedly created.

"More eggs - higher quality of life," claims a particularly marvelous 1950s poster, featuring headscarved women holding baskets of the aforementioned foodstuff.

For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, though, my personal favorite is an advert for state insurer Česká Státní Spořitelna, showing an "average" Czech family of the 1970s.

I'm not sure if it's the father's hideous hairstyle - a bizarre combination of mullet and comb-over - or the grotesquely fat baby he and his pretty wife are cradling that particularly amuse me.

The exhibition's parting shot is a quote from political scientist Hannah Arendt.

"Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social or economic misery in a manner worthy of man."

It's a worthy thought but, in context, it seems heavy-handed, not unlike propaganda itself.

A more tangible reminder that the Czech Republic hasn't entirely shed its communist legacy is the gift shop, which, like most gallery and museum shops in Prague, is a disappointment.

None of the Czechoslovak posters are available as postcards, and only a handful of the Soviet works, and there are no replica posters on sale.

The only other related material available is the catalog (450 Kč) and a couple of books of Chinese propaganda posters, which don't feature in the exhibition.

Disappointed, I head to the supermarket.

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