What you see: A 1929 Russian movie poster for the noted Russian film Battleship Potemkin. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $50,000 to $100,000.
The expert: Grey Smith, director of vintage movie poster auctions at Heritage Auctions.
First, could we talk about Battleship Potemkin–what it’s about, why it’s considered such an effective propaganda film, why film scholars still study it? What I know is it’s considered one of the greatest foreign films in history. It was about a mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin, and it was made for the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the [Bolshevik] revolution. Director Sergei Eisenstein was a proponent of the montage theory in film–juxtaposition of images to create emotion. Every scene within the film took a different angle. It was very exploratory for the age. When it was released in Russia [in 1925], it didn’t do very well. Only on overseas distribution did people go, “Whoa, this is quite a propaganda piece.”
Why was Battleship Potemkin re-released in Russia in 1929 if it did so poorly in the country its original run? This is purely a guess but I think it had something to do with the advent of sound. I would almost bet that the 1929 re-release had a sound element. [The 1925 version was a silent film.] I do not know that, and I can’t find evidence of it, but 1929 was when the change was being made. Also, the film governing body, Goskino, wanted to push it out again domestically after the overseas response, to see if it would get a better response.
Do we have any notion of why the Stenberg brothers, Vladimir and Georgii, were chosen to design the 1929 re-release Battleship Potemkin poster? I don’t think we’ll ever know beyond [the fact that] they were so well-known in this period, the late 1920s. They were the premier Constructivist artists. They did 300 posters in total in their ten-year career.
What makes this Battleship Potemkin poster design successful? The feel of movement. It’s about expressionist movement in an image. As far as Battleship Potemkin is concerned, it shows the turrets crossing each other in a regimented, militaristic fashion, and the two people are almost in flight. It expressed Czarist oppression. That was the whole reason for the Bolshevik revolution.
What’s going on in the poster? Is this image abstract, or does it show characters from the movie? One sailor is on a turret and the other is an officer being thrown overboard. That’s what they [the mutinying sailors] did–threw them overboard. Throwing the officer overboard is the essence of it. It’s very evocative of the film. It’s a moment in the film, but not literally. They [the Stenberg brothers] used the element of the crossed turrets to create tension.
The first two gun turrets on the Battleship Potemkin poster give the name of the movie in Cyrillic. What does the third turret say? It says “Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Cameraman Eduard Tisse.”
I also see a logo in the lower right. What does it stand for? It’s the logo for the Soviet distributor, the state-run film production company [Mosfilm]. Russians put the print run on every poster. In the lower left of the poster, in Cyrillic, it says 10,000. You can imagine how many they discarded. Of the Constructivist posters, less than a handful [of each are] surviving.
This poster design is horizontal. Is that unusual for a Russian movie poster, as it would be in most other countries? It was fairly common, yeah. There’s a suggestion that the format styles [for Russian movie posters] were a good bit broader than in the U.S. There was a great lot of liberty given to those artists. Some of the images are really incredible. In this instance, [the design] totally lends itself to a horizontal image.
Would Russian movie posters have gone up in the same sorts of places movie posters went up in other countries–movie house lobbies, boards outside construction sites, and the like? I think they had the ability to post anywhere. The story was that U.S. films did much better in the post-Revolutionary era than Russian films. Russians wanted to see light-hearted comedies. Most Russian productions were propaganda pieces. Films with less political undertones were more popular and made a lot more money than Russian productions. It could be one of the reasons why Battleship Potemkin and Ten Days that Shook the World didn’t have that big of a demand.
How many Battleship Potemkin posters from the 1929 re-release survive? I know there are fewer than four copies.
Are Russian movie posters more rare than posters from other countries? They were very much put up, then taken down and thrown away. I’m pretty sure Russia had a paper shortage. I think in World War II, the decimation in that country–so much paper was burned to stay warm, or just destroyed. The Nazis were brutal, as you know.
Were Russian movie posters recycled as well? Local theaters would print things on the back, and local grocers would use them [the backs of posters] to advertise on.
A 1929 Battleship Potemkin poster went to auction at a different house in 2012 and sold for $164,725. Is this the same poster? What do we know about its provenance? I don’t know if this is the same one. It could be the same one, but I don’t know, and if I did, I would tell you. There’s no reason not to. It’s another thing that proves how scarce the item is. Both this and the Ten Days that Shook the World poster [another great Constructivist poster, but not by the Stenberg brothers] came from a private collection. I can’t say much about it beyond it’s in great shape.
What condition is the Battleship Potemkin poster in? Incredible condition, incredible. It was folded at one point, and there were tiny chips. But it’s really incredible. When I first got it, I put it on a light table and it was hard to see it was folded.
Do we have any idea when and how the Battleship Potemkin poster left Russia, and how it survived so well? Maybe it came out after the Berlin Wall fell. Maybe it was carried out by somebody visiting there. Who knows? I find it hard to believe that anyone in government, if someone picked it up and put it in their suitcase, would know what it was. It would not have been noted in the 1960s. If it was folded, that would explain it–with folding, there’s a greater chance of traveling without damage. This one is paper-backed. Once it was conserved on paper, it looked brilliant. Also, the Russians used better paper than France, certainly South America, and Mexico. Lower-quality paper gets what collectors call “fold burns”–browning at the folds. That’s not a problem with Soviet paper [of this vintage].
What is the Battleship Potemkin poster like in person? Striking. It’s striking. The colors are really brilliant. It’s really sort of 3-D when you stand and look at it. It’s incredible, it really is. It makes me excited and makes me want to sell more Constructivist posters. No book can give you a real feel for them.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $50,000 to $100,000? When you deal with things like this, you have no idea where it’s going to go. But you’ve got to get it out there at a reasonable price. It’s the only way to get people to participate. If you don’t have underbidders, you don’t have an auction. It’s important we try to price these things to move.
As we speak on November 14, the Battleship Potemkin poster has already drawn a bid of $25,000. Is that meaningful? That’s a good sign that it’s piqued other collectors’ interest. But I don’t think anything is meaningful per se a week before the auction or more.
Why will this Battleship Potemkin poster stick in your memory? It’s an often-used phrase, but it’s such an iconic piece. I’ve been truly fortunate through the years to get great posters. I remember unique posters well because it’s exciting for me. It’s so much fun to get rare pieces in.
Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Grey Smith has appeared on The Hot Bid three other times, talking about a lobby card from the 1932 film Freaks, a unique Japanese movie poster for The Seven Samurai and a 1934 poster for the nudist film Children of the Sun.
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