It seems the public never tires of Soviet propaganda posters. A flurry of exhibitions showcasing the eye-catching artworks have recently taken place across the UK and more are planned for the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture. For Russian-born, London-based businessman Sergo Grigorian, online (www.redavantgarde.com) has been the best place to display his own personal collection, which now stands at over 2000 posters. Matthew Burgess spoke to Grigorian about his collection and his plans to take the unique collection ‘offline’.

Sergo Grigorian, image courtesy of Sergo Grigorian

Sergo Grigorian, image courtesy of Sergo Grigorian

Matthew Burgess: Sergo, when and why did you start collecting on this scale? Sergo Grigorian: Since my childhood I’ve been collecting stamps, at first depicting space, then the European imperial colonies. At some point I started collecting stamps from the Soviet Union as I’ve always been interested in the history of Russia. Even though highly valued by specialists, a stamp has little importance to the average person; the differences in perforations or image displacement don’t interest the general public. This narrow interest, which has been declining for years, forced me to search for something else to collect, for something which would still hold the historical significance but also excite the public and myself. This is how I came to collecting posters. At first I didn’t consider it collecting; I bought posters for myself, even hung them on the wall. A few years later I decided to put together an exhibition because by that stage I had accumulated quite a few. It was when I was exhibiting the posters that I noticed people were really appreciative and showed a lot of interest in what I had put together. This was a turning point for me; I understood that I needed to start collecting posters seriously. Unlike stamps, these types of posters have yet to be categorically catalogued.  There are some posters that appear in the market which are so unique that nobody has ever seen or heard of them, and for this reason it continues to intrigue me. MB: Does your collection have an overall theme or do all Soviet posters from this period interest you as a collector? SG: My collection is like a living organism. When I first started collecting I was more omnivorous, now I am a lot more selective.  I know this market very well; I know the supply and demand and where and what to acquire. As a result, I rearrange the collection constantly, even remove some posters as the cost of storing them exceeds their worth. That’s why I concentrate on interesting subjects, unusual ones that also hold their value. For instance, the posters depicting ‘Soviet communism’ are less interesting to me than ‘Anti-American’ posters, ‘Civil War’ posters or posters done in avant-garde style. MB: What is the most significant poster you have purchased? SG: I definitely have a Top-10 and one definitive no.1 poster. It might be quite subjective, but Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedges” (1919) is my favourite.  To this Top-10 I can add the poster by Moor “Have You Volunteered” (1920) (http://www.redavantgarde.com/ru/shop/goods-3303.html) and Toidze “The Motherland Is Calling” (1941) (http://www.redavantgarde.com/ru/shop/goods-4730.html). Both of which are in my collection.
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, image courtesy of Sergo Grigorian

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, image courtesy of Sergo Grigorian

At the same time I would say that among my 2000-3000 posters most of them, if not all, will be stars in their own way. Of course there are posters that were less well done, not as bright, colourful or vibrant, but as something of an expert I can see their value. I am very selective with collecting and I build my collection in a particular contextual way. MB: Do you go out in search of particular pieces or does your collection grow organically? SG: It is difficult to say. I could never go out on the street and start shopping for posters, however, offers come from everywhere. Taking into account that my collection is on the website, which is easily searchable on the internet and is widely accessible to public, it is quite common that I receive offers from people. Apart from that there is also a particular circle of people who might have certain posters I want, and also dealers who specifically refer to my website. MB: The legitimacy and provenance of artwork is becoming more and more difficult to authenticate. How important is that to yourself and your collection? SG: The legitimacy of the artwork is extremely important to me, I continuously check posters authenticity. If I find out that a certain poster is a copy, a reprint, I remove it from my collection immediately. Printed versions are fairly easy to verify, however, if it’s a maquette (sketch) then there could be some difficulties.  My posters are originals, at least the vast majority of them are. I am simply not interested in mere copies, with the exception of those that were actually “born” and printed in that year. MB: What are your plans for the future of the collection? Have you considered your own exhibition of the collection?
Image courtesy of Sergo Girgorian

Image courtesy of Sergo Girgorian

SG: I’ve had exhibitions before, most recently in Petrovsky Passazh in Moscow at the start of this year. “Death to World Capitalism” was inspired by an art folder of 24 of my posters. I have also been approached by a curator in Moscow with the request to lend 53 posters. There were couple of exhibitions I put on in London in the early 2000s and there will be more in the future, hopefully next year during the UK-Russia Year of Culture. I would ideally like to present not only posters, but other associated materials; photographs, films, costumes and artwork. This way there will be more attention drawn to the collection and people will be able to fully appreciate the subject matter. I plan on collecting for a long time. I still have some blanks that I need to feel in. I am working on it and the collection will keep on growing and so there will never be a ‘definitive’ collection to exhibit. MB: Where is the strangest place from which you have acquired a poster? SG: I need to think… Once I went to Malta to discuss the possibility of taking a long-term lease on a former Russian Trade Promotion office. This building had been closed down; I had the impression that people just walked away and locked the premises, still in the Soviet days! So I went there to see the building and I found a couple of posters hanging on the walls, still performing their original function. So I added them to my collection. I can’t say those posters are the most valuable ones and come to think of it, I think I even took them out of the collection! But nevertheless, what an interesting place to find them! ———   The book “Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection” by Maria Lafont, has been published by Prestel, in addition to five folders published by Kontakt-Kultura. Plans are underway to exhibit parts of the collection next year during the UK-Russia Year of Culture and a new website will be released soon. Information will be available from Russian Art and Culture. In the meantime, take a look at these Soviet poster exhibitions on now or coming soon…   Pushkin House – ‘Visions of Utopia: Soviet Posters of the 1920s & 1930s from the Marx Library’ presents heroic depictions of building the Soviet Socialist dream in the years following the October Revolution. In collaboration with Marx Memorial Library, the University of Kent’s School of Arts and Pushkin House until 5 December 2013. http://www.russianartandculture.com/exh-visions-of-utopia-soviet-posters-of-1920s-1930s-pushkin-house-7-nov-5-dec/ University of Nottingham – ‘Windows on War’ is a digitalised selection of rare Soviet war posters from the Russian and Slavonic Studies department at Nottingham University. High-quality images available to view at windowsonwar.nottingham.ac.uk GRAD – ‘Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen’ Gallery for Russian Art and Design on Little Portland Street will be examining the golden age of Soviet film posters in collaboration with Antikbar. 17 January – 29 March 2014. http://www.russianartandculture.com/exh-kinofilm-soviet-posters-of-the-silent-screen-grad-17-jan-29-mar/