Cosmonauts Day: How art won the Cold War and Space Race

"We've inspected the sky inside and outside. No gods or angels were found." Only science and Soviets. In the communist and atheist Soviet Union, space exploration was a religion; the gospel spread through propaganda rather than sermons. Two countries, the Soviet Union and the United States, were locked in an ideological race, two superpowers battling for supremacy...

Cosmonaut's Day - Yuri Gagarin

The race begins

After the Second World War, the United States and other western powers established NATO to safeguard the democracies of Western Europe and counter the spread of Communism. In turn, the USSR established the Warsaw Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with an alliance of Eastern European communist states. Each began building nuclear weapons that could kill millions at a time. But both needed the means to deliver their payloads. The Cold War and the Space Race had begun...

Each side sought to prove their superiority, using technology to vindicate their ideology. In October 1957, Sputnik became the first man-made object in orbit when it was launched on the back of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Less than four years later, the Soviet space program made another giant leap forward when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered orbit. The first human in space, his 101-minute journey around the Earth was a triumph for the Soviet space programme and Communism. He immediately became a worldwide celebrity and hero. His photo was featured on the front page of every newspaper across the globe and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev awarded him the highest distinction, 'Hero of the Soviet Union'. 

The Soviet's achievement came as a surprise to the Americans, and not a pleasant one. The first American in space, John G. Glenn said "I don't think many people remember what life was like in those days. This was the era when the Russians were claiming superiority, and they could make a pretty good case—they put up Sputnik in '57; they had already sent men into space to orbit the Earth. There was this fear that perhaps Communism was the wave of the future. The astronauts, all of us, really believed we were locked in a battle of Democracy versus Communism, where the winner would dominate the world."

Inspiring a generation

For a generation of artists, architects, designers, and writers, the Space Race was a powerful influence. Space quickly became part of the fabric of everyday life. Playgrounds were designed to resemble rockets, while entrances to metro stations displayed colourful mosaics of floating cosmonauts. Factories which built military and space components began to produce consumer goods. Vacuum cleaners were shaped like orbiting planets, snowmobiles like lunar capsules, and lamps which resembled a rocket at launch. Slogans that read ‘Soviet man – be proud, you opened the road to stars from Earth!' and ‘Our triumph in space is the hymn to Soviet country!’ were printed on candy packaging, matchboxes and perfume

The space race represented the modernisation of the Soviet Union. In architecture, 'Cosmic Style' embodied the move towards grounding the grand ideals of Communism in the physical. Rockets were utilitarian objects, functional and nothing more. The approach to functionality was mirrored in architecture where "the sheer space-age strangeness of these buildings shows an architecture that was still ideologically charged" at a time when western designers were beginning to turn their backs on the abstract form. There was an emphasis on massiveness of forms and a preference for reinforced concrete and glass. 

It is for you humanity (Moon)

Power of the image

Artist unions embraced Bolshevism's call that "the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes" in the early 1900s. And they did so again in the late 1950s. Propaganda was art and a message. Artists could speak directly to a nation of 150 million. These party sponsored unions designed and produced thousands of works which were hung in factories, schools, theatres and the streets. Posters were inexpensive to produce and could be printed in large quantities, quickly. New designs were often released to celebrate anniversaries or new technological breakthroughs. Like their Soviet counterparts, NASA enrolled artists like Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell to sell the space program to the American public, which at its peak accounted for 4.41% of the national GDP. 

Their vivid iconography combined with simple, aspirational messages meant posters packed a visual punch and were easily understood. Strong visuals lead the eye skywards, while explorers of new worlds look boldly back at the viewer. With heavy splashes of red -the colour of Communism-, the limited colour palette was a trademark of the Soviet poster. Vladimir Mayakovsky, a prominent poet and artist, said that a Soviet poster "was a failure unless it could bring a running man to a halt". 

While the space race is over, for now, the legacy these artworks leave is so profound; they are some of the most sought after posters by collectors today.


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