"'Images of Atheism" - exhibit open at Clinton's museum
Exhibit on atheism will enlighten, enrage while teaching about the Soviet influence on religion.
One of the most famous anti-religious posters shows Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov claiming he was in space and didn't see God. Item Staff/Jan Gottesman
CLINTON - For the first time, an exhibit at Clinton's Museum of Russian Icons includes a warning: Some visitors might find some of the images offensive.
..."The images show the religious people as monsters and capitalists (with top hats similar to the Monopoly man). They show the godless corners that the Russian people were encouraged to create in public places, with posters and placards taped on the wall, meant to be changed out with new posters, new images."
The current exhibit is "Images of Atheism: The Soviet Assault on Religion" and explores some of the propaganda the Soviet regime used to try to address some of the issues that visitors to the museum have asked over the years about religious opposition and oppression in the Soviet Union.
Visitors check out the exhibit, 'Images of Atheism: The Soviet Assault on Religion,' showing through Oct. 2 at Clinton's Museum of Russian Icons. Item Staff/Jan Gottesman
"It is intended to elicit a visceral response," said museum registrar Laura Garrity-Arquitt of the exhibit. "We have wanted to do something like this for a while."
With the museum planning shows a couple of years in advance, the timing - during the Russian invasion of Ukraine - comes at a historically-notable time. And some of the images relate to the current propaganda coming out of Russia over the invasion.
Nancy Norwood, of Rochester University, curated an initial exhibit of alphabet posters. These Soviet propaganda items targeted children with colorful, comic issues to solidify the idea that people should cast aside religion for science. Some posters were donated by museum patron Franklin Sciacca.
These images - from the 1920s to the 1980s - are even set up like icons, with simple images and a similar color palette.
The images show the religious people as monsters and capitalists (with top hats similar to the Monopoly man). They show the godless corners that the Russian people were encouraged to create in public places, with posters and placards taped on the wall, meant to be changed out with new posters, new images.
"The idea was to put knowledge in the hands of people to forsake the old ways and embrace science," Garrity-Arquitt said. Children were targeted with the hope that their parents would follow them and build "a greater society," she said.
People can call up an audio tour on their phones, where the posters are read aloud by a volunteer in Russian, then the images explained in English, something Garrity-Arquitt said is a powerful way to experience the exhibit.
Members were able to experience the exhibit in an in-person opening - the first since the pandemic - and Garrity-Arquitt said some had "emotional reactions."
"Some had members of their families who fled the Soviet Union and it brought up memories," she explained. The exhibit is in a separate gallery from the museum's icons. "We hope people who come into this space are those who want to explore this subject. It is one that we should not ignore, but learn from."
Many of the images reflect the same kind of disinformation being seen now from the Russian government to justify its invasion of Ukraine.
"You see on a global scale how the images or slogans are used to convey certain topics," Garrity-Arquitt said.
But they are not just for those interested in history or current events.
"This was the golden age of graphic design and graphic arts," she said.
The colors are bright, showing an image of beauty and hope where science takes over from religion.
An interactive display at the Museum of Russian Icon's 'Images of Atheism' exhibit allows you to create a 'godless corner' in a typical Russian apartment. Item Staff/Jan Gottesman
The images take shots at beloved images, including the Holy Fool, who was revered for standing on street corners, held up by peasants as almost godly. But the posters show him with strings being pulled by the wealthy.
To people starving, the images of collective agriculture and industrialization offered hope for a better future, Garrity-Arquitt explained. But the reality never matched the dream.
Other pieces take aim at Gandhi, Pope Pius XI and Henry Ford and religious and capitalist targets trying to keep the Russian people down.
One of the most famous images in the exhibit is one of cosmonaut Gherman Titov, floating in space, declaring that he did not see God "up there." It is a deceptively cheery image, and one of Garrity-Arquitt's favorite for the powerful message that the poster tried to steer people to at a time when the race to space sparked a time of patriotism.
"It was the perfect subject matter," she said.
In 1990, the Communist Party passed a "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations in the USSR." It helped to bring religious freedom closer to reality in Russia.
For people who have not visited the museum because they do not have an attraction to the icons, the staff hopes this exhibit will attract those interested in Russian and Soviet history, graphics and propaganda.
"I hope they come with an open mind and go through slowly, checking out everything," Garrity-Arquitt said.
The museum is hosting a virtual conference, Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11, curated by conference chair Wendy Salmond.
And Free First Sunday is Sunday, June 5, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with free admission courtesy of the Nypro Foundation.