This poster is embedded in the imagery of religion, even if it does not convey a deliberate religious message. There are two direct themes here: the contribution made by both women and men to the war effort, and the sacrifice ordinary people are making. The ‘heroic’ depiction of these figures in the style of socialist realism is deliberately overwhelming and sentimental, but it is also religious.
The title ‘Sister’ plays on the word for a nurse in Russian (and in English), and the fact that this homely girl could be your sister, my sister or a nurse to us all. The nurse gives succour with water, but like the Mother of Jesus, she is taken as a figure offering comfort to all who see her. The poem refers to her ‘blue’ eyes, and to the deeply familiar (rodnoi) oval of her face, much as mothers’ faces are remembered from childhood.
Women were not allowed to serve in the front line, but many served in the medical corps. Russian losses among soldiers were great. As well as celebrating the work of women, this poster brings a caring face to wounded Russia in general.
The war had turned to favour the Russians by this date but the price paid by civilians in occupied territory as well as in places that were under siege was an extremely high one. The siege of Leningrad lasted from 8 September 1941 until 27 January 1944, some 872 days. It was finally lifted with heavy fighting on both sides just a couple of months before this poster was created.
This poster is infused with religious imagery as are a number of others. The positioning of the soldier’s wounded body across the lap of the nurse recalls firstly the pietà, or Mary holding Christ’s body which has been brought down from the cross. And, secondly ,the proximity and positioning of the nurse and soldier’s faces reminds of the Virgin and child.
The poster’s size and shape (it is twice as long as it is wide) recalls large icons and frescoes as well as religious sculpture and painting. The subdued colouring is perhaps a reference to war, but may also deliberately discount the usual richness of the Virgin and child theme of the icon.
Antonov was a skilled portrait painter which shows in the focus of this poster and the way it is composed. The positioning of the bodies is as important as the faces. They contrast one another, matching suffering to caring composure. The positioning of the figures within the available space and in relation to the implied frame of the poster is ably achieved.
The splashes of red unite the sacrifice of a life (blood), with service to one’s country (the badges), and with the state (the TASS insignia), whose principal political colour is red.
K. Utkin is one of the unknown voices of the TASS poster project. There is a Iosif Utkin who was a poet, but the real Utkin remains unfound. This is the only poster which bears his name in the Nottingham Collection.