Alexander Zhitomirsky was born on January 11, 1907, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. At the age of eighteen, he moved to Moscow, where he studied with Ilya Mashkov and Vladimir Favorsky at the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. In 1930, after several years of working as an illustrator for magazines and creating posters, Zhitomirsky began working as a caricaturist for Rabochaya Gazeta (Workers' Newspaper) and became the art director of both Industria Sotsializma (Socialist Industry) and Illustrirovannaya Gaseta (Illustrated Newspaper).
Zhitomirsky came of age as an artist at a time when photomontage was becoming recognized as an extraordinary new tool for propaganda and was being widely reproduced for advertisements, book covers, posters, and newspapers and other periodicals, and even as photo-frescos on the walls of buildings. “Photomontage became the face of the time, the dominating visual element of Soviet reality,” writes art historian Konstantin Akinsha in his essay Alexander Zhitomirksy: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Zhitomirsky designed and illustrated publications for the front, including Front Illustrierte, a magazine specifically targeted at German soldiers and dropped from airplanes over enemy lines. The anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets he designed were printed in editions of up to one million, and reached vast numbers of German soldiers.
Zhitomirsky’s montages and collages would come to form a significant part of Soviet mass culture in the 1950s and 1960s, and his work during World War II is now considered pivotal in the development of the art of political propaganda, alongside the work of German artist John Heartfield and fellow Russian artists Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Gustav Klutsis. His work was so effective that Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany and himself one of the masters of wartime propaganda, is said to have placed him on the Third Reich’s list of “most wanted” enemies with the order “to find and to hang.”
Zhitomirsky’s achievements in the art of political photomontage are matched only by an extraordinary body of work that he developed privately in the 1930s — a series of personal collages, albums, and letters dedicated to his wife, Erika — despite the fact that Stalinist censorship in this period was at its peak and personal language and creativity was strictly forbidden. Like most Soviet citizens, Zhitomirsky was unable to travel; so he made his wife an album depicting their imaginary honeymoon, collaging her likeness amid palm trees, at the helm of an ocean liner, and among the crowds at Grand Central Station. As Akinsha writes, “In Zhitomirsky’s case, photomontage was not just ‘the most progressive’ way to design a book cover or a poster, but his own everyday language of intimate communication.
After World War II, from 1950 until 1992, Zhitomirsky worked as the head art director of the magazine Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, he produced powerful propaganda photomontages on peace, disarmament, capitalism, and the political leaders of the day, with a focus on the Soviet Union’s new enemy — the United States of America. “An airborne scorpion with the head of Uncle Sam, a lion in glasses devouring minarets and oil derricks, simians of various descriptions delivering harangues on television or sporting Wall Street suits—Zhitomirsky’s gift for grotesque satire became more compelling as it grew more fantastical,” writes the Art Institute of Chicago of this later period of his work. In 1957, he met and became close friends with Heartfield in Moscow. In 1967, he was named an Honorary Artist of the Russian Federation, and in 1978 he received the title of People's Artist of Russia. He died in Moscow in 1993.
Zhitomirsky’s photographs can be found in over a dozen public and private collections worldwide, including the collections of the Pushkin Fine Art Museum, Moscow; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH; and the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
Zhitomirsky’s work has been exhibited widely throughout Europe, Russia, and the United States, and has received renewed attention in recent years. In 2012, Zhitomirsky’s work was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the exhibition Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop. In 2016, the Art Institute of Chicago opened the exhibition Humanism + Dynamite = The Soviet Photomontages of Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, the first museum exhibition in the post-Soviet world devoted to his work. The same year saw the publication of Aleksandr Zhitomirsky: Photomontage as a Weapon of World War II and the Cold War (Yale University Press), the first comprehensive study in English of Zhitomirsky’s work.