Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55
Tate Modern, 19th January 2018
I have always coveted a collection. I mean a proper collection. I have a fair few CDs, (I have bought maybe 6 or 7 download only albums in my life – not having a physical copy brings me out in a cold sweat), a bit of vinyl, rather too many books, (the SO and I no longer know where to put them), programmes and exhibition catalogues and some 1960s pottery. But none of this counts. What I really want is a full-on, take over your life, obsessive, world’s leading authority, type of collection.
Mind you I have no idea where the people that do end up doing this find the time, money or space. But I am very glad this people exist. An entirely digital, thingless world where punters consume everything on screen unsettles me. Aa it happens one such collector was graphic designer David King, and his chosen subject were prints, posters, journals and photos which document the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the first half of the C20. Unfortunately Mr King did not live to see this remarkable exhibition largely drawn from his collection, but we should thank him for his legacy/.
Now 2017 was the centenary of the Russian Revolution and one of the first posts on this blog recorded my visit to the excellent Royal Academy survey of Soviet Art at the beginning of the year (Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****). Since then I have been immersed in Chekhov, (a couple more Cherry Orchards, and the early plays), more Shostakovich than is good for my nerves, sundry reading and exhibitions, the Death of Stalin film and, most recently, a play from current Russian dramatist Mikhail Durnenkov. So the way in which art has explored the relationship between people and State in Russia pre and post Revolution and beyond has been a particular source of interest this last year.
What is most striking about this exhibition, at first glance, is the ubiquity of many of the images. In the early years of the USSR many avant-garde, modernist artists saw art and architecture as tools for social change. This vision was propelled by the Constructivists/Productivists, (though there are signs that Suprematism, Futurism and Neo-Primitivism also had a hand in shaping poster art). Room 2 draws together work by artist couples El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kippers, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova and Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina, who embodied these ideals. Forms are simplified, colours are bold and abstraction applied to human endeavour.
Red and black predominate, sharp angles, exhortations to embrace the future and beware the enemy in sans serif type, heroic poses. Even as Stalin’s regime became suspicious, or worse, of modernist art, and the visual language drifted towards the cliches of Soviet Realism, the messages remained unchanged.
Even if you don’t actually know any of these images you will think you do. But even as you marvel at the terrific wall of posters in the first room proper, and before you get to the rooms of smaller images and objects, notably rare photographs, it becomes clear that something else is going on here. For the overriding impression beyond the familiar vocabulary, is of the manipulation and avoidance of truth. Reconstructions of significant events, caricatures of Party enemies, early “photoshopping”. This is most acute in the fascinating photographs where the faces of individuals executed and murdered by the regime are cut or crossed out, or cropped in official publications, notably Trotsky. The vitrine display of photographs of victims of Stalin’s Great Purge is very moving. The execution of military leader Mikhail Tukhachevsky and suicides of renowned poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and Stalin’s own wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva are explored in detail.
Yet even in the early years, after the Revolution, the scale of the effort by the Bolsheviks to win hearts and minds across this vast. largely illiterate, population is laid bare. Many of the messages are multilingual to reflect the diversity of the Soviet Union. Agitprop trains took the message of proletariat emancipation across the land. Monuments were erected. In the 1930’s the imagery of Socialist Realism was exported, as the room devoted to the utopian murals of Aleksandr Deinaka which were exhibited in Paris in 1937, graphically illustrates.
So we have some absolutely fascinating and striking material, very directly and compactly curated without gimmickry, which maps out the way in which hope turned to despair over the space of a few decades. It gets you thinking long and hard about the way in which art and visual media are used to create and record history, both in the Soviet Union, and dare I say, today.