★★★★ RED STAR OVER RUSSIA, TATE MODERN Fascinating history in a nutshell
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Tate Modern exhibition features an installation made in 1985 of a Moscow bedsit, its walls lined with political posters. There’s a gaping hole in the ceiling made when the occupant apparently catapulted himself through the roof to escape the incessant clamour of propaganda bombarding Soviet citizens on a daily basis.
Focusing on these same images, Red Star Over Russia: a Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55 reveals the incredible range and versatility of the posters, pamphlets, postcards, magazines, books and banners designed to spread the word about the 1917 revolution and galvanise people into action.
This remarkable collection of ephemera was amassed over many years by graphic designer, Dave King, art editor of the Sunday Times Magazine from 1965 to 1975, who was deeply influenced by the power and simplicity of the images he collected. Especially in the early years of the fledgling regime, artists played a key role by designing visuals clear enough to be understood by a diverse and largely illiterate population. They travelled on board the agitprop trains and ships that disseminated information the length and breadth of the new republic. These were furnished with printing presses so the artists could produce a constant stream of fresh material to augment the talks, films and plays being presented in transit.
The exhibition opens with a wall of posters. No style predominates; in Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1920 (pictured above) El Lissitzky conveys his message with a red triangle piercing a white circle. In his 1926 poster Emancipated Woman: Build Socialism! (pictured below left) Adolf Strakhov silhouettes the chiselled features of a banner-wielding woman against a backdrop of factory chimneys that indicate her engagement in industrial production as well as politics.
The two approaches of abstraction and realism continued to be used but realism gradually gained the upper hand just as the experimental layouts and photomontages of artists such as Gustav Klutsis (pictured below right: Moscow All Union Olympiad, 1928), Valentina Kulagena and Aleksandr Rodchenko gave way to more traditional approaches. In 1942 the Kukryniksy Collective translated the image of a red arrow piercing a white circle into a lightning bolt striking an umbrella. Hitler and Mussolini cower beneath the umbrella while three flags – the Union Jack, Stars and Stripes and Hammer and Sickle – join forces to form the penetrating dart.
The headscarf-wearing peasant woman became a recurring motif. In the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, Vera Mukhina crowned the Soviet pavilion with a monumental sculpture of a peasant woman twinned with a factory worker. They celebrate the union of industry and farming (he holds aloft a hammer, she a sickle) that drove the economy. In Nina Vatolina’s 1941 poster, the woman adopts a defiant stance against Fascism, but despite her red dress, she shows signs of anxiety rather than triumph.
King also collected photographs, which played an important role in disseminating ideas. For dramatic effect, photographs were often enhanced or completely staged. Yevgeny Khaldei’s 1945 photograph of Red Army soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag over the bombed-out Reichstag (main picture), for instance, was actually staged after the event. The infamous practice of airbrushing people like Trotsky out of history is documented in several “before” and “after” prints. King also collected mugshots taken of political detainees, including Gustav Klutsis, before they were executed or sent to the gulag.
Divided into sections that make good historical and thematic sense, the exhibition provides a fascinating glimpse into the way that, over many decades, visual material was designed, manipulated and disseminated to encourage Soviet citizens to behave in ways that furthered the Communist cause.
- Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55 at Tate Modern until 18 February
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