Red Star over Russia

Red Star over Russia

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The sub-title of this densely-illustrated exhibition is A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-1955, and is taken from the enormous and comprehensive collection of the graphic designer and historian David King, who died last year. It is a remarkable achievement, amassing, as he did, over a quarter of a million artifacts by Russian and Soviet artists and designers from the overthrow of the Tsar and the October Revolution of 1917, with Viktor Bulla’s chilling photographs of the Russian Provisional Government troops opening fire on Bolshevik-led protestors in Petrograd in July of that momentous year, to the death of Stalin (not the recently-released film) in 1953, and the appointment of Nikita Khrushchev in 1955 as Party Leader. These were turbulent years and the exhibition explores how the use of art in the form of posters, leaflets, photographs, books and periodicals informed and educated the new society. The Bolsheviks devised highly-decorated ‘agitprop’ trains, which travelled across the vast country, carrying speakers, film shows and a printing press churning out pamphlets proclaiming the policies of the new government. Another word for it might be propaganda. After the October Revolution, art was everywhere in the form of street performances and pageants, with posters depicting heroic workers gazing into the middle distance, being hung in public squares, factories and even in peoples’ homes.

Propaganda was hard at work, right from the outset, with ‘enemies of the people’ being erased, crossed out and cut out of photographs. The most famous picture of Lenin, by Grigorii Goldshtein, addressing the soldiers of the Red Army in Teatralnaia Square, Moscow about to fight the Polish army in 1920 in Petrograd at a sort of barricade, with Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev on the right of the frame. The same photograph was used in 1933, but puff! both these figures had been airbrushed out of history. The same technique was used to promote Joseph Stalin: in one photograph, he appears with Sergei Kirov, Nikolai Antipov and Nikolai Shvernik in Leningrad in 1926. By 1949, both Nikolai’s had been ‘vanished’. Some ‘enemies of the people’ had an even shorter shelf-life. Dynamo sportsmen are seen carrying a portrait of Nikolai Yezhov, a Soviet secret police official under Joseph Stalin, who was head of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, at an athletes’ pageant in Red Square in 1937, and yet another from the same date shows him defaced. Before he was executed for anti-Soviet activities in 1940, he became a political ‘unperson’.

In 1937 at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Paris, the Soviet Union built six enormous pavilions designed by Boris Iofan, which was dominated by a colossal stainless steel sculpture by Vera Mukhina entitled Worker and Collective Farm Woman. This 75-ton, 24m. high piece was the world’s first welded sculpture, comprising a worker holding aloft a hammer and the kolkhoz woman a sickle, and it was recently renovated and now stands in the Russian Exhibition Centre, Moscow, on an even higher art deco plinth. Also within the six pavilions were a vast mural by Alexandr Deineka based on Stakhanovites, or ‘shock workers’, who set records for productivity. During the World’s Fair, more than 20 million people visited the Soviet pavilion, which was built opposite the German one, designed on a grand scale, by Albert Speer. This was at the height of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain’s pavilion housed the greatest anti-war statement ever painted, Picasso’s Guernica,  which was still fresh in the memory.

In 1939 the USSR signed a Non-Aggression Treaty with Nazi Germany, with Foreign Ministers Vyacheslav Molotov representing the Soviets and Joachim von Ribbentrop the Nazis; Stalin was present, but not involved in the signing. Two years later Germany bombed Moscow and Great Britain and the USSR joined together and formed the Great Patriotic War against Hitler.  A series of photographs by Dmitri Baltermants and Yevgeny Khaldei depict scenes from the war, the most poignant being Khaldei’s seminal shot of Soviet Soldiers Raising the Flag over the Reichstag, May 1945. There are some stark and simple graphics by Nina Vatolina from the 1940s, including Fascism – The Most Evil Enemy of Women and Don’t Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason, very much along the lines of our own propaganda campaign, Careless Talk Costs Lives.The same sentiment, but lacking the British sense of humour.

Red Star over Russia

Tate Modern, Blavatnik Building, Level 2

Until 18 February 2018

Admission £11.30

tate.org.uk

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