The exhibition Red Star Over Russia is a reminder of the vital role visual culture played in building a new society following the 1917 revolution, says MICHAL BONCZA
Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture, 1905-55 Tate Modern, London 3/5
RED Star Over Russia consists of over 250 photographs, posters, leaflets, banners and publications from the massive collection — running into the hundreds of thousands — of the late David King, whose Anti-nazi League graphics caught the eye in the late 1970s.
When he was alive, King travelled extensively in the Soviet Union, unearthing graphic artworks of the revolution as he did so and these were later acquired by Tate Modern — the exhibition title part-borrows from his 2009 book Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union.
“I used to dream, like all children, how life would be in the 21st century,” King once said. “If anyone had told me there would still be inequality, racism, kings, queens and religious maniacs stalking the planet, I would have considered them crazy.”
The evidence from this exhibition is a plain and simple response to King’s sense of disappointment. The Soviet Union did manage to do away with all those evils in a process greatly aided by the visual debate and education — evidenced here — it had undertaken throughout the country, despite constant bellicose hostility from the West.
On show are the familiar classics of El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920), Dmitri Moor’s Death to World Imperialism (1920), Adolf Strakhov’s Emancipated Woman: Build Socialism (1926) and Nina Vatolina’s Most Evil Enemy of Women, Everybody to the Struggle Against Fascism.
And there are lesser-known gems like Alexander Rodchenko’s groundbreaking photography, the poster proclaiming the Decree on Land of October 27, 1917 instituting the takeover of all privately owned land without compensation, or the El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin photomontage The Task of the Press is the Education of the Masses (1928).
But revolution also meant recreational activities, including sport and the series of posters by the incomparable Gustav Klutsis for the all-union Spartakiad in Moscow in 1928 (left) mesmerise with the inventive energy of the photomontage and extraordinary graphic skill.
Present is also the uncomfortable and voyeuristic morbidity in the “mugshots” of those caught up in Stalin’s purges, group photos with individuals crossed out with “enemy of the people” annotations, or even the dead Vladimir Mayakovsky with a gaping wound in his side.
At the heart of the exhibition is a palpable sense of loss and regret at how the greatest political project in contemporary human civilisation fell short of its promise. But equally evident is the people’s boundless capacity for forging a revolutionary future of their own.
A century ago, the Russians did just that. An example, surely, to follow.