This year marks the centenary of the October Revolution and the beginning of a turbulent period of history that saw the Russian Empire gradually reshaped into a one-party state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The range of social and political transformations that took place at this time brought with them civil unrest, famine and war, while later, during the mass purges of Joseph Stalin’s brutal regime in the 1930s, some 1.6m people were arrested and detained – half of whom were sentenced to death.
Initially, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks spread their revolutionary message through the emerging mass media, via posters, print, photography and film, and organised events such as speeches and demonstrations. Special trains that carried exhibitions and showed films in cinema carriages toured the far reaches of the vast country, while monuments were duly erected to celebrate the newly empowered working class.
Significantly, the visual elements that helped communicate the new ideology were powerful and far-reaching and took advantage of emerging technologies and methods of distribution.
The early years of civil war saw a wealth of propaganda posters appear and so in the second room in the Tate’s Red Star Over Russia exhibition, an entire wall is given over to some of these works.
Aimed at peasants and soldiers – a largely illiterate audience – many posters made use of short slogans and bold colours to disseminate their messages in a range of languages including Russian, Hebrew, Tartar and Uzbek.
The advent of the mass-produced image was to become a central tenet of the emerging visual culture and was embraced notably by the avant-garde who sought to create a form of visual expression for all. Art, posters, book designs, magazine and newspaper illustrations were created in the pursuit of this.
While many notable pieces from this period were ephemeral in nature, the fact that so many of these remarkable artefacts are on show at all is down to the late graphic designer and visual historian, David King (1943-2016). Over the course of his life, King brought together an archive of Russian and Soviet material that numbers over 250,000 objects – some 250 of which are on display at the Tate.
A 1970 assignment on Trotsky for The Sunday Times Magazine, where he was Art Editor, took King to Russia for the first time and since then he acquired a vast collection of visual material – and it is fascinating to see it all in one place. (Tate purchased The David King Collection in 2016.)
The power of – and commitment to – collective production is neatly addressed in a room dedicated to the work of artist couples: Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina; El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers; and Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova.
Breaking away from producing single canvases or sculptures, the duos’ graphic design, photography and photomontage work found its way into newspapers and magazines – furthering the reach of this new visual language.
Midway through the exhibition, the scope broadens out to include an interesting selection of objects from ordinary homes, each offering a brief glimpse of an aspect of Russian life during the first half of the 20th-century.
The collected objects also show how the Union’s nation-building story was told in a variety of different ways – often unofficially – from manipulated photography and satire, to performances and art.
Another room moves the perspective into Europe and specifically to the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life which took place in Paris in 1937.
Here, the USSR’s pavilion designed by Boris Iofan was further embellished by a towering steel sculpture by Vera Mukhina, symbolising the bonds between the working classes of both the urban and rural populations.
Inside the pavilion, which was visited by some 20m people, the mix of social realism and modernism gave some indication that the ‘Modern Life’ cited in the exposition’s theme could be understood and addressed in a number of ways.
The final sections of the Tate’s exhibition focus in on the ‘ordinary citizens’ who died under Stalin’s regime – a large table displaying mugshots of some of those who were executed is starkly juxtaposed with the fantasy expressed in the 1937 exposition – while the last room looks at how patriotic images of the ‘Motherland’ began to replace those of Stalin in the years following the German invasion in mid-1941.
With Stalin’s death in 1953 and the ‘Thaw’ that followed under Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet art could begin to move away from the social realism that had now begun to dominate; censorship of the visual arts was relaxed as part of the cultural shift and society would gradually be transformed once again.
Red Star Over Russia focuses on just 45 years of Russian history but King’s vast knowledge of the time shapes the exhibition, highlighting the role of visual culture in the realisation of new political orders as idealistic and as terrible as they might prove to be.
Tate’s curators have selected a wide range of important pieces from this time and it is testament to King’s passion as a collector – of both art and ephemera – that the exhibition sheds welcome light on a dark time in history.
Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55 is at Tate Modern until February 18 2018 (Blavatnik Building, Level 2). See tate.org.uk and #RedStarOverRussia on Twitter. David King’s books include The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia (1997, enlarged 2014); Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin (2003); and Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (2009)