I have been looking forward to 2017 for quite some time. Not because it was the year of my GCSEs, or of my 16th birthday, but because it marked the centenary of the February and October Revolutions in Russia – and as a (now ex-) communist, it was nice to have the movement I called myself part of thrust into the spotlight for a while. Although I didn't end up meeting my former comrades for some collective introspection at one of several communist events this year, I did manage to commemorate the centenary by the much less awkward and decidedly more bourgeois means of visiting some art exhibitions.
One of these was Red Star Over Russia, which is on display at the Tate Modern until February 18th. I was itching to see it ever since I first heard about it while procrastinating revision in May; after all, what can go wrong when your favourite art gallery hosts an exhibition centred on the ideology you were freakishly obsessed with at the age of 12? Not much, I found out. The exhibits were borrowed from the personal collection of graphic designer and leftist activist David King, who died earlier this year. The enormous treasure trove (comprising over 250,000 items) of Soviet photographs, paintings and periodicals he had amassed was part of his effort to 'build a visual style for the British left.' Rather appropriately, the exhibition focused on just that: how the Soviet government and the artists they employed created a visual style, a narrative of images, to illustrate the colourful ideology which shaped its citizens' lives at different points in its history.
Red Star Over Russia covers around 50 years of history, from the first revolution against the monarchy in 1905 (deemed a bourgeois revolution by Soviet thinkers) to the relaxation of repression termed 'Khrushchev's Thaw' in the 1950s. Most of the artwork shown is from the 20s and 30s, so the main focus is on how images were used to reinforce official ideological narratives during the civil war (1918-1922) and the period of collectivisation under Stalin. This certainly is a fascinating period of Soviet art history, since it is a perfect example of the vacillation between two extremes which is so often present in Russia.
From the 1917 revolution right up until the mid 20s, Russian art was making waves. Subversive new movements such as constructivism, suprematism and Russian futurism thrived in the post-revolution environment, where anything resembling the conservative realism of the Tsarist days was spurned. But as the state tightened its grip, this free-spirited artistic culture gradually gave way to the strict boundaries and tight regulations of state-sponsored socialist realism. Paradoxically for so-called proletarian art, socialist realism was accompanied by a greater than ever increase in censorship and crackdown on artistic expression in the Soviet Union. The exhibition highlighted this brilliantly with a display of photographs in which people who had fallen out of favour with the state were erased from the picture or scribbled out, once with the caption 'enemy of the people.'
This censorship was sometimes due to official order, sometimes out of fear and sometimes, perhaps the most frighteningly, out of honest conviction that 'enemies of the people' did not deserve to be in photographs. Such thought control through art was a major theme of the exhibition. A particularly nice touch was the use of a wide variety of art forms to show how omnipresent this thought control was. These ranged from 'agitprop trains' which exported propaganda to remote regions of Russia to the photomontages pioneered by Klutsis to the huge street murals, which were sometimes multilingual to project the Soviet message to the rest of the world.
Another aspect of the exhibition I particularly enjoyed was its counterposition of the harsh reality of the purges and oppression in the 1930s USSR with the hope and liberation represented by the Soviet dream. Of the two rooms focusing on the 30s, one showed oil paintings of real protest rallies embellished with fantasy symbols which the USSR displayed at the Parisian International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, while the other showed photos from the lives of three repressed people (including Stalin's own wife) and examples of censored images. This provided a striking contrast, and continued the theme of 'embellished reality' which existed throughout the history of Soviet propaganda, going right back to the photography of Rodchenko and the combination of abstract (fantastical) forms and human (real) images used by the earlier Soviet photographers whose works were displayed.
The exhibition had a huge and slightly chaotic collection at its disposal, which it organised somewhat successfully by dividing it into six rooms. These contained art from the time of the revolution, art from the civil war, an overview of 1905-1955 in smaller pictures, the Parisian International Exhibition display, photos portraying the oppression faced by ordinary people and finally war propaganda and some pieces from the 'Thaw.' While this was a fairly sensible chronological order, I felt that the overview spanning 50 years would have benefitted from being at the start rather than in the middle, and also thought that more continuity between the different rooms would have helped visitors to gain a better sense of the overall trends in Soviet art. A little more 'bigger picture' commentary accompanying each piece would have come in useful too. On the whole, though, this was an excellent exhibition for anyone looking for a pictorial introduction to Soviet art. If you are at all interested in (but perhaps not too knowledgeable about) the period, I would highly recommend checking it out!