Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Red star over Russia

Red Star over Russia

at Tate Modern.

To commemorate the centenary of the October Revolution, this exhibition explores the visual culture that emerged in its wake, one that both documented and influenced the radically new way of life that followed. The visual impact of this exhibition is astonishing, documenting five decades of Soviet hopes ending in devastation, terror and despair. The images have been selected from almost a quarter of a million graphic images collected by artist and designer David King.

Visual culture kept pace with the vast economic, political, social and cultural changes that the Revolution brought about. Many avant-garde artists believed art and architecture were tools for social change capable of creating a new environment for the new citizens. Art became accessible to millions through prints, posters, journals and photobooks. The resulting imagery appeared across the breath of the Soviet Union and came to dominated everyday life.

Art onto the streets:

The message that the revolution was putting power into the hands of the working class was spread around the country through mass media: posters, newspapers, prints, photographs and the new medium of film. Multilingual posters and proclamations were pasted up on the streets and in railway stations, factories and workers' clubs. Political speeches and demonstrations became spectacular events. Agitprop trains, equipped with cinemas, exhibition carriages, mobile theatres and classrooms, brought the message of the new regime to remote regions. At the same time the government commissioned new monuments that transformed public spaces with memorials and statues celebrating the empowerment of the working class.

Women! Take Part in the Elections to the Soviets

El Lizzisky, Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge, 1919

The overlap between propaganda and the avant garde is at its most famous in Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge: a red triangle driving into a white disc against a burning background, urging the Bolsheviks to beat the White Russians - Suprematism in the service of communism.

The mass-produced image - in photographs, posters, journals and books - became the focus of the new artistic culture. Unlike the precious, unique paintings and sculptures owned by the ruling class before the Revolution, these formats were widely available.  Avant-garde artists led this transformation. They employed simplified forms and pure colours to forge what they believed would be a truly popular art form. Photography and photomontage - collages from photographs - played a crucial role in maintaining a human presence within the structure of abstraction. These were produced in hundreds of thousands of copies.

Valentina Kulagina, Soviet Union Art Exhibition, Zurich, 1931

El Lissitzky, Sportsmen

El Lissitzky, Troublemaker

El Lissitzky, Old Man, (Head Two Steps Behind)

El Lissitzky, Gravediggers

El Lissitzky, New Man

Alexandr Rodchenko, House on Miasnitskaya St

Alexandr Rodchenko, Small Yard

Alexandr Rodchenko, Girl with Leica

Alexandr Rodchenko, Make Way for the Women

Boris Kustodievv, 1905, published in Bugbear Magazine.

Responding to the violent unrest of 1905 and pogroms and executions that followed, Kustodiev depicted Death rampaging through Moscow.

Blue Blouse political theatre group.

Hundreds of professional and amateur factory theatre groups emerged from 1921 onwards. Their experimental  'live newspaper'  theatre dramatized current political events and social issues through unscripted performances. They were known as 'Blue Blouse' groups after the factory uniforms of blue overalls. This format spread across Europe and the USA.

Ksenia Boguslavskaya, design for the decoration of Uritskii Square in Petrograd on the first anniversary of the October Revolution.

Alexandr Deineka, A Puzzle for the Old Man.

This shows God struggling to accept the new emancipated woman who had equality in the workplace.

Trotsky vanishes:

Leon Trotsky took a leading role in the October Revolution. Following Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924 there was a power struggle which led to Trotsky's exile in 1927. Under the new leadership of Joseph Stalin, the memory of Lenin's closest ally was systematically erased, and images recording his role in revolutionary events were defaced.

We had the opportunity to watch rare archival footage. The first two sections of the film portray Trotsky as a powerful political figure, whilst the final part demonstrates that by 1927 Trotsky had completely disappeared from public affairs.

The International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris, 1937:

The Soviet Pavillion in the Exposition celebrated and exhibited recent achievements on the world stage.

The pavilion, designed by Boris Iofan was dominated by Vera Mukhina's Worker and Collective Farm Woman, a huge stainless steel sculpture that celebrated the solidarity of the urban and rural working class. Inside, the modernist interior design by Nikolai Suetin showcased innovations in government, science, transport and industry.

Aleksandr Deineka, Stakhanovites, 1937

This vast mural dominated one of the six halls of the pavilion. The painting fused reality with aspiration, as his depiction of a parade in Red Square includes the unrealistic Palace of the Soviet in the background. The crowd features portraits of Stakhanovite workers, who set records for productivity. Deineka was awarded a gold medal for his work in the exhibition and the pavilion was visited by some 20 million people.

Ordinary citizens:

The optimistic image projected internationally in the Paris exhibition contrasted with the sombre and brutal reality of life in the Soviet Union. The year marked the peak of Stalin's Great Terror, during which over 1.6 million people were arrested. Out of these, around 70,000 were sentenced to death and others sent to the Gulag labour camps. 

Examples of censored images reveal a massive state-instigated project to eliminate all evidence of the existence of Stalin's political enemies. Vandalised photographs attest to self-censorship, whereby ordinary Soviet citizens, fearful of repercussions, erased 'enemies of the people' from visual material in their surroundings. Sometimes this was done under orders or out of fear.

Athletes Pageant on Red Square with Dynamo sportsmen carrying Nikolai Ezhov's portrait, defaced.

Group photograph of a regional gathering of OGPU workers, with figures crossed out and 'enemy of the people' written next to one of the figures.

Group of Red Army officers, with Marshal Tukhachevsky's face crossed out

Tukhachevsky rose to fame as a brilliant military strategist in the Civil War. In 1935 he was made a Marshall of the Soviet Union and received the Order of Lenin. He was arrested on June 1937 and tried for participation in the 'Anti-Soviet Trotskyist Military Organisation'. All the accused were found guilty and executed. More than 25,000 high-ranking officers wee prosecuted by Stalin's secret police between 1937 and 1941, leaving the Soviet military vulnerable at the time of the Nazi invasion.

The war and the 'Thaw':

Following the German invasion on June 1941, Soviet propaganda immediately mobilised citizens into action. The image of Stalin could no longer be expected to inspire unquestioning loyalty and the symbolic figure of the 'Motherland' began to replace that of the Leader.

Material featuring imagery permeated all aspects of life. Viktor Koretsy reworked photographic images into hand-painted designs that were used for poster production as well as postcards, leaflets and even postage stamps. The artists who designed this material came from a generation brought up on images of patriotic resistance created during the Civil War (1917-1922), and they drew on this legacy and reinvented it. Nina Vatolina's painterly poster designs harness the imagery of the empowered woman. The practice of hand-making stencilled posters, also first used at the time of the Civil War, was revived in posters. Yevgeny Khaldei's imposing images were often manipulated to enhance their dramatic propaganda effect.

By the middle of the 20th century socialist realism dominated the visual culture of the USSR - a uniformity which was by turns powerful and overbearing. During the so-called 'Thaw' that followed Stalin's death in 1953, a generation of artists, including Ilya Kabakov, rejected and reworked official imagery in a burst of creative innovation.

Nina Vatolina, Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women, Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism, 1941

After Nina Vatolina, Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women, Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism, 1942

This version, in which the female figure has been subtly altered, was produced in 1942 as German troops approached Azerbaijan.  This repurposing reflects the multiple lives of many agitprop images.

Victor Koretsky, Our Army is an Army of Liberation of the Working People, 1939

Koretsky's posters were based on photographic images and reworked with paint. This much reproduced image presents a traditionally dressed Belarussian peasant embracing a Red Army soldier, kissing on the lips being a long-standing Slavic gesture of friendship.

Viktor Koretsky, Red Army Soldier, Save Us! 1943.

Nina Vatolina, Don't Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason, 1941

K. Kazymov, Don't Chatter! 1942

Nina Vatolina, I Will Vote for the Candidate's Bloc of Communists and Non-Party Members, 1946

Nina Vatolina, Every Honest Citizen - Join Us!, 1942

Viktor Koretsky, Glory to the Great Soviet People - The Builders of Communism! 1955

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