November 7 2017 marked the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution when the workers and peasants overthrew the oppressive Tsarist regime. The apparent contradiction arising as Russia at that time still used the Julian Calendar which was several days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West so as far as the Russians were concerned the date was 25 October. This exhibition at Tate Modern featuring posters, prints, photographs and other images collected by the photographer and graphic designer David King, who died only recently in 2016, is meant to mark the historic event.
The Revolution started with great hope and optimism about creating a new kind of Society, unleashing enormous creativity by artists who supported its aims. Sadly in the face of counter revolutionary forces supported by the west the early idealism turned sour leading to the vicious dictatorship of Josef Stalin.
David King collected over 250,000 books, journals, posters, documents and newspapers dating from the Russian Revolution to the Khrushchev era which were acquired by the Tate just before his death. A cross section of the collection is included in this exhibition, which uses them to give visitors a glimpse of life in the Soviet Union during this period. As the Guardian’s review puts it, it’s
a condensed vision of five decades of Soviet hopes ending in devastation and despair.
I’m not going to attempt a full survey or critique of the exhibition but, as photography was allowed, here’s some of my favourites from the items on display.
From the early optimisitic days of the Revolution, the first room included this banner
and a wall covered with prints and posters
which included El Lissitzky‘s well known Supremacist poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)
The red triangle driving into a white disc against a black ground, urging the revolutionary Bolsheviks to defeat the reactionary White Russians.
Underneath, this imaginative work – a photomontage making up a hammer and sickle by Yakov Guminer
The next room was my favourite with the photographs and graphic work by Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky both of who also produced works in collaboration with their wives, Varvara Stepanova and Sophie Küppers respectively.
There were a number of extraordinarily brilliant ground breaking photographs by Rodchenko
and a series of abstract graphic works by El Lissitzky
There were also examples of the journal, USSR in Construction, to which both couples contributed photomontage and other design elements.
In the next room the walls were lined with a series of photographs providing snapshots of the history of Russia from 1905 until WWII.
Unfortunately the period of experimentation and radical art didn’t last long. 1934 saw the dawn of “Socialist Realism”, the Stalinist State dictating that artists should use realist styles to create highly optimistic depictions of Soviet life. There was a typical example of this in the next room with a series of large paintings by Alexander Deineka produced for the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris, portraying which “fused reality with aspiration”.
The next room brought us back down to Earth. Here there were “before and after” photographs showing us how leaders and other individuals who fell out of favour with the Stalinist regime were “erased from history”. And there was a particularly moving display of photos of some of the many hundreds of thousands of people, many of them true Revolutionaries, who were murdered by the Stalinist State.
The final room featured posters and photographs from the period following the German invasion in 1941when artists were mobilised to create propaganda, in some cases reworking images from the early revolutionary period.
I enjoyed looking around the exhibition and was pleased that I’d had the opportunity to catch it before it closed. And I still had an hour or so to spare to look round some of the free displays before I had to leave to catch my train.