Drawing on the private collection of writer, designer and left-wing activist David King (1943-2016), Red Star Over Russia (Tate Modern, 08/11/2017 – 18/02/2018) commemorates the centenary of the October 1917 Revolution, which ushered Lenin's Bolsheviks into power in that country and paved the way for the birth of the Soviet Union a few years later.
The 1918 events were the culmination of the long struggle between the autocratic Tsarist regime and a variety of movements pushing for political reform. After Tsar Nicholas II (the last Russian Emperor) was forced to abdicate in February of that year (with the Imperial executive replaced by a Provisional Government and the parallel formation of Soviets -councils- of workers' and soldiers' representatives), the October Revolution made the Bolsheviks dominant over their rivals and marked the start of a bloody civil war between the Red Army and the counterrevolutionary Whites. The Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) was created in 1922, shortly before the final Red Army victory, and Joseph Stalin took Vladimir Lenin's place as supreme leader after the latter's death in 1924.
The collection amassed by King over his lifetime includes around 250,000 items of Soviet and communist graphic art and photography, and was purchased by Tate on the year of his death. King collaborated in the design of the exhibition and a video in which he introduces the collection also serves as presentation to the exhibition.
A large part of Red Star Over Russia is devoted to political and propaganda graphic art from the first decades after the Revolution, when the Soviet government made a gigantic effort to communicate revolutionary ideals and goals to the peoples of the USSR and the rest of the world. Posters and printed publications were key to this effort, some in the bread-and-butter, highly readable wartime style favoured by the Bolsheviks to communicate with the Soviet masses, others featuring bold and elaborate avant-gardist proposals by the likes of El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958). There are many items of interest here, including several issues of the periodical USSR in Construction, edited in many languages between 1930 and 1941 to document and promote the economic and social achievements of the USSR to a worldwide audience.
It is perhaps one of the few faults of the exhibition that it does not include more examples of the cutting-edge Modernist designs produced by the likes of Lissitzky, the influence of which is felt to this day (an exception is a dazzling series of figurines for the cubo-futurist 'opera' Victory Over the Sun, first performed in St Petersburg in 1913 by a team led by avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich). Boldly composed black-and-white photographs by Rodchenko recall the systematic exploration of the possibilities of this art form pursued by Modernist artists throughout Europe at this time. Moving on, the exhibition includes fascinating group photographs in which victims of Stalin's brutal purges of the late 1930s have been crossed out or (literally) cut out of the image, as well as a harrowing display of official photographs of purged Soviet citizens processed through the concentration camp system known as the Gulag. Another section is devoted to the Soviet pavilion in the 1937 Paris International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, dominated by Vera Mukhina's 25-metre steel sculpture Worker and Collective Farm Woman (in heroic Socialist Realist style, which had by then been adopted by Stalin as the only permissible official Soviet art style) and which became a huge success with the public.
Red Star Over Russia's last room is mainly devoted to more wartime art and photography, this time from the 1941-1945, life-or-death struggle against Nazi Germany known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Some of these posters are probably among the most iconic examples of political art ever produced.
Coming as it does from a single individual's private collection, Red Star Over Russia falls perhaps short of a blockbuster, but it provides plenty of food for thought and is well worth a visit over the festive period.