8 November 2017 – 18 February 2018
In the light of the recent Red October, Tate Modern has opened its doors to a striking new exhibition: Red Star over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-1955. Aiming to visually reflect arguably some of the most volatile areas in Russian history, from the foundation of the Russian Revolution to the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, the exhibition succeeds in visually conveying the intriguing events within the stated period and how art both shaped and was shaped by them.
The exhibition is structured thematically, yet mostly chronologically, on its stated time period. Upon entering, one is surrounded by graphics and historical writings by writer and graphic designer David King (1943-2016), whose works such as The Commissar Vanishes (1997) generally reflect the twists and turns of Soviet politics from a Western perspective (King was a Londoner). The viewer is then taken to pre-Revolution Russia, through avant-garde photographic collections from Sándor Márai and Lászlo Dormándi, conveying the narrative of the revolution and reflecting how art fell into the hands of the people, in the form of early photography and anti-Tsarist propaganda.
The success of the Revolution in 1918 saw such images becoming mass-produced, with photography and photomontage being utilised by artists to reflect Vladimir Lenin’s achievements. Standout artists of this section of the exhibition include Valentina Kulagina and Gustav Klutsis. While the former utilised photomontage of allegorical figures to glorify the labours of the working people, the latter was involved in the Communist Party and produced photographs for a political purpose. Notable (albeit disappointingly brief) attention was also given to cinematic works of Soviet art, involving a black-and-white film montage of Leon Trotsky lecturing university students, prior to his exile in 1929.
The subsequence section took a more provocative turn, focusing on the Revolution’s darkest shade of red; the legacy of Josef Stalin. Symbolic prints such as Boris Kustodiev’s The Entry (1905) are showcased, depicting ‘Death’ rampaging through Moscow. Alternatively, Mark Redkin’s photograph of USSR Sergeant Korneiko holding a bomb, quite humorously marked ‘A Present for Hitler’, is also attention-worthy.
Separate from this section is a small, homely room, focusing uniquely on Soviet works first exhibited at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, Paris, in 1937. 20 million people visited the exhibition’s Soviet pavilion in that year and the collections provided by Aleksandr Deineka were critically well-recieved. Some of his works now grace the walls of Tate Modern, such as Stakhanovites, a piece portraying the ideal Soviet society. Such a piece evokes themes of “utopia and reality”, in the words of Natalia Sindlina, Adjunct Research Curator for Russian Art at Tate Modern and speaker for the exhibition curator’s tour.
The remainder of the exhibition focuses more deeply on the (predominantly) negative aspects of Stalin’s domestic legacy leading up to his death, with rare prints of Nadezha Allilueva, Stalin’s wife, from 1926, whom Stalin supposedly did not treat kindly. Coexisting alongside this was the imminent threat of invasion of the USSR by the Nazis, reflected in Viktor Koretsky’s lithographical piece Red Army Soldier, Save Us! (1943). Such art was true to the social anxieties leading up to the ‘Thaw’, marking Stalin’s death and consequently a shift towards more liberal forms of Russian artistic expression. After much visual food for thought, the viewer ends their journey through the exhibition’s perceptive reflection upon Soviet visual culture, leaving to the compelling sound of Dmitry Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony.
Overall, Red Stars over Russia proves to be an insightful experience for any avid artist, historian or everyman eager to engage with such a distinct period in Russian history.