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Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55

12 November 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

This new exhibition at the Tate Modern considers the relationship between art and the individual during turbulent political times. Showing a wide range of visual culture including posters and magazines, these artefacts expose the enduring power of the image.

Earlier this month, the Tate Modern opened a new blockbuster show featuring the work of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.  That show, which celebrates the work of two of Russia’s best-known contemporary artists, is historically complemented by this new opening - Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55 - in which they explore the transformation of Russian visual culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. The exhibition was curated by Natalia Sidlina, an expert in Russian art and Adjunct Research Curator at the Tate, and Head of Display, Matthew Gale; both of them worked closely with David King, the man whose collection forms the basis of much of what is displayed. King, a graphic designer, managed to amass an enormous and comprehensive collection of Russian and Soviet documents, often undertaking extensive research into the origin and history of his finds.  Clearly shaped by the disparity and sheer volume of this collection, the exhibition aims to cover a lot of ground over a turbulent period of history. As well as considering how visual culture was conceived of and produced, the exhibition also draws attention to the new methods through which it was disseminated.

The exhibition opens with a prominent display of posters from the period just after the Bolsheviks came to power.  These posters are brightly coloured, including multiple languages and often speaking directly to women, in order to encourage the participation and co-operation of the Russian populis.  This was also as a means of establishing a new national identity, based on a new form of inclusiveness and mutual support of people from across Russia’s vast lands. In the exhibition’s focus on some of the key artists from that period, the curators layout one of the ways in which this new collaboration was to take place: in the production of art itself.  Looking specifically at artist couples including El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers and Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, the room includes several photomontages, magazine designs and illustrations. Here a viewer can see how an earlier avant garde aesthetic was transformed by vanguard artists into new kinds of art and artistic practices that held utopian potential.

As well as the effects on artists, the exhibition also explores the impact on domestic objects through the increase of printed art, such as posters, postcards and cartoons. In this large room, there are photos of the agitprop trains, used to disseminate much of this new material, as well as a variety of other photographs documenting statues, pageants and parades.  Though these images may attest to the new impact of printed media in the home, the exhibition also exposes the possibility of manipulation underscoring its new prominence.  Containing several examples of censored and erased historical documents, as well as mug shots of political prisoners, this room reveals the more disquieting aspect of an image-saturated culture. There are two striking examples showing the extent to which images of speeches and official portraits were doctored as individuals fell in and out favour with the government. A particular shot of Stalin, in which he is originally shown with a group of advisors is cropped twice, eventually becoming a portrait. Similarly, a postcard of Lenin speaking in Teatralnaia in 1920, is revealed to have been taken from a larger image that originally contained Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamanev, removed once they fell out of favour.  This room highlights the vulnerability of the historical document, in its ability to both record and erase experiences.

At some points it becomes a little difficult to find specific themes joining together the different rooms of this exhibition.  Some additional connective tissue in which the actual dissemination of the material is considered more thoroughly would have been helpful; for example, highlighting the changes in the actual mechanical processes that facilitated this new use of visual culture would have provided useful context. However, what this exhibition does offer is a taste of what people in the early twentieth century would have seen and the possibilities that appeared to be on offer for Russians at the beginning of the revolution.
 
Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55 is at Tate Modern until 18 February 2018.
 
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