By Natalia de Orellana
Images are repositories of meaning. They are messengers of political ideals, social hopes and human values. Past images come to be read as documents embedded with historical significance, inexorably attesting to the rift between ideology and reality. When graphic designer David King (1943-2016) began to work on the book Red Star Over Russia, he was in fact enterprising a history of the Soviet Union that fused reality and ideology together. He assembled Russian and Soviet material worldwide, reuniting propaganda material, satirical representations and photographic documentation. Seen together, this material offers a complex, turbulent, persistently ambiguous vision of the Soviet Union.
Tate Modern’s Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55 draws on works from King’s archive to explore the tempestuous years between the October Revolution and Stalin’s death through small-scale objects and ephemera.
Photographs of Agitprop trains from shortly after the Revolution mark the starting point of the journey. Multilingual posters cover the walls, furiously yelling at the viewer the slogans that once called the inhabitants of the vastest of territories to action: “Woman! Take Part in the Election of the Soviets”, ”Send Your Son to the Red Army, the Best and Foremost”. Slogans fused with images of the masses, spliced with the overarching red tones that dominate the majority unveil the politically oriented aesthetics of the Soviet avant-garde.
This was a militant aesthetic enterprise. Over the fifty-year period, visual production kept pace with socio-political changes, adopting a myriad of visual strategies allowing information to be mass-reproduced, easily dispatched, and ideally transmitting a message that would remain engrained in people’s minds. Among the most well know examples El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) unveils Suprematist principles where the directness of geometrical forms and slogan are united into an organic unity, resulting in a work of art made for the masses at the service of the Soviets. By contrast Stepan Karpov’s Friendship of the People (Soviet Republic) (1923-4) offers a more academic approach depicting the hopes to unite the different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups under the same Soviet flag.
Leaflets, magazines, books -to name but a few- projected Russia’s achievements. Varvara Stepanova and Aleksandr Rodchenko’s LEF, no.2 (1923) illustrate the use of productivist rigour advertising a new era of industrialisation that rejected bourgeois aesthetics. Lissitzky went a step further by composing a photobook, Industry of Socialism (1935), illustrating the progresses of Stalin’s industry program.
Some images matter for their absence. If the exhibition exposes the use of image as vitrine of the hopes of the rising Nation, it also makes an active effort to unveil the appalling truths of the political paranoia governing over Stalin’s regime and nowhere is this more evident than in the room dedicated to “deleting” fallen political figures. The room dedicated to the Soviet Pavilion at the 1937 International Exhibition (Paris) showcases images of the gold-medal pavilion celebrating the achievements brought by the Revolution. This was a bright and optimistic vision, one diametrically opposed to the brutality of the Great Purge, which is spatially translated in the exhibition by the placement of a series of mugshots of presupposed counter-revolutionaries (targets of the Stalin’s purges that culminated in 1937 Moscow trials) in the adjacent room.
This is a show that rejects polite conclusions on the complexity and humanly devastating facets of the subject, offering instead the possibility of looking at a constructed reality as much as at individual narratives. A must-see exhibition for its historical and aesthetic value.
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge
Friendship of the Peoples
Oil on Canvas
Curator and art historian, Tally de Orellana holds a dual Master’s degree in Arts Administration & Modern Art History from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2016) and an MA in Art History from The University of Edinburgh (2012). She was the 2016-2017 Hilla Rebay International Curatorial Fellow at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, working in New York, Bilbao, and Venice. Her research interests target the role of institutions and curatorial practices in the systems of formation of cultural hierarchies and artistic identity. You can follow her @Tallydeorellana
 Propaganda multi-functional trains equipped with exhibition carriages, classrooms and even cinemas.