The exhibition ‘Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55’ has opened in Tate Modern on 8th November, this timing chosen to mark the Centennary of the October Revolution. The press viewings and the curators’ (Natalia Sidlina and Matthew Gale) indeed happened on the exact date when there had been usually parades and public celebrations in the USSR – 7th November 2017. Although the scale of the exhibition has been announced with a certain grandeur as reflected in its title, I felt that it was rather intimate and chamber, and would have had a more matching name if its provenance – the collection of the designer and artist David King – was represented there. The collection indeed seems interesting albeit a little bit eclectic even judging by the exhibits in Tate Modern (Natalia Sidlina says only 1 percent is currently on display). The Red Star features over 250 posters, paintings, photographs and books from this collection and shows them to the public for the first time. However, I don’t feel that its ambition ‘to provide a chance to understand how life and art are transformed during a momentous period in modern world history’ is fully realized through available displays, which are really interesting for a connoisseur of Russian history, but don’t present a comprehensive picture of the period or indeed of the revolution in the visual culture which happened during that time. It seems to focus instead on the developing art of propaganda in the emerging and then growing Soviet State (room 1 ‘Art onto the Streets!’, room 2 ‘The Future is our only Goal’, room 4 ‘A View from Paris’ and room 6 ‘The War and the Thaw’), presenting Soviet posters by such artists as El Lissitzky, Dmitry Moor, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Gustav Klutsis and his wife Valentina Kulagina. It finishes by the posters of the Second World War including Nina Vatolina’s ‘Fascism – The Most Evil Enemy of Women’ and iconic ‘Don’t Chatter’ (in my view, added a bit anachronically, considering the overall focus on revolutionary years). It contrasts the Soviet artists’ fervour in representing the new Soviet state in the rooms 3 ‘Fifty Years of History’ and especially in the room 5 ‘Ordinary Citizens’, showing the back side of the picture (purges, suicides, KGB training, political and army leaders scratched or cut out of the pictures once they had become enemies of the people). The most intriguing exhibits were to be found here – the picture of Vladimir Mayakovsky on his deathbed in 1930, Mikhail Tukhachesky with his wife and daughter, mugshots of different people who suffered in purges (including a Korean student and a British translator), and pictures of Stalin’s circle showing gradual disappearance of his ‘comrades’ from the photographs once they went out of favour and were executed. The series of videos ‘Trotsky vanishes’ also show gradual disappearance of Trotsky from the footages. Overall, the exhibition is definitely worth seeing, but be prepared to uncover the jewels of David King’s collection through careful individual exploration of the objects represented and matching them up with your knowledge of Russian and Soviet history, while don’t expect to discover this period in an all-encompassing manner.
Photos credit: Yulia Savikovskaya