It can be argued that the October Revolution in 1917 Russia was one of the most important emancipatory events in human history. Going further than religious or political emancipation to engender social emancipation, it aimed to end the exploitation of man by man, which described the human condition as shaped under capitalism.
Setting out to destroy the entire pre-Soviet world and create a new one from its ruins, the October Revolution demonstrated the possibility of a very different and far more democratic society. Yet, hundred years after, the legacy of the revolution continues to provoke contradictory experiences and interpretations both within and outside this context.
This autumn, Tate Modern will present a massive exhibition to mark the centenary of this important historical event. Titled Red Star over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905 – 55, the show will offer a visual history of Russia and the Soviet Union, presenting works drawn from the remarkable collection of the late graphic designer David King.
From the overthrow of the last Tsar and the revolutionary uprisings of 1917, through to the struggles of the Civil War and Stalin’s campaign of terror, the showcase will reveal how seismic political events led to the social transformation that inspired a wave of innovation in both art and graphic design across the country.
After the October Revolution in 1917, which ended centuries of Tsarist rule and shook the Russian society to its foundations, the Soviet citizens struggled against the odds to build a new society. Amidst the tumult, art thrived as debates swirled over what form a new “people’s” art should take.
Initially, possibilities seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium. Following the revolution, it was perceived as something that could have a purpose beyond itself. Art was therefore taken to the streets in the form of street performances and pageants, monumental sculptures and propaganda posters, which were displayed on public squares, factories and inside people’s homes.
Reflecting the ideals of the Russian Revolution, colorful propaganda posters transformed towns and cities and created a street art available to all. While Russian artists responded to the political, social and economic structures they experienced under a state authority, their artistic language and identity were often conceptual and political, at times even rivaling the official values of the state.
With the Soviet government allowing a great deal of creative liberty, a number of independent artistic and architectural movements sprouted up in the aftermath of the Revolution. Dreaming of a new bright future, artists produced bold and innovative works that reflected the revolutionary spirit of the nation.
In the years following the revolution, numerous avant-garde currents were established, all with a different agenda. Ranging from the Russian Futurists that greatly differed to their Italian counterparts, painterly and architectural Suprematists, Productivists, artistic and architectural Constructivists, to the Formalists in architecture and literary theory, and the proliferation of avant-garde photography and photomontage, these various groups all shared a rejection of the ways of the past and tended to be more international and experimental in orientation.
Unfortunately, this innovative period lasted only around 15 years, as the post-revolutionary art in the Soviet Union went through Stalinization. A peripheral player who gained power upon Lenin's death, Stalin embarked on a counter-revolutionary process that destroyed everything people fought for in 1917. Around 1931, he put an end to the diversity of artistic expression by forcing upon an official style that was meant to unionize art and architecture groups together – Socialist Realism. In order to have their work supported and recognized, all artists were now supposed to register with the state and conform with the mandates handed down from above.
This meant that all works had to be proletarian, typical, realistic and partisan. Forcing a return to representational verisimilitude in visual art, Socialist Realism literally killed the daring abstract work and all the vibrant creative energies that had been unleashed after the Revolution.
The exhibition at Tate Modern will provide a unique glimpse into the transformation of both life and art during a momentous period in modern world history, featuring revolutionary hopes of a nation visually framed by artists such as El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko and Nina Vatolina. It will also feature striking examples of posters by artists such as Adolf Strakhov, Valentina Kulagina and Dmitrii Moor, characterized by depictions of heroic, industrial scenes and the expressive use of typography.
The highlight of the show will be the large-scale studies which formed the basis for the dramatic mural by Aleksandr Deineka that was the centerpiece of the USSR Pavilion at the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques in Paris and was destroyed after the exhibition ended.
To commemorate the millions who perished in Stalin’s purges, the show will attempt to uncover some of their personal stories. In a specially designed section, the viewers will have a chance to see poignant prison mugshots of people who did not survive Stalin’s rule, such as Lenin’s closest allies Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, both executed on false charges, and poster artist Gustav Klutsis, whose works adorned the cities squares long after his execution in 1938.
In addition, the show will reveal the way images were manipulated and montaged during this period of widespread censorship.
An acclaimed graphic designer, artist and historian, David King assembled one of the world’s most pre-eminent collections of Russian and Soviet material throughout his lifetime. A result of passionate collecting and thoughtful research, it consists of over 150,000 artifacts by famous and anonymous photographers, artists and designers, dating from the late 19th century to the Khrushchev era.
King had already presented the collection in a series of revelatory exhibitions and publications which offered a breathtaking visual history of the Soviet Union in a distinctive style. Featuring over 250 posters, paintings, photographs, books and ephemera, many on public display for the first time, Red Star over Russia will be a rare opportunity to explore this unique collection.
The exhibition Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905 – 55 will be on view at Tate Modern in London from November 8th, 2017 until February 18th, 2018. The exhibition is curated by Natalia Sidlina, Adjunct Research Curator, Russian Art, Tate Modern, supported by the V-A-C Foundation, and Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, Tate Modern, with Dina Akhmadeeva, Assistant Curator, Collections International Art, Tate Modern, supported by the V-A-C Foundation. It will be accompanied by a new book by Tate publishing.
Featured images: El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin - The Task of the Press Is the Education of the Mases; Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne, 1928. Photogravure; Yevgeny Khaldei - Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 , Printed 1955 . Gelatin silver print . All images Purchased in 2016 ; The David King Collection at Tate, unless otherwise stated. All images courtesy of Tate Modern.