Red Star Over Russia | Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future pt. 1
Our correspondent awoke, as is his usual habit, rather hungover and was therefore late for the press showing of the Tate’s exhibition to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
Accordingly, my experience of the display was somewhat whistle-stop and I was hustled out of the exhibition by a pair of bored-looking attendants somewhat earlier than I would have liked.
The showing, held on November 7, was on an auspicious day. It was precisely one hundred years after the Bolshevik party staged their October coup d’état (the Russians used a different calendar back then), in which the party assumed dictatorial control over the Russian state in the name of the Proletarian masses, whereafter they would bring about a lovely utopia. At least, that was the idea.
‘Red Star Over Russia.’ is an eclectic amalgamation of images drawn from the private collection of the late graphic designer David King, whom the press kit informs me was the owner of ‘one of the most comprehensive private collections of Russian and Soviet materials in the world’, the lucky old sod. I was particularly incensed to learn he was, during his lifetime, the owner of El Lissitzsky’s seminal piece of wartime avant-garde propaganda, ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’; I am a spiteful man, easily roused by petty jealousies and unreasonable resentments. Russians, with their crazed passions and bleak spirit have long been an obsession of mine. Perhaps King and I are kindred souls in this regard, which makes my feelings all the more ignoble.
The works on display were scattered, a miscellany of pieces drawn from King’s collection. The artworks on display ranged from Civil-War era propaganda artwork to the banal and twee visions of Proletarian paradise which were the officially mandated artistic works (‘Socialist Realism’) during the long and traumatic Stalinist epoch.
Along with these examples were some truly precious photographs, ranging from the famed raising of the Hammer and Sickle over the fallen Reichstag (which was, like the one with the Marines raising flag over Iwo Jima, staged for the paps after the tumult of battle had ceased) to some marvellous depictions of Stalinist-era photographic manipulation. So dangerous were the Great Purges, an industry of doctoring old photographs rose up in order to maintain the constantly-shifting cast of characters central to the Soviet government. King had acquired the originals along with the doctored versions, which give the viewer a pretty little timeline of liquidated non-persons.
It is impossible to speak about this exhibition without referring to the Centenary retrospective held at Royal Academy of Arts earlier this year, which covered the period of 1917-32. Truthfully, this was a far more comprehensive narrative account of the Soviet artistic experience, beginning with the heady days of avant-garde experimentation and concluding with the stifling ideological dictates of Socialist Realism. To the layman, this former exhibition would engender an understanding of this tragicomic episode in the history of art. Red Star Over Russia, rather, is an eclectic display of artistic curios from a curious time.
As a moment’s fancy upon an autumn afternoon for the interested art-lover, and, for those who share my fanaticism with all things red, Red Star Over Russia is a unique chance to witness some exquisite artefacts of a mad, doomed experiment.