The Red Star show comes rather late in a series of exhibitions here in Britain, designed to celebrate – or commemorate – the Russian Communist revolution of a century ago. The R.A.. was, as is now becoming usual, a step or two ahead of Tate.
The exhibition is, in fact, the kind of thing that tends to work better as a book – ELS
The Tate show is largely based on the enormous collection of Russian Revolutionary memorabilia and ephemera formed by the late David King, who died last year. His book, with the same title, was published in 2009 and won the Art Book Prize. Apart of that, there is a small group of neo-classical panels by Alekdandr Deyneka, one of the few major artists of the early Revolutionary years to have survived the political vicissitudes of the epoch more or less unscathed. He is now best remembered for his Defence of Petrograd (1926), often reproduced in books about Russian 20th century art. Deyneka’s slightly later Collective Farmer of a Bicycle (female and wearing a smart red dress) has come to be regarded by Russianists as the epitome of Socialist Realism in its most acceptable guise.
The exhibition is, in fact, the kind of thing that tends to work better as a book you can sit down comfortably and study than it does as a sequence of images, many of them quite small, installed on museum walls or cowering in museum showcases. The best thing about it is its selection of not wholly unfamiliar posters, obedient tributes, one and all, to the official cult of Soviet optimism. They at least can hold a wall.
If you happen to fancy one of these socialist icons for your Corbyneseque living room or study, there is a good selection of them available in the Tate bookshop, indistinguishable from the Russian originals. Stock up, if you are thinking of inviting Jeremy to dinner. The one disappointment is that the bookshop doesn’t seem to have the poster of a Soviet cosmonaut floating in space, proclaiming happily ‘There is no God!’, which caught my eye in the Living with Gods show now on simultaneously at the British Museum. Quite modest in size, this would be perfect for your downstairs loo, while you put a bigger composition showing some worthy Communist Stakhanovite over your sofa.
The Tate show does not wholly ignore the downside of Soviet life, as this was lived under Stalin. There is, in fact, a showcase of mugshots of the ‘disappeared’ – people imprisoned or shot – first the one, then quite usually the other – during the Red Terror of the 1930s.
Yet the event also demonstrates, without pressing the point, and maybe without being wholly aware of it, the way in which Soviet propaganda, fed in part at least by the talents of Russian Futurist artists, supporters of a regime that at first made use of their talents, then took fright and discarded them, was an ancestor of today’s consumerist advertising. As the proverb has it: ‘What goes around, comes around’.
In fact, one of the messages I get most clearly from the various celebrations of the centenary of the Russian Revolution that have appeared in London this year is the strong nostalgia of our own contemporary cultural bureaucracy for a regime and a time when culture was controlled by – yes – accredited bureaucrats.
The ‘There is no God’ poster at the British Museum was included in Living with Gods to make an ironic point – that official Communism in Russia had all the characteristics of a religion. That point is made over and over again by the Red Star show at Tate Modern.
Words/Photos Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2017