“We all live in an age of fake news. But it wasn’t invented with Twitter and YouTube – it was used in the 1930s to make real people disappear,” said curator Natalia Sidlina at the opening of a new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern. Red Star Over Russia, which launched on the centenary of the October Revolution, is focused on the powerful imagery created in Russia and the Soviet Union from 1905 to 1955 – but, inevitably, politics seeps through.
And the relevance of these images today is hard to escape. “We planned the exhibition to coincide with the anniversary of the October Revolution, yet it does seem to be inviting comparisons with what’s going on around the world right now,” Tate Modern’s head of displays Matthew Gale tells BBC Culture.
Images are very convincing, but they are also very easily manipulated – Matthew Gale
One of the rooms in Red Star Over Russia offers a stark contrast to the bursts of colour and bold graphics elsewhere, its walls – and a table in the centre – lined in black and white photos. Some show the mugshots of political prisoners sent to Gulag labour camps or sentenced to death under Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror; others appear to be innocuous group photos of workers or government trainees, but closer inspection reveals that they represent target lists, crosses blotting out figures and faces scraped out, with ‘enemy of the people’ scrawled in ink.
A series of snapshots conveys a chilling timeline: in the first photo, Stalin is seen surrounded by four of his comrades; in the next, dated 23 years later, three have disappeared; in the third, he stands alone in a postcard portrait. Those in the leader’s inner circle who fell out of favour were simply erased from official images: photographic manipulation was key for rewriting Soviet history. “It is one of our concerns today – images are very convincing, but they are also very easily manipulated,” says Gale.
He sees parallels between some of the photos on display and the 21st-Century meme. “The relationship between these ways of censoring people from history and the Photoshopped image is very telling, and a warning to us in this day and age. It shows the power of images, and, in a way, part of the story behind this history that we’re drawing out… is exactly that, to look at the power of images in the public space, and what sorts of information they convey.”
Point and shoot
The persuasive sway of the photo appears throughout the exhibition – not only in the room filled with headshots, but also in the vibrant banners and lithographs. It’s often what gave these propaganda images their power, according to Gale. “There’s a combination of abstraction and the figure, usually but not exclusively through photomontage, which is a key development in the late 20s and 30s where the recognisable photographic figure is brought into an abstract composition, and that is both immediately legible and avant-garde – and continues to be extremely influential today in design terms,” he says.
“That is pivotal, being able to have the recognisable image aligned with an otherwise abstract composition; that’s what predominated,” he says. “Even in the period in the 30s when, under Stalin, Socialist Realism became the only acceptable mode and people considered to be avant-gardist were under suspicion, nevertheless that way of thinking about composition still is very prevalent and lends dynamism to the way that works were produced in that period.”
The way in which they led towards equality for women was pioneering in Europe at that stage – Matthew Gale
The image used for the exhibition poster is a striking example. “Adolf Strakhov’s image of the emancipated woman manages to achieve lots of different things simultaneously,” says Gale. “It’s essentially monochrome, but uses red very dramatically, so from a colouristic point of view it’s extraordinary. It’s got this amazing graphic command that is near photographic – and it communicates an image that’s fundamental to the way in which society was reformed under the Bolsheviks.”
Strakhov’s choice of crop gives the image an intimacy, dominated as it is by the woman’s face – yet the background gives it an epic feel. That’s a combination found in many of the works in Red Star Over Russia, which were drawn from the collection of the late graphic designer David King. They operate on a personal level – convincing Soviet citizens to support the communist cause – and at the same time tap into collective ideals.
Several of the images in the show are of women. In the posters calling for support in the fight against fascism during World War Two, this was a conscious decision for propaganda reasons, according to Sidlina. “There were no faces of Stalin – it was very difficult to inspire people to go into battle and die for the leader of the Communist Party,” she says. “An image of a mother or a daughter would work much better.”
Yet the Strakhov image reveals something else, says Gale. “There were a lot of absolutely terrible things that happened, but the way in which they led towards equality for women was pioneering in Europe at that stage: giving women the vote, pressing for literacy, for childcare – they were idealists as well as tyrants.”
The works in Red Star Over Russia share an important facet of idealism – one that has echoes in art from earlier times. “You only have to look at the giant head of Constantine in the Capitoline Museum to know that it’s both propaganda and extraordinary art – or the Counter-Reformation trompe l’oeil ceilings in Catholic churches,” says Gale. “What’s fundamental underlying these is to overawe people with a sense of very direct imagery that can convey certainty, in the future at least – that we’re taking the right path, and this is what it is.”
They also share something in composition with religious images. According to Gale, this visual language “starts with a population with a lot of illiteracy, reliant on imagery, and then that becomes a repeated iconography”. He picks out the many portraits of Vladimir Lenin. “When you look at the way in which Lenin is depicted, there are about six different poses of Lenin, and it becomes a vocabulary which, however much he looks or doesn’t look like the actual person, becomes recognisable – Christian iconography works in exactly the same way.”
It’s an approach that allowed images created by artists to spread throughout the population, along with propaganda tools like ‘agitprop trains’ which were decorated with murals and travelled the country disseminating information with pamphlets, films and public speakers. “Artists who were committing their work to the support of the regime were seeing art as no longer something that was exclusive, but something that should be for the people,” says Gale.
“The premise of making the art in the first place was that they were taking their artistic programme onto the streets. Having come through the excitement of abstraction and constructivism, people like Aleksander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky set out to make that widely available on posters, on railway hoardings, on agitprop trains, in newspapers and magazines.”
They did this at a turning point in art. “Vkhutemas, the art school in Moscow, was essentially dedicated to what they called a productivist approach, design for a purpose, rather than simply for aesthetic enjoyment, which is aligned with what was going on in the Bauhaus in Germany at the same time.”
In the Soviet Union, that purpose became conveying a Party-backed message – a message that, according to Gale, could “shift radically and unexpectedly… people who were in power suddenly fell from power and had to be removed. So the blanking out of people’s faces in an incredibly sinister way shows both the power of the image but also the importance of politics as the driver behind the production of this material.” These shifts applied as much to artists as politicians: in 1938, Gustav Klutsis – who had used photomontage in politically charged designs for posters and street displays – was arrested on false charges and executed. His wife Valentina Kulagina, another artist, was subsequently classed as an ‘enemy of the people’ and was no longer given official commissions.
While the images in Red Star Over Russia are striking today, and their design legacy is still felt, they weren’t necessarily created as works of art. “It’s clear that the avant-garde artists who were at the heart of much of the activity in the late 20s and 30s in Russia were self-consciously making propaganda,” says Gale. We can appreciate the artistic movements that shaped this visual culture – but the politics is never far away. As Sidlina said at the exhibition opening, “it reminds us all of the responsibility and power of the image in history.”
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