LONDON – The Soviet Union is gone, but the imagery it inspired lives on.
The visual vocabulary of red stars, scarlet banners, Cyrillic exclamations and cut-and-paste imagery is still very much with us. In a historic irony, it now forms part of the capitalist advertising toolkit, used to sell everything from vodka and fast food to rock music.
Matthew Gale, co-curator of an exhibition of Soviet revolutionary art that opened Wednesday at London’s Tate Modern gallery, says it’s evidence that ideals pass on with the people who hold them, but “imagery is surprisingly tenacious.”
Tate Modern is marking the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which erupted a century ago this week, with an exhibition of posters, paintings, photos and publications created to inspire Russians with revolutionary fervour.
The show begins with a blast of excitement, in rooms lined with works by artists including El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, his wife Varvara Stepanova and another married couple, Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina.
Inspired by the revolutionary upheaval, they used avant-garde techniques including brightly colored geometric shapes, striking typefaces and photo montages to create instantly memorable images for advertisements, information campaigns and mass rallies.
Gale said the show tries to convey a sense of the “visual culture” of the early years of the USSR — “to show what people would encounter every day — in their newspapers, on the streets, have in their homes.”
In a confusing and fast-changing era, Gale said artists created work that was both propaganda and art, inspired by a mix of motives.
“Partly it was out of conviction to support the regime,” he said. “And partly it’s about how to find ways to survive.”
The later rooms come as a sobering slap in the face, as the country descended into paranoia and purges, and millions were killed or sent to gulags.
The victims included many of the country’s artists. Klutsis, one of the most influential, is represented by vibrant works including a collage-style poster for an international sports competition and a scarlet mural of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
In the next room, visitors see his grim mug shot, taken before his execution in 1938 on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
The exhibition includes dozens of other photos of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror, and also shows how revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky and other political opponents were literally erased from images during Stalin’s rule.
Soviet art grew more conservative as repression increased and artists were encouraged to embrace the idealized imagery of “socialist realism.” The exhibition includes large studies for Aleksandr Deineka’s murals of heroic peasants, white-clad youth and stalwart soldiers — the kind of images that became dominant in the years before Stalin’s death in 1953.
The show is drawn from the collection of the late British graphic designer David King, who amassed a quarter of a million artifacts from the Soviet Union.
Gale said the huge trove — acquired by Tate before King’s death last year — will be a goldmine for art historians for years to come.
“People are still going back and seeing how extraordinarily experimental it was,” he said. “It still has things for us to learn, simply in terms of how to construct images.”
“Red Star Over Russia” runs to Feb. 18. An adult ticket costs 11.30 pounds ($14.80).
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