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Saturday, 23 June 2018

‘RED STAR OVER RUSSIA’

Tate Modern, London



”Art must be everywhere – on the streets, in trams, in factories, in workshops, in worker’s apartments.”
- Mayakovsky

Art Made For Sharing

This is the third art exhibition I’ve seen devoted to the centenary of the Russian Revolution. And what might sound like overkill doesn’t even feel like enough. Partly because of the importance of the event, partly because each show had the smarts to take on it’s own remit. 

Only the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution’ boldly tried to capture everything, by packing out it’s succession of cavernous Victorian rooms. The Design Museum’s ‘Imagine Moscow’ took unrealised architecture, albeit exploiting the (considerable) overlap between architectural plans and art. 

While this show focuses on posters, graphics and art for reproduction. Designer David King amassed a vast collection of the stuff, totalling over 250,000 objects, before his unfortunate demise the year before last, bequeathing the lot to the Tate.

As previously seen, the painters more-or-less divided between those who took up the revolution and those who took advantage of its new-found freedoms. Whereas every single one of these images was purposefully made as agitprop. (The term ‘agitprop’ even stems from this time, via the Department for Agitation and Propaganda.) Some even came with an injunction that to tear them down was a “counter-revolutionary act!”

At one point there’s a photo of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum in 1941, which instead of art merely displays empty frames. The actual art was being more safely stored in the basement, from fear of Nazi bombing. But the image still tells a poetic truth. Because of course reproductive art was the logical place for agitprop to go. As the show puts it:

“Unlike the precious, unique paintings and sculptures owned by the ruling class before the revolution… the mass produced image...became the focus of the new artistic culture… Art became accessible to millions through prints, posters, journals and photobooks.”

Production itself was often a “collective practice”. To this day we still don’t know who some of these artists were.



And so this message mixed with the medium. In ‘Soviet Union Art Exhibition’ (Victoria Kulagina, 1931, above) it’s as if the poster’s not just dominated but being put up by the construction worker within it, the upper left edge fuzzy as if still being stuck down.

While the lithograph ’The Train Has Reached Us From Far Away With Precious Gifts’ (unknown artists, 1919, below) is a poster which shows the effect of all these posters (if, inevitably, in an idealised form). A train unloads not food or machine parts but books, with figures who look like they should be unpacking already avidly reading. There are murals alongside the side of the train, which also adorned trams and even steamers.



With the first room working as a kind of ante-chamber, entering the exhibition proper you’re hit with a wall full of these propaganda posters. Described by Michael Glover in the Independent as “a furious flurry of visual stimulation”, it’s an early injunction not to generalise. There’s abstract art marshalled into political purpose, stuff so crudely straightforward as to effectively be folk art next to modelled and fully realised figures, boldly Futuristic geometry, full-on science fiction, in the many languages spoken across Russia. See for example the eyeball-assaulting apocalyptic ’The Nightmare of Future Wars’ (1920, below), written in Tartar.



”The Time of Monsters”

But let’s step back a second to the art of the first, failed revolution of 1905. Neither of the other exhibitions stretched back this far. While King devoted a whole book to it; his first, ‘Blood and Laughter: Caricatures From the 1905 Revolution’ (1983). As Cathy Porter describes in the introduction, “a flood of satirical journals poured from the presses, honouring the dead and vilifying the mighty [containing] drawings of frenzied immediacy and extraordinary technical virtuosity.” King estimates there were more than 380 of these journals, dodging their way through or just defying censorship. These were cheaply printed, often in black and white or with one spot colour. (With blood red a favourite.)

Alas the exhibition rather sidelines these, neither starting with nor devoting much space to them. Perhaps because they're not really Modernist, there’s no causal link, no neat timeline, by which they can be roped up to Malevich’s black square or Lissitzky’s red wedge. They are, in short, unTateworthy. Yet this is precisely what makes them both interesting and powerful.

Perhaps partly because the Russia of 1905 was still-more backward than of 1917, they’re rooted in folk images. They sometimes echo the tradition of the World Turned Upside Down, one even featuring the classic image of of a man bearing a donkey. But while that tradition was based around an annual festival, these images are not celebratory but morbid and funereal. After all, this period was sparked by a massacre – Bloody Sunday. (January 1905, when Tsarist troops opened fire on an unarmed demonstration.)

Skeletons, black horses and carrion birds endlessly recur. Their world seems an inversion of peasant life, where the land yields up only death. In ’Future Fable About Present Reality’ (1906) Death draws a line of black warhorses to drink from a blood river; in the back cover to ‘Bee’ (1906) a skeleton farms skulls and bones; while ‘Field, Oh Field Who Has Strewn Thee With Dead Bodies?’ (1906) is self-explanatory.

Police reports often referred to the contributors not as communists or anarchists but nihilists. Though in Russia there was a self-avowed Nihilist movement, the term’s most probably being bandied as a cross between a generic description and a smear, as ‘anarchist’ so often is. Yet despite all this, it’s oddly appropriate for the images’ tone. And as this would be a revolution that would fail, this makes them seem fitting as we look back on them.

But their defining characteristic is the marriage of the scathingly satirical to the phantasmagorical. Hence for example ’The Moscow Vampire’ (1906) is a monsterised version of Moscow’s oppressive Governor-General Dubasov. In one publication Gorky described the old order as “more animal than human. Morbid, lustful, intoxicated with suffering, cruelty and blood, their one aim to gorge themselves, their one pleasure to have power over others”. Gramsci was to say “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters”. (True,not until 1930 and it’ssomething of a mistranslation. Butit’s too appropriate not to use.)

But when you combine the conventions of political cartoons with phantasmagorical imagery, aren’t they actually more likely to clash? One is by nature demeaning, bringing down the mighty and powerful. (Think of our current crop of Tsars and Governor-Generals – Theresa May, Boris Johnston, Donald Trump. Do they resemble all-powerful otherworldly monsters, or are they just petty creatures, fumbling with powers handed to them by their money and status, walking examples of the banality of evil?)

While the other is by nature unnatural, suggesting things on the border of our perceptions, whose mere existence may be enough to break our world apart. Fantastical literature often makes explicit the notion of the liminal, spaces overlapping ours which we’ve so long trained ourselves to shield our eyes from that we no longer realise they exist. They never look like metaphors, they look more like the fullness of reality laid bare now the artist has stripped the illusions from our eyes.

Furthermore, personifications of concepts can be frustratingly anti-political, a way of shutting down any consideration of the social causes of phenomena. War and Famine just show up like surprise guests, arbitrary arrivals. But here they’re so visceral! Those shrieking faces simultaneously shock us and mock us with their familiarity. They never seem reducible to allegory, even if that was their original impetus.



Boris Kustodiev’s ’Invasion’ (1905, above) did make it into the show, albeit retitled to ’Moscow: Entry’, and is interesting for two reasons. First it has compositional similarities to his later ’The Bolshevik’ (1920), discussed as part of the Academy show. Both feature a gargantuan figure striding out of an avenue, which lies like a ditch around his ankles, coming towards the viewer. But these similarities merely underline the differences.

His Bolshevik stands boldly upright, face proud yet impassive. He arises out of the masses who surround his feet, their champion. Whereas the invading skeleton steps into a no-mans-land between two warring groups, representing neither side but the conflict itself. Hunched, grimacing, bloodied in hand and foot, he’s a feral beast.

There’s a similarity between him and the horse-riding skeleton of ’Peace and Quiet’, (1906) who gallops over a landscape strewn with corpses. The situation depicted is not triumphalist but out of all control… in fact the artwork itself seems out of all control! The artist seems merely a seismograph, a mute witness, channelling forces beyond him.



Factories Make Workers

Dmitri Moor’s post-revolutionary ‘Death To World Imperialism’ (1919) similarly personalises the enemy, in a work as visually striking as any of its 1905 forebears. But two things happen at once. The art is much sharper and slicker, coloured concentric circles making up an elegant sun. And the fiery-eyed serpent is not some beast from beyond but a clear visualisation of capitalism. It might as well have the word stamped on it, as allegorical cartoons can do.

While the amassed, unified ranks of sailors, workers and peasants are not victims beneath it but worthy adversaries. It’s like the conceit in a horror film where being able to name the monster, reduce it to a specific meaning, is akin to being able to defeat it.

For all that, however, the monster figure is still characterised as unnatural. The serpent does not belong to the buildings (seemingly a fusion of factory and living space), it’s extra-diegetic, a thing from outside inserted between the workers and their workplace. In many ways understandably, given that this was during the war with the Whites, when Russia was under attack. But which still suggests that all that’s wrong with capitalism is the capitalist, that the problem of capitalism reduces to a problem of ownership.

After all, through this time wage labour wasn’t just continuing but being ruthlessly expanded. Though it may be we see the weakness of such an image more clearly now. For as time went on such images of monstrous capitalists became more and more anti-semitic, built on the insidious lie that once we rid ourselves of one scapegoat group all will be fine.



Similarly Adolf Strakhov’s ’Emancipated Woman: Build Socialism’, (1926, above) aligns and compares the red banner of the poster girl with the factory chimneys. She herself has not just a steely gaze but a metallic grey complexion, as she looks past us to the future. You’ve compared her to machinery before you even meant to.



While in Aleksandr Deneka’s ’A Puzzle For the Old Man’ (1926, above), God gazes aghast at women labouring in a factory. In another meta device a thick black frame is introduced in order to place him outside of it, gazing as if through a window. The ‘natural order’ of things is reversed. Unlike the serpent, God’s already been banished.

”The Journey of Modernisation”



Gustav Klutsis’s ’Under the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin’ (1933, above) is a clear echo of Isaac Brodsky’s painting ’Vladimir Lenin and a Demonstration’ (1919), again part of the Academy show. In both, scale displays the relative importance of the revolutionary leader and the masses. With the twin exceptions that Klutsis is less interested in fidelity to pictorial space, and that he gives us four leaders for our money. 

Of course, this is Stalin keen to insert himself into a lineage, as usurping Kings would. (Though he later had Klutsis killed regardless. Contrary to the official slogan, the innocent had very much to fear.) But more’s going on...

Under the four heads there’s an orthodox Marxist version of a Darwinian timeline, more clearly viewable in a larger version here. To the left, under Marx, they’re something of a disordered rabble, clutching primitive weapons. (Presumably representing the revolts of 1848.) By the time we reach Stalin they’re marching boldly out of the frame, beneath a power line. And these evolutionary timelines, described in the guidebook as “the journey of modernisation”, are everywhere.



Alexander’s Dienkenka’s 1937 mural plans for the Soviet Pavilion at the International Exposition only exist as three ‘painterly sketches’, which the show arranges as originally planned. Two long works, labelled ‘1917’ (above) and ‘1937’ are placed facing one another and leading into a third - ’Stakhanovites, 1937’. Each long work effectively doubles as a timeline in it’s own right; in ‘1917’ ostensibly workers take up arms for the revolution but they also leave the fields for the town. 

In ‘Stakhanovites’ a parade of model workers stride boldly out of the frame. The once ubiquitous revolutionary red now exists only at the sides of the image, the main figures are in shades of white which barely distinguish themselves from their background. It’s as if they’re marching into a secularised heaven.

At one point in the show a schoolbook quotes Lenin: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. Communism and industry were then seen as synonymous. History was teleological, urbanisation and industrialisation were not merely prerequisites for communism, but steps in it’s inevitable development. 

In short, as part of their factory fetish, history was itself conceived of as a production line. Basic materials went in one end, and were transformed by inexorable processes into sophisticated products. And people were similarly transformed through this process, from simple peasants into self-aware proletarians. Except unlike famous quasi-Darwinian timeline instead of an abstracted upright man at the far end, in this quasi-communist variant there’s a worker with a cap clutching a hammer.

Today, as we’re mired so deeply in neoliberalism, those neat lines look absurd and schematic. But back then it was widespread. True, it’s so widely disseminated in the posters as it was such a handy get-out for the Bolsheviks. Anyone who pointed out that they were still wage-labourers working for a boss class could be dismissed as overly impatient. All we had to do was wait for things to take their course. (Contrary to popular belief they never actually claimed the Soviet Union was communist, instead it was held to be ‘socialist’ or proto-communist.) But it wasn’t a notion which started with, nor was limited to them. Which only made its use more effective in their hands.

The Fold-Out Future



What might be the most ingeniously creative material of the show are the “montage books” of El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers, or Rodchenko and Stepanova, an outpouring of ingenuity – often with elaborate inserts and fold-outs. ’USSR In Construction’ (1935, cover above), was roughly A3 in size, its twelfth issue ambitiously featuring a fold-out parachute. Its subject matter was always some aspect of the USSR and it was perhaps a metonym of the USSR as it saw itself – bold, over-size, innovative.

El Lissitzky himself insisted ”in the new order of society there will no longer be small groups producing luxuries for a restricted stratum of society but… work [will be] done by everyone for everyone.” Yet despite such lofty goals, the show suggests these fancy affairs, with their high production values, were more often used to impress foreign contacts than shown to the workers.

For the 1928 International Press Exhibition Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin designed ’The Task of The Press is the Education of the Masses’ a twenty-three metre photomontage also reproduced as a brochure. In yet another meta gesture it’s subject was the Soviet Pavilion itself (below), with it’s three-dimensional and mobile elements.



Yet we were feeling exceptionally skeptical, we could claim the Pavilion was an idealised version of a factory sprung from the brow of a clean-fingered Futurist, like Alexander Dienka’s ’Textile Workers’ (again from the Academy show) full of smoothly moving parts, without the grease and sweat.

From Tragedy To Farce

King collected so many pictures of Trotsky his house came to be nicknamed “Trotski-lodge”. And he wrote a whole book, ’The Commissar Vanishes’ (1997) on Stalin’s subsequent attempts to ‘disappear’ him and other similarly inconvenient figures from history.

Here a room is given over to reiterating this point. Though it’s a point most were familiar with to start with. And if anything these laboursome pre-Photoshop patch-ups seem innocents in the art of smooth stage-managed lying, compared to Fox News and Russia Today. The time spent on them seems still more mistaken when you think how quickly 1905 was rushed over.

Admittedly, it best demonstrates what a black farce the purges were, like a game of Murder in the Dark with deadly consequences. This is best caught by the cover of King’s book (below); as more and more of Stalin’s compatriots displease him they’re removed, until the whole group is gone – leaving him alone.



And something else crops up. When we look back on the era, our natural tendency is to assume everyone sussed Stalinism but also saw the sense in staying scutum. But the show also displays personal copies of official photos, also amended. Some reviews suggested this would have been done out of compliance or fear, but the images themselves don’t back that up.

Some have the offending figure neatly cut out as if that image was cancerous, in others it’s vigorously excised in a frenzy of scratching – either way, unlike the more surgical official changes, the eye’s naturally taken to the act of elimination. A fearful soul would more likely have thrown away the whole photo. They’re more the actions of someone, after a bitter break-up, scouring their ex from their holiday snaps. Which may suggest more kept the faith under Stalinism than we like to think.

Propaganda As Mass Production

After a Thirties largely devoted to Uncle Joe and glowing grain fields the war years saw a new quality in propaganda art, perhaps reflecting its newfound purpose. Even the hand-stencilled images of the Civil War era returned, out of sheer necessity, often produced by TASS (the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union). But the formal similarity reveals the changes. These works are much slicker, and so look more modern – in the wrong way. Once everything looked slightly rough and ready, like maps scrawled quickly on a napkin of places semi-built. Now it looks realised, complete, no space for change or addition. This is propaganda as mass production.



After Stalin had reversed many of the equality measures for women, war requirements drove a return to the emancipation imagery, as seen earlier with Strakhov. Fedor Antonov’s ’Let’s Rebuild Stalingrad’ (stencil poster, 1943, above) features a woman brickie. Though, sporting some unlikely lipstick, she looks more like a posing model while the less photogenic workers are kept out of sight. It suggests by this point that Moscow was competing with Hollywood as much as Washington. And for another example take Victor Koretsky’s photo-posters, often retouched with paint to achieve the required hyper-reality. (See ’Red Army Soldier, Save Us’, 1942, below).



Similarly, the photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei are searingly powerful images. In ‘Murmansk’ (1941, below), the remaining chimney breasts of the bombed city standing like graves to the gone buildings, reminds you of Ballard’s phrase “war is surreal”. But he was not above pasting in those foreboding clouds from another image. He also took the famous ’Soviet Soldiers Raising the Red Flag Over the Reichstag’ (1945) as Berlin was taken, which most people now know was staged.



Learning Nothing From History (A How-to Guide)

Michael Glover commented in the Independent “this exhibition is for the likes of we old-guard pinkish nostalgists”. And sadly he may be right. In a complete contrast to the endless swill unleashed during the centenary of the First World War, and despite the two events being so inimically connected, it’s notable how muted the centenary of the Revolution has been. In fact it’s barely been noted outside of galleries, reduced to an aesthetic movement. (When, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, you can’t even understand the art without the political context.)

But alas even that has been under attack. Numerous educated idiots have been insisting these shows should never have happened, lest it lead attendees to try and re-annexe East Germany after they’ve exited via gift shop. (Which seems part of a wider trend. There was for example Peter Hitchen’s absurd response to the black comedy ‘The Death of Stalin.’)

The point here isn’t that I’m not a Stalinist, though obviously I’m not. The point is that I don’t even know any bloody Stalinists, because it’s not a remotely credible position. So the notion that “the metropolitan elite” had some secret Stalinist agenda to unload, via the cunningly devised means of curating shows at central London galleries… of course it’s beyond ludicrous. King himself devoted a whole book to cataloguing the terror of Stalinism (‘Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin’, 2003), a subject which came up in all three exhibitions. Stalin bad. Known thing.

A favourite argument was to ask whether there’d be a similar exhibition of fascist art. Somewhat overlooking the Tate’s Futurist and Vorticist shows. Or the Estorick collection of (mostly) Futurist art now celebrating its twentieth year. All achieved without attracting Antifa mobs.

But then of course the point of such stuff isn’t to sound convincing, it’s to set an agenda. It’s the equivalent of a boxer taking a broad swipe. He know it won’t land, he just wants to keep his opponent on the defensive. You can respond by insisting you don’t support Stalinism, only to be endlessly told your protestations are too feeble and you need to try harder. Pretty soon, you’ve devoted days to the hopeless task. While all the time the actual questions go unasked.

Besides, if we’re to reduce art to it’s political surroundings in this crudely deterministic way shouldn’t we be saying that, for example, Turner exhibitions shouldn’t go ahead because of the horrors associated with enclosure and enforced industrialisation? If you’re going to be an idiot, you could at least be a consistent idiot.

But more to the point, this is from the very same berks who tell us we need to “listen” to the far right, because otherwise we’re not being “inclusive”. We all became wearily familiar with the false equivalence between fascism and communism, where calling for all Jewish, gay and disabled people to be murdered was seen as interchangeable with saying workers should get the gains of their own labours. But now we’re sufficiently softened up by that, to the point everyone repeats it back without ever thinking to run a sanity check on it, it’s time for the next step.

From now on, we need to listen to fascists, otherwise it isn’t fair. But no-one should ever listen to us, because that wouldn’t be fair. Quick, look away! Don’t even consider the idea another world might be possible. It’s like stepping on the cracks. Those Russian bears will get you.


Coming soon! More behind-the-times art reviews...

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