A review of Red Star Over Russia: A revelation in visual culture at the Tate Modern

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Kesaia Toganivalu reviews the display of art ‘for the left’, mostly by David King. With 2017 having hailed the centenary of the October Revolution, this exhibition cast a glance back at the visual evidence we have to show for it.

From the start of the exhibition we were told that much of it was sourced from one person: David King. He was a British graphic designer who sought a “visual style for the left” and his extensive archives certainly achieved that. It was heartening to know that one person’s meticulous collection could contribute to such a huge display.

The first room was my favourite: “Art on the Streets!” It featured vivid and colourful posters and messages that would have been sprawled all over the streets. These pieces had the same message tying them all together: unity and a common will.

Here, art was used as a tool to appeal to the working man since they realised the power of such individuals early on. I liked how passionately unapologetic the posters were.

A projected film about the fall from grace suffered by Leon Trotsky featured in a small room. As someone who was well known to have had a pivotal role in the October Revolutions, the difference between his status in the two clips showing his downfall was quite sad.

One thing my friend and I noted was the sustained sense of unity of the first clip. A quote that struck us was: ‘Marxism is impossible without the common revolutionary will’. This emphatic declaration was a call to arms, and it was reflected in pieces of work throughout the exhibition.

Another aspect was the collection of smaller pieces – “zooming in from the epic to the intimate.” They showed the turbulent years of 1905-1955 but with more personal objects, such as satirical magazine clippings.

There were three photographs on a wall, all of the same moment yet as each one followed the people in them grew smaller. These were evidence of Stalin’s famous photographic retouching.

These softer pieces contrasted the large imposing rally posters at the beginning.

As it drew to a close the exhibition showed the darker sides to the art. Placed on a white plinth was a book of mugshots. On one page was a man who had produced counter-revolutionary crime. His punishment was being shot in the head.

This exhibition charted 50 years and through its storytelling, it showed a real feeling of the hope and optimism of its beginnings.

Even though I am faintly familiar with the trajectory of its history, the posters of the first room made me want to believe they would achieve a communist utopia.

The way it conveyed the deterioration of Stalin’s power was compelling.

It perfectly surmised in this comparison: whereas earlier in the exhibition Stalin’s figure was used in advertising to incite unity, in the final posters calling for a Russian war effort in his place was the “Motherland”.

I hope people attend this exhibition not just for the strength of the graphic design it features, but on the merit of its historical storytelling.

Red Star Over Russia runs until 18 February 2018 at the Tate Modern

Tickets: Adult £13.30 (£11.30 without donation), under 12s FREE (up to four per family adult), family tickets (two adults and two children 12–18 years) available by telephone or in the gallery. 

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