It’s hard to admire communist art with an entirely clear conscience. The centenary of the October revolution, which falls this month, marks a national calamity whose casualties are still being counted. When my father-in-law comes to visit, I have to hide my modest collection of Russian propaganda: he grew up under the Soviets and has few fond memories of the experience. He can’t work out why old agitprop is so popular today. But the simple fact is, for all the disaster they wrought, the Bolsheviks did leave a legacy of images so striking that, even now, they can draw thousands into a museum. As Tate Modern is about to demonstrate.
Its new exhibition, Red Star Over Russia, showcases one of the greatest collections of Soviet propaganda posters. It’s the work of a former Sunday Times journalist, David King, who fell in love with the genre and spent decades recovering posters that the regime discarded. Normally, art helps illustrate history — pictures to go with the words. But in Russia’s case, only art can tell the full story.
Russia’s artistic revolution was underway long before Lenin’s. St Petersburg had become a cauldron of radicalism by the turn of the 20th century, with poets, playwrights and artists discussing the fall of tsarism and what should replace it. They were inspired not so much by Marx but by a present where everything, art especially, was breaking free from old confines. By the possibilities of new technology, a future of female empowerment, flatter hierarchies and modernity.
For Kazimir Malevich, rejecting the ‘dead weight of the real world’ meant depicting not people or things but a new, ideal world of shapes and forms. He called his style ‘suprematism’ as it celebrated the supremacy of geometry over reality.
He’d often use only two or three colours, most famously just black and white in his ‘Black Square’, exhibited in St Petersburg in 1915.