To mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Tate Modern has curated an exhibition presenting the persuasive power of Russian visual culture between 1905 and 1955.
At the centre of the show is a timeline of miniature artefacts including photographs, propaganda leaflets and Pravda front-pages that concisely chart 50 years of immense social and political change, from the February Revolution to Stalin’s death. From here the exhibition leads into two rooms with antithetical moods. In one is a series of paintings commissioned for the 1937 Paris Convention, full of people with daubed faces in white suits striding gloriously into the future – the image the Soviet Union wanted to present to the rest of the world. In the next is the darker reality: photos of workers’ groups or party marches with faces blurred, blacked or completely gouged out by censors or Gulag-fearing citizens. Unpersons airbrushed from history.
The mood is sombre and the horrors of Stalinism are acknowledged, but the art’s accompanying text is thankfully free of the judgmental imbalance often displayed British gallerists who can’t seem to comprehend why the jolly proles would revolt in the first place.
The photos, posters and prints are from the collection of graphic artist David King, who died last year. This is not great art, and those looking for an extensive exploration of the socialist realist movement and the avant garde counter-culture should look elsewhere. But as a historical document, the Tate’s exhibition is an affordable must-see. At times wonderfully optimistic, at others deeply sinister, it is always fascinating,