To mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Tate Modern is delving into the remarkable collection of David King, the late graphic designer, writer and photographer who amassed a massive holding of posters and prints from the heyday of Soviet graphic design
In a lifetime dedicated to art, photography and collecting David King assembled one of the most comprehensive collections of Russian and Soviet material anywhere in the world.
The graphic designer, whose spell as Art Editor of the Sunday Times Magazine transformed the visual identity of the supplement via his use of colour photography, bold cropping and cinematic visual editing techniques, was a voracious collector of the graphic representations of communism. By the time of his death in 2016 he had amassed a massive personal holding of over 250,000 artefacts.
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Today the collection, which encompasses everything from magazine and journals to posters paintings and photographs dating from the late 19th century to the Khrushchev era, remains a fascinating visual history of “communist movements everywhere” which is still used by publishers, magazines TV companies and newspapers across the world.
King’s obsession with constructivist design and bold Soviet graphics really took hold in 1970 when he travelled to Russia for an assignment for the Sunday Times magazine about Trotsky. His enquiries and conversations about imagery and artefacts relating to the out-of-favour revolutionary may have been met with state-sanctioned obstruction – and the often repeated phrase, “it is not possible”, but his experience of the imagery of Soviet Russia meant he was hooked.
As the collection grew and the Russian trips, including a memorable visit to the untouched studio of the Alexsandr Rodchenko, continued, a series of exhibitions and books cemented his reputation as one of the foremost experts of the graphics and visual identity of the communist period in Russian history.
King had also developed his own take on the bold lines and explosive typogrpahy of Russian art and his graphic designs for the new left provided logos for movements including Rock Against Racism and Anti Apartheid.
Meanwhile his interest in Soviet-era design continued and a series of books expanded our understanding of the period. The seminal The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia (1997, enlarged 2014), showed how the Soviet party machine doctored the visual historical record to expunge those who had fallen from favour in the era of Stalinist purges.
The exploration of political repression and state control in Stalinist Russia was further explored in his book Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin (2003), which featured the vivid mugshots of the disappeared.
A section of Tate’s exhibition celebrating King and his collection is dedicated to the memory of the millions who perished. Personal stories of some of the figures erased from history include the poignant prison mugshots of Lenin’s closest allies Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, both executed on false charges, and poster artist Gustav Klutsis, whose works adorned Soviet city squares long after his execution in 1938.
King’s last book Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (2009) represented the full story of the power of graphics during these violent turbulent times to offer a breath-taking visual history of the Soviet Union.
And it is this overview that really inspires Tate’s selection of 250 posters, paintings, photographs, books and ephemera, many on public display for the first time.
Posters, periodicals, leaflets and banners by artist such as El Lissitzky, Rodchenko and Nina Vatolina capture the revolutionary hopes of a nation and an extraordinary outpouring of visual material that informed, educated and controlled the people by filtering into the everyday lives of tens of millions of citizens.
Striking examples of posters by artists such as Adolf Strakhov, Valentina Kulagina and Dmitrii Moor depict the heroic, industrial scenes of the Soviet propaganda machine and reveal the expressive use of typography of an age which began with the Bolshevik travelling agitprop trains that delivered posters, placards and films into the vast expanse of Russia and eventually expanded into the public squares, factories and even the walls of people’s homes.
A section of the exhibition also explores the impact of the 1937 ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques’ in Paris, which provided an international stage for the Soviet Union to promote the achievements of its art and culture.
The bravura centrepiece of the USSR Pavilion was a giant mural by Aleksandr Deineka which was destroyed when the exhibition ended and the large-scale studies that formed the basis for this dramatic mural can be seen in the exhibition.
A primer in the history of the Russian Revolution, its aftermath and how life and art were transformed during a momentous period in modern world history, the exhibition is also a reminder of the power of art, its ability to spread powerful messages and to control a population of millions.
Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55, is at Tate Modern until February 18 2018
London, Greater London
Tate Modern is Britain's national museum of modern art. Housed in the former Bankside Power Station, Tate Modern displays the Tate collection of international modern art from 1900 to the present day. Since it opened in May 2000, more than 40 million people have visited Tate Modern. It is one…