This exhibition looks at the visual language of Soviet posters, prints and photographs from the October Revolution to the death of Stalin. It shows how in the first ten years Soviet designers created a revolutionary narrative that linked the events of 1917 to turning points such as the storming of the Bastille and Delacroix’s image of Liberty Leading the People. Such a narrative helped to create social cohesion and a sense of visual identity among a largely illiterate population. Yet it was also important in creating a repertoire of symbols, which enabled Stalin to triumph over his rivals, Trotsky and Zinoviev, after Lenin’s death in 1927. Some of these symbols – such as the tractor, the chimney and the pylon – were recognisable images of modernity. Others borrowed the abstract language of avant garde artists to create an ideography of dynamic optimism and change.
The most famous example in the exhibition is El Lissitsky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge of 1919. The diagrammatic clarity of its red triangle piercing a white circle identified the spirit of artistic innovation with the struggle of the Soviet army against the conservative white Russians. The universal language of geometry enabled it to address both Russia’s polyglot population and potential revolutionaries from outside its borders. The cheap two colour palette and minimal use of text meant that it could be translated easily from the Cyrillic to the Roman and Islamic alphabet. The poster established a typographical style in which juxtapositions of strong images, patterns, shapes and colours became ubiquitous. Their repetition, as Roland Barthes might have explained, had a cumulative effect that allowed them to connote rather than denote ideas from one poster to another in ways that looked forward to modern advertising. Such innovations went hand in hand with practices such as collaborative working, the cross-fertilisation of painting, sculpture, architecture and design and the greater involvement of women artists. In this brave new world artists created agitprop trains, street art, processions and events and celebrated the revolution’s new physical and psychological aspirations through athletic festivals and futuristic ballets.
Sadly, as the exhibition points out, such innovations were quickly replaced by Social Realism and by a sentimental, quasi-religious form of kitsch that lionised those few Soviet workers that had exceeded their work quotas. At the same time Stalin began re-writing history through editing and redacting photographs during the period of the show trials and the Great Patriotic War. The exhibition is a small one, which is almost exclusively drawn from the collection of the punk designer, David King. Hence we shall spend a short period before lunch looking at Bruce Nauman’s 12 screen projection Violent Incident of 1986, in which he subtly alters our understanding of a story by staging and re-filming it in four different ways.
The exhibition is particularly relevant to students studying the OCA Visual Studies course. In order to see the way in which the Soviet graphics in the exhibition complemented the work of current artists and film-makers, students might want to look at this analysis of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Camera with its use of iconic imagery such taken from factories, street scenes and athletic events and its use of double exposures, collage and dramatic angles.
Image credit: El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919