This year is a big Russian year for Tate Modern. Following Eric Bulatov’s sculptural installation Forward and a large-scale retrospective of the conceptual art pioneer Ilya Kabakov, Tate Modern launches its new exhibition Red Star Over Russia. The display, which opened exactly 100 years after the Bolshevik party took control, showcases 250 artefacts including posters, photographs, paintings, and publications from the collection of the late David King. It explores 50 years of visual history of the Soviet Russia and raises questions which are no less important today. Marina Maximova talked to the exhibition’s curator Natalia Sidlina about the show and the lessons we can learn from this early Soviet art.

El Lissitzky (1890 – 1941) and Sergei Senkin (1894 – 1963), Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928. Photogravure Purchased 2016. The David King Collection at Tate

MM: The exhibition showcases works from David King’s collection. How did this collection come about and what triggered King’s interest in Soviet art?

NS: David King was a British graphic designer, photographer, publicist, researcher and collector. He started collecting when he was very young, at the time when he worked as an artistic director for  the Sunday Times Magazine. In 1970 he was asked to put together a special issue dedicated to Trotsky. However, he found no imagery to illustrate his research. So, he went to Moscow on a research trip. Imagine David King in 1970 stepping off the plane and asking “Guys, where can I find pictures of Trotsky?”. Naturally, he left empty handed. After that, he started scouting the worldconstruction and in the next 30 years he amassed the largest Trotsky-related image bank in the world. Working with this collection, I found the footage from the 1920s featuring Trotsky  that was digitised and whose clips are shown at our exhibition.

Gustav Klutsis (1895 – 1938), Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) 1928. Postcard, print on paper 148 x 105 mm. Purchased 2016. The David King Collection at Tate

Of course, David being a graphic designer, he was in love with the representational language of Russian and Soviet graphic design. He started collecting for his own image bank, his own working library. In the 1960s and 1970s he created visual identities for several British leftist organisations and campaigns, which were very heavily influenced by Russian graphic design of the 1920s and 1930s. El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Gustav Klutsis were his heroes and he was instrumental in bringing these names to this country. The first exhibition of Rodchenko in the UK was in the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1976. David worked on the exhibition, and the catalogue, created posters for it. In order to thank him Rodchenko’s grandson Alexander Lavrentiev gave David some of the photographs from the famous “new vision” style of the 1930s known for unusual angular points. These photographs are also shown at the exhibition.

David continued collecting. It was no longer just an image bank, but a collection which represented his interest in the visual history of the Soviet Union. He approached it as an archaeologist. He discovered images that were air-brushed or altered in various ways. He would then find the original image and learn more about the people who were brushed out of the photographs and, consequently, —  out of history. Of course, his absolute hero was Trotsky, but other people, other commissars, also interested him. In 1997 he published his best selling book The Commissar Vanishes, where he talked about censorship and air-brushing in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. It is quite an emotionally challenging book.

Moreover, he was absolutely in love with the ways images were constructed. He admired the way the images “worked” during the civil war when they addressed not average consumers of art, or educated people who could read symbolic language,  but a crowd who had not been exposed to such images before. This crowd could not read, was often illiterate, it was a crowd of workers and soldiers. Such images were constructed unequivocally and clearly, from bold colours, with very clear message and one punchy headline. The headline was part of the poster. Once you remove the headline, the entire composition fell apart. He was absolutely mesmerised by the work designers and artists did so quickly after the Revolution and during the Civil War. 

King admired courage of these artists. Moreover, many of them were illustrators of satirical pre–revolutionary satirical magazines. The speed with which they adopted imagery addressed to the intelligentsia, even if leftist, to that created for this new population, new people, new citizens, was absolutely fascinating.

And of course book and magazine design always interested David and it constituted a large part of his collection. He was an admirer of The USSR in Construction magazine. Being a prototype for all illustrated magazines that came out later, it was produced by top graphic designers, who put their best abilities and best principles into creating this magazine. It largely targeted foreign public and was there not just to impress and to create a certain image of the new Soviet state, but also to sell. That is why there are issues dedicated to coal or to industrialisation… It was a proclamation of possessing natural resources, as well as the country’s objective to industrialise very quickly. As you will see in the exhibition, quite a few issues are dedicated to various regions and republics: it was a way of marking the territory. For example, an issue of the magazine from 1938 signed by Rodchenko was dedicated to Kiev. Practically, it was a way of saying: “You have got your Poland, we know you have your eye on rich Ukraine, but hands off. Its ours”.

MM: This is a fascinating story. So what was happening with the collection? Were its parts shown at the Tate before?

NS: David worked with Tate Modern for many, many years. He was an incredibly generous person with very strict views on social responsibilities. He thought that his social responsibility was to make results of his research known and his collection available. Tate mounted a small display of this collection throughout the last 15 years. People probably remember the display dedicated to the Russian revolutionary posters. Last year we made an exhibition of John Heartfield, a magazine and photomontage artist, the graphic designer who worked in the Weimar Republic before Nazi rule.

This exhibition was meant to be organised by Tate’s Head of display Matthew Gale, myself as a curator of Russian Art, and David King. Unfortunately, David passed away when we just started working with the collection. He was meant to come here to Tate to see the space in the new wing. It was still a building site then and I organised for David to see it so he could construct an image for the future exhibition in his head. But then we heard that the night before he passed away. So from a joint project it turned into a commemorative exhibition of some sort.

I should say that considering the volume of his collection, this is just the first of a large number of exhibitions we will show in the future. And we very much encourage other curators and researchers to come and learn more about David’s collection. It is undergoing a very intensive process of cataloguing and the catalogue will be available online at the end of January next year. Anyone will be able to come to Tate Library and  Archive, get access to this collection and learn more about the materials kept there.

MM: Talking about educational goals of this exhibition, I wondered if it is aimed at acquainting audiences with lesser-known artists? You mentioned a few famous names, but I suppose there will be a lot of not so well-known works and artists?

NS: Our main role as a public institution is to research and exhibit the collection we have. Our temporary exhibitions are there to inform our visitors. This exhibition presents a complex subject and tells a very complex story. I won’t be surprised if most of exhibition visitors will only know such names as Rodchenko or maybe Deineka. However, this exhibition is not about the famous artists, it is about processes of creation, construction, production and dissemination of images on the territory which stretches from the Baltic to the Sea of Japan.

At the same time, what was very important and what we are very keen to highlight, is the group approach to creativity. Lots of posters presented at the exhibition were created by groups of artists. For example, we have a poster created by graduates of VKhUTEMAS– an avant-garde art school, which was training a new generation of creative workers not only in the field of fine art, but also in graphic design, sculpture, architecture and decorative arts.

Valentina Kulagina, Soviet Union Art Exhibition (Kunst Ausstellung der Sowjetunion, Kunstsalon Wolfsberg), Zurich 1931. Poster, 1250 x 900 mm. Ne boltai! Collection

This group approach is evident in the room dedicated to three famous names whom we are showing together with their partners. While it is very easy to forget about partners of more famous artists and make them end up in the shadow, we were very keen to bring them into spotlight. The room displays work by Rodchenko and his wife and creative partner, Varvara Stepanova. And also by Gustav Klutsis and his wife Valentina Kulagina. Kulagina lived longer than her husband, but after Klutsis’s arrest in 1938 she lost all state commissions and today her name is less known. Also El Lissitzky, who always credited his wife Sophie Lissitzky-Küpppers – if you take any of The USSR in Construction magazines both of them are always credited as designers. She was not an artist, strictly speaking, but El Lissitzky recognised the importance of every stage of an artwork development from the creative idea, drawing, materials, their assembly and mock up to the design work and production itself. And even if his wife was not putting a pencil to paper, she was definitely involved in all  other aspects of production. Lissitzky always considered that it was not just the artistic side that was important, but the process itself.

This answers the question of famous and less celebrated artists in the show – it is not about that, it is not about dropping names which are publicly recognised, although that of course helps. It is about talking of new ways of image construction and dissemination which came about in 1920s and 1930s and the enthusiasm of that time, which was formed by creative processes and shows the importance of this group, this “brigade” approach to creativity.

MM: What was the most challenging or the most interesting aspect for you as a curator while working on this show?

NS: As a researcher who worked with this collection for a while, I am particularly emotionally attached to that material, which I had a little bit more time to research. And one of them is the manuscript, or rather a mock up, for an unpublished book by two Hungarian intellectuals. It is a mock up for a book titled Russia: The Way It Was, The Way It Is, The Way It Will Be. It was put for publication in 1932 in a German publishing house. Unfortunately, we all know what happened in Germany and in Russia in 1932. This book never saw a printing press. David heard about this mock up, he located it, acquired it, and saved it.

The book shows the history of Russia from the late 1860s until 1932, from the Emancipation of the Serfs until industrialisation and its first results and, importantly, it was a view from abroad. The book illustrates how images created by Russia and projected abroad collided with images which were commissioned by foreign press. It is an unedited, unbrushed manuscript, which contains 460 photographs. It shows a very unusual angle, which we are not used to. To put it on show for the very first time was very special for me.

MM: The exhibition coincides with the Kabakovs’ retrospective. Can you comment on how those two shows complement each other?

NS: It is a big Russian year for Tate. In May we opened a sculptural installation of Eric Bulatov, titled Forward. Then, in  mid-October we opened the exhibition of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. And then we launched Red Star Over Russia. It ends exactly where Ilya Kabakov’s exhibition starts. The last object in this exhibition is the first commissioned work of Ilya Kabakov as a graduate of an art school in the mid-1950s. He was commissioned to do an illustration for a children’s book.

It shows that the visual culture, which was constructed in the Soviet Union in the first decades of its existence, gave rise to a new creative force of alternative art. This new generation of artists engaged in a fight with the overwhelming and intrusive force that the Soviet regime constructed in order to brainwash and to install certain views of the world on citizens of this huge country. Kabakov and other artists re-appropriated those images and used them as creative medium. You probably noticed the same posters in his installation The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment. There we see walls covered by these intrusive propaganda images.

For artists who grew up with this kind of images, they also became their memory. In Labyrinth of My Mother, Kabakov uses photographs of happy city life, people promenading, people holidaying. These photographs are photographs from a family album. Kabakov appropriates these images and re-interprets them. It tells us something about the fight that this new generation had to engage in, in order to liberate themselves from the intrusive visual environment.

MM: What makes this early Soviet art relevant today, especially in the West?

NS: We live in the era of internet, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram. We are constantly confronted with images. And we exchange more images than text nowadays. We are more likely to send an image than a sentence to our friend to let them know how we feel, where we are or what is happening in our life. And sometimes we forget about the responsibility for putting images out there. The exhibition demonstrates an incredible involvement of the avant-garde artists into the PR or propaganda campaigns of the Soviet state, the creation of Stalin’s cult of personality and the construction of the core of the Soviet visual culture. It reminds us of the responsibility for putting images on view, as we are not just sharing them — we are creating a visual environment that changes the mentality of others, whilst our mentality is also being altered. It is about taking responsibility for what we share and responsibility for what we let into our lives from the image-stock that we consume every day.

It is also about the censorship and self-censorship of Stalin’s propaganda campaign, about brushing people out of history. Today we live in the era of fake news, when people can be air-brushed, photoshopped in or out of any context. One of the exhibitions rooms points exactly to this, about how people, even famous people, leading Bolsheviks, active during the revolution, were air-brushed and disappeared into complete oblivion. And it is exactly what is happening now. This exhibition reminds us of our responsibility.