[Marxism] Soviet art

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 20 09:01:37 MDT 2009

NY Times, September 20, 2009
The Revolution Will Be Illustrated

Early-20th-century artists and designers greatly admired Russian 
revolutionary posters and typography, and the art movements that sprang 
from the October Revolution: Constructivism, Suprematism and 
Productivism. These fostered new forms of painting, sculpture, 
architecture, advertising and graphic design. Much of this art was not, 
however, art for art’s sake, but rather a means to propagate the 
ideology of the state. When it began, the Russian avant-garde was a 
radical departure from accepted aesthetics and signified a victory over 
cultural conservatism. But alas, the celebration was relatively 
short-lived. Lenin was not a big fan. So innovative artists and 
designers were essentially tolerated until they were replaced in the 
1930s by Stalin’s turgid Socialist Realism.

Thus, the fertile period after the October Revolution wound up 
deteriorating into a creative wasteland. “The stories of some of the men 
and women who saw their early revolutionary struggles transformed into 
almost unspeakable tragedy are recorded here, alongside hundreds of 
examples of indelible images created by the designers, artists and 
photographers who shaped the iconography of the first workers’ state,” 
David King writes in his introduction to RED STAR OVER RUSSIA: A Visual 
History of the Soviet Union From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin 
(Abrams, $50). And if the first 200 pages of this 350-page volume are 
any indication, the graphics used to promote the workers’ paradise 
deserve admiration. But the rest of this extraordinarily illustrated 
book provides witness to the corrosive effects of ham-handed propaganda, 
and to the role of state-sanctioned imagery in demeaning and subjugating 
the arts.

“Red Star Over Russia” is a mammoth collection of rare Soviet applied 
art and photographs, edited and designed by King, a British graphic 
designer and design historian who in the 1980s reintroduced 
Constructivist mannerisms into the contemporary design vocabulary, 
spawning a stylistic revival that continues in various forms to this day 
(e.g., Shepard Fairey’s recent advertising campaign for Saks Fifth 
Avenue). For three decades he has scrutinized and revealed the hidden 
treasures of this officially out-of-favor art. He has further renewed 
the appreciation of pioneers through books on Alexander Rodchenko, 
Vladimir Mayakovsky and other significant avant-gardists. His “Blood and 
Laughter: Caricatures From the 1905 Revolution” uncovered a little-known 
cache of satirical journals produced during the first (failed) attempt 
to overthrow the czar. His mesmerizing book “The Commissar Vanishes: The 
Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia” includes a host 
of “before and after” official photographs, manipulated to remove 
Stalin’s purged opponents. King is a voracious collector of all things 
Soviet, and some of his collection is on view in its own gallery at the 
Tate Modern in London.

This new book is organized not into individual chapters, but into pages 
and spreads devoted to a range of themes addressed in graphic and 
photographic materials, including “Political Abstraction,” “Urban 
Proletariat” and “Workers of the World, Unite.” Prominent artists like 
El Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis are featured — Klutsis on a spread 
called “The Evolution of a Klutsis Poster,” showing a photomontage with 
Lenin striding forward against the background of the Dniepr Dam, 
promoting the New Economic Policy. King reveals how that heroic image 
was reused in different iterations. His organizing principle, while not 
historically orthodox, results in a cinematic panorama of the Soviet 
Union from these critical early years through the devastation of World 
War II; one of the last photos in the book is of Khrushchev in Moscow in 
1959, alongside two sequin-laden stars of “Holiday on Ice.”

The clichéd heroic/romantic graphics from the Stalin years take a back 
seat to the earlier avant-garde work, but the photographs of leaders, 
workers and soldiers King has amassed from the Stalin period, some quite 
candid, say a lot about the rise and fall of the Communist revolution. 
The most startling — even beautiful — image in the entire book is of 
Stalin lying in state at the House of Trade Unions in Moscow, where his 
show trials had been carried out in the ’30s. He rests peacefully in 
full party regalia — his face lighted dramatically from below — on 
bright red sheets, surrounded by a tropical garden of red and white 
flowers and green leaves. What a relief it must have been for so many to 
see him in such a tableau.

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