In this centenary year of the October Revolution, we’ve had no shortage of exposure to Russian art, with institutions from the Royal Academy to the British Library marking it in one way or another.
The Tate Modern has gone even further, with two exhibitions running concurrently, the other being Ilya and Emilia Kabakov's Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future. For this show, entitled Red Star Over Russia, the Tate adopts an uncharacteristically academic tone, resulting in a sombre stroll through this strife-riven period.
Largely consisting of prints from the collection of photographer and graphic designer David King (acquired by the Tate following his death last year), it's a kind of potted history of the Soviet Union, sweeping in its scope and often devastating in its detail, but a little overwhelming and disjointed when taken as a whole.
The most impressive pieces are the constructivist propaganda posters, filled with colour and thrusting forward momentum. But these are also the most familiar – few people with even a passing interest in Soviet art will be unaware of El Lissitzsky’s Beat the Whites, for instance. Indeed, I picked up half a dozen of the prints on display here from a Muscovite market for a few roubles, and they’ve been yellowing in my under-stairs cupboard ever since.
Less familiar, and also crushingly sad, are the mug-shots of ordinary people who were arrested and murdered during Stalin’s Great Purge. Laid out in rows, there's a terrible poignancy in gazing into the eyes of these people – men and women, young and old – who await certain death in the gulag. It's a welcome antidote to the triumphalism of the propaganda images that dominate elsewhere.
A case in point is a room dedicated to the famous paintings of Stakhanovite workers, first exhibited at the 1937 Paris Exhibition. It's the kind of state-sponsored art that bore some fascinating fruit, but also caused despair among artists who longed to break free of the shackles of The Party and its strict rules governing personal expression. Over the other side of the Tate Modern, in fact, are a series of installations by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov reacting against exactly this kind of jingoistic, whitewashed representation of Soviet Russia.
And perhaps this is where Red Star Over Russia works best – as a primer for the Tate’s other, better Russian exhibition, a little bit of homework before you take in the brilliant, funny, heartbreaking works by the Kabakovs.