Culture: The art of mobilising the masses

Revolution: The Poster Art of the Soviet Union. Tate Modern, London

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Lust was officially disapproved of in London during this year’s Halloween festivities, and Miss Vampira and her Black Pussy-Cat were actively discouraged.

The posters advertising both of these worthy cultural events – the first, a “rave for the depraved” at £25 on the door and the second, a “Goth revival striptease extravaganza” at a mere £32, had large ‘CANCELLED’ stickers slapped on them by Islington borough council as part of its new campaign to deter the commercial flyposting mafia.

In the obsolete, decadent and moribund capitalist society that is 21st century Britain, these are precisely the kinds of posters we can expect to see adorning the walls and billboards of our cities and towns (rare publicity for the odd progressive meeting or demonstration notwithstanding).

Things are starkly different in those countries where the proletariat – in alliance with the small peasants, the middle strata and sometimes elements of the patriotic, anti-imperialist bourgeoisie – still wields state power. In People’s China, in Cuba, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in socialist Vietnam and in the neighbouring People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, publicly displayed posters take on the quality of ‘applied art’.

In other words, they seek first of all to be functional (helping to mobilise the masses in defending and extending the socialist revolution), but they are also concerned with artistic form, appealing to the aesthetic sense – and the sense of cultural continuity – of the target audience.

This same approach, one reflecting the dialectical relationship between form and content, characterises the Soviet posters making up the Revolution exhibition at the Tate Modern, now on (semi-?) permanent loan from the specialist collector David King.

Comprising no more than two dozen pieces, this display is not a huge one. It is broadly representative, though, with posters – and a lone banner – covering the period from the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917, through the civil war of the early 1920s, to the victory over Hitlerite fascism in 1945 and beyond.

The image of J V Stalin, leader of the world’s proletariat for nearly three decades and the architect of both Soviet socialist construction in the 1930s and the world-historic defeat of Nazism a decade later, is naturally prominent in many of these posters.

It is therefore infuriating, if unsurprising, to see the organisers of this exhibition try to detract from Stalin’s role by juxtaposing a picture of the counter-revolutionary and fascist agent Leon Trotsky in the same gallery.

Not a real problem, though. The gratuitously hung Trotsky picture (drawn in charcoal on paper by Sergei Pichugin, 1881-1971) is a static portrait, albeit a pretentiously large one, so it lacks the dynamism of the surrounding pieces. It’s also in black and white, providing a sad contrast with the rich reds, golds, blues and greens of its neighbours. Equally importantly, the accompanying text [by Matthew Gale] panders so transparently to prevailing anti-Stalin prejudices as to be just plain silly.

In summing up the overall background to the exhibition, however, Gale adopts a far more considered tone:

“Despite a shortage of supplies and equipment,” he writes, “they [the Bolsheviks] rapidly produced newspapers, leaflets and posters. This proliferation of colourful propaganda posters transformed towns and cities, creating a street art available to all.

“The continual renewal of images, as well as multiple copies pasted up together, reinforced the fundamental messages of communal power and solidarity.

“The posters … became part of the texture of everyday life in the Soviet Union and reflect history … as experienced by its citizens.”

Each visitor to the Revolution exhibition will discover his or her preferred images.

You might admire the 1930 photomontage ‘Under the Banner of Lenin: Building Socialism’ (Gustav Klutsis, 1895-1944), with its profile of V I Lenin backed by collective farm tractors, the cranes of large-scale industrial construction sites, and some of the millions of workers who turned the USSR’s ‘impossible’ dream of rapid economic advance into reality under the five-year plans.

You may find you like the 1933-34 internationalist lithograph ‘USSR: Shock Brigade of the International Proletariat’ by Adolf Strakhov (1896-1979), which shows the Soviet leadership – Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov and others – at the head of a huge, snake-like march made up of workers from around the world carrying placards in a dozen languages calling for defence of the Soviet Union.

Or perhaps you’ll appreciate ‘Thunderbolt’ (Kukrinisky collective c1942), which shows a lightning flash in the form of the British, US and Soviet flags striking at Hitler and Mussolini – both covered in blood up to the elbows and cowering under a dilapidated and ineffective umbrella.

Our reviewer’s two favourites are Strakhov’s ‘Women Build Socialism’, produced to help build for International Women’s Day in 1926, and ‘Hold Up the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin’ by Klutsis (1933).

Whatever Proletarian readers’ personal preferences, all of you will find in this exhibition a moving reaffirmation of working-class state power and a reminder of what miracles can be achieved when the producers themselves work together for the common goal of building a better life, under Marxist-Leninist leadership and no longer fettered by a social system relying on the exploitation of man by man.

Admission to the Tate Modern is free of charge. St Paul’s Underground station, then two to three minutes’ walk via the Millennium Bridge.