Russian Propaganda Art at Tate Modern

April 30th, 2011 by Nate

While I was overseas earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit the Tate Modern, an international contemporary art museum in the heart of London recommended to me by my colleague Travis McCleery. The Tate Modern is part of a family of 4 Tate galleries, and displays selections from the Tate Collection from 1900 onward. I was particularly drawn to an exhibit in the States of Flux wing, which displays art from the early twentieth-century movements Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism.

I walked into the room and was immediate struck by the enormity and completeness of the exhibit condensed into one space. At first I wondered why it wasn’t spaced out into several rooms, but the effect was exactly what I think they’d envisioned. It wasn’t about any particular individual piece, but about the idea as a whole (though I did have some favorites). Presenting the pieces all together allowed me to jump from piece to piece and notice the similarities between them. So many different styles were used, from illustration, photography, drawing, typographical – yet none of them felt out of place.

From the Tate Modern website:

The ideals and illusions of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union are reflected in this display of street posters.

“Ten Days that Shook the World” was how the American journalist John Reed described the 1917 October Revolution. The disasters of the First World War had led to the collapse of the Tsar’s autocracy. Promising peace and the re-distribution of land, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized power. Supported by militant soldiers, workers and peasants, they declared the world’s first Communist state.

To win support for their ideas, the Bolsheviks took control of the printing presses. Despite a shortage of supplies and equipment, they 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. Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders were portrayed as heroically unifying, while their enemies in the Civil War were reviled.

After Stalin became leader in 1927, the propaganda machine promoted the collectivisation of land and the drive for industrialisation, oblivious to the terrible hardships caused by these policies. Stalin’s benevolent image was everywhere, but it barely masked the terror of the show-trials and executions that blighted the 1930s. The revolutionary fervour conveyed through the early posters now enforced a repressive dictatorship.

The ideas and illusions conveyed in these posters were far from reality. However, the posters themselves became part of the texture of everyday life in the Soviet Union, and reflect the officially approved history as it was experienced by its citizens.

The posters featured the color red prominently, reinforcing the influence and power of “The Red Army”.

As a form of street art, these posters were designed to engage everyday citizens with powerful imagery and cultivate a certain perception of political leaders. The last decade or so has seen a resurgence of this style both for political propaganda and general art inspiration. What makes this form of art so powerful (if done correctly) is that you are influenced by it regardless of whether you know its purpose. It has both a psychological effect from repetition and consistency, and it transforms people and ideas into icons. Grassroots movements love icons, as they give supporters something visual and memorable to identify with. And there’s no denying that designers and artists love icons. Political propaganda is a communication artform, there’s no reason it needs to be crappy. In fact, there’s myriad reasons why it should be thoughtfully considered.

If you happen to be in London in the near future, be sure to stop by the Tate Modern. It won’t disappoint.

Obama posters (1 & 2) by Shepard Fairey


One Response

  1. Thanura Says:

    YO MALCOLM X,Stop the BULLSHIT & look at the FUCKING facts:To: Hi John,This is indeed a porfuewl article and lays it on the line. I found that Black comedian Chris Rock also hit the nail on the head, when he differentiated between BLACKS & NIGGERS. You should Google him on You Tube. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are two NIGGERS, while you are a BLACK person. There are WHITE people and there are WHITE TRASH. We must NEVER defend the indefensible! BobTHE BLACK HOLOCAUSTJOHN W. FOUNTAINLast Modified: May 6, 2012Imagine Soldier Field beyond capacity, brimming with 63,879 young African-American men, ages 18 to 24 — more than U.S. losses in the entire Vietnam conflict.Imagine the University of Michigan’s football stadium — the largest in the U.S. — filled to its limit of 109,901 with black men, age 25 and older. Now add 28,223 more — together totaling more than U.S. deaths in World War I.Picture two UIC Pavilions packed with 12,658 Trayvon Martins — black boys, ages 14 to 17 — nearly twice the number of U.S. lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.Now picture all of them dead. The national tally of black males 14 and older murdered in America from 1976 through 2005, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics: 214,661.The numbers tell only part of the story of this largely urban war, where the victims bear an uncanny resemblance to their killers. A war of brother against brother, filled with wanton and automatic gunfire, even in the light of day, on neighborhood streets, where little boys make mud pies, schoolgirls jump rope, where the innocent are caught in the crossfire, where the spirit of murder blows like the wind.It is, so far, a ceaseless war in which guns are often the weapon of choice, and the finger on the trigger of the gun pointed at a black male is most often another black male’s.The numbers alone are enough to make me cry — to wonder why — we as African Americans will march en masse over one slain by someone who is not black, and yet sit silent over the hundreds of thousands of us obliterated from this mortal world by someone black like us, like me. It is a numbing truth borne out by hard facts:From 1980 through 2008, 93 percent of black victims were killed by blacks.Translation: For every Trayvon Martin killed by someone not black, nine other blacks were murdered by someone black.In 2005, we — blacks — accounted for 13 percent of the U.S. population but 49 percent of all homicides. The numbers are staggering, the loss incomprehensible.Add to the tally of black males 14 and older slain across the country from 1976 to 2005, another 29,335 (slain from 2006 to 2010), and their national body count rises to 243,996, representing 82 percent of all black homicides for that 35-year period. What also becomes clear is this: We too often have raised killers. And this war is claiming our sons.But that’s still not the end of the story. Add to that number 51,892 black females ages 14 and older, plus five whose gender was not identifiable, and the total, not counting children, is 295,893 — more than the combined U.S. losses of World War I, the Vietnam, Korean and Mexican-American wars, the War of 1812 and the American Revolutionary War.Is the blood of these sons and daughters somehow less American?Two hundred ninety-five thousand eight hundred ninety-three . . .Imagine the United Center, Wrigley Field, U.S. Cellular Field and Soldier Field nearly all filled simultaneously with black boys, girls, men and women. Now imagine that twice over. Now imagine them all dead.As far as I can see, that’s at least 295,893 reasons to cry. And it is cause enough for reticent churches, for communities, for lackadaisical leaders, for all people — no matter our race, color or creed — to find the collective will and the moral resolve to stamp out this human rights atrocity occurring right under our noses.Just imagine the human carnage and the toll to us all if we don’t.I can’t. I won’t.JOHN W. FOUNTAINBob