Hope to Nope

Graphics and Politics 2008-18

The past ten years have been a turbulent decade with a strong increase in the public’s engagement with politics. The Design Museum aimed to explore how graphic design and technology has influenced the major political movements in the 21st century with their recent exhibition Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18Incorporating a whole range of artwork from posters and placards to protest badges and memes, the museum delved deep into the public’s reaction to the 2008 financial crisis, global protests and the election campaigns of divisive leaders to produce a diverse and provocative exhibition. Hope to Nope was split into three sections, which focused on power, protest and personality.

DISCLAIMER: The views displayed in the exhibition are those of the individuals and organisations that created them – some of which may cause offence. The Design Museum does not necessarily agree with such views, nor does it consider them to be necessarily justified, truthful or accurate.

 

Unfortunately, the final two weeks of the exhibition were disrupted after a selection of exhibits were removed by the lender in protest of a private event held at the museum by an aerospace and defence company. Nevertheless, there were enough exhibits remaining to make the trip to the museum worthwhile. Purportedly, the first artwork in the exhibition was the street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey’s (b1970) Hope poster for Barrack Obama’s (b1961) presidential campaign in 2008, which went on to win the Design Museum’s Design of the Year in 2009. This distinctive style has been imitated by hundreds of amateur designers to produce satirical, anti-politician posters, for instance, an image of Donald Trump (b1946) with the word “nope”.

The red, white and blue colour combination that Fairey used, distracted people from Obama’s race, which is what many American’s fixated on, and portrayed him as a patriotic citizen instead. Being simple and easy to reproduce, the artwork spread rapidly throughout the states and online, quickly becoming recognised and adopted by Obama supporters. Fairey is happy to see his work being parodied for various means of activism, especially because the Hope poster has no political power, yet is used by people to make a powerful statement.

“Design is always political.”
– Mike Monteiro

Other political campaigns shown included Hillary Clinton’s (b1947) election posters, North Korean posters, North Korean stamps, which mock the United States, and various responses to “Brexit”.

 

Graphic design targetted at “Brexit” began as soon as David Cameron (b1966) announced a British Referendum on 23rd June 2016.  Two years later, campaigners are still producing new posters or digital graphics. Examples shown at the Design Museum included the Britain Stronger in Europe Campaign which produced many materials to persuade voters to opt to remain part of the EU. Playing on the word “in” with visual reference to the flag of the United Kingdom, posters and flags stating “Vote Remain” were prominent throughout the months leading up to the referendum. The designers also produced t-shirts for protestors to wear with the short phrase “I’M IN” boldly written across the chest.

Earlier this year, with the fate of “Brexit” not yet fully realised, The Sun created a spoof timeline of events based on the Bayeux Tapestry. Humorously titled Bye-EU Tapestry, this was the newspaper’s response to the president of France’s decision to lend the original 950-year-old tapestry to the UK. Using the similar style of figures that were embroidered to show the victory of the Normans in 1066, this version shows the “historic Brexit victory” over the EU. The captions mock medieval spellings with words such as “announceth” and “emergeth”, whilst the Queen is shown to be declaring the UK is “better orf out.”

“You have the technology to affect history.”

 

In the past century or two, more inventions than the rest of history combined have been invented, culminating in the current digital age. With the opening of the internet for public use in 1991, online graphics and social media have rapidly grown to a point where almost everyone is influenced by it in some way or form. Within the exhibition was a detailed, wall-length infographic showing the timeline of social media and its crucial role in politics.

A decade after the internet became available, the leading information website Wikipedia was born. This allowed people to search for answers to absolutely anything they desired. With pages about well-known celebrities to the most obscure form of fungi, Wikipedia quickly became a popular website by internet users, particularly school students who no longer needed to read books to complete their coursework. Regrettably, the accuracy of the information on Wikipedia is far from one-hundred per cent; anyone with an account can log in and change information, purposely misleading readers – not so good for homework after all!

The first major social media platform arrived in 2003, allowing individuals to connect with friends and strangers all over the world. On Myspace, people could personalise their pages, upload photographs, share their favourite music and even list their top ten friends. in 2008, Myspace became the stage for Obama’s presidential candidate campaign.

In 2006, Myspace was usurped by Mark Zuckerberg’s (b1984) Facebook, which currently has approximately 2.23 billion monthly active users, and Jack Dorsey’s (b1976) Twitter, a popular news and social networking service with 335 million active users. The latter was President Trump’s preferred means of spreading his policies and encouraging people to vote for him.

In 2007, the way people could access the internet changed completely with the invention of the most popular brand of smartphone, the iPhone. As well as being able to make phone calls, the iPhone functioned as a pocket-sized computer with easy internet access even when away from home. Soon, applications were developed to perform in this new format, including the free secure messaging platform Whatsapp in 2009 and the photo and video-sharing social network Instagram in 2010.

No matter the brand, all forms of social media allow individuals to explore beyond their friendship circles, discovering people and ideas from across the planet in only a matter of seconds. This allows people of power to voice their opinions and influence billions of people all over the globe. Whilst this may have huge benefits, particularly in awareness campaigns, it can also have a tremendous negative effect.

Digital technology has allowed for the invention of GIFs and memes that are “liked”, “posted” and “retweeted” by thousands of people every day. GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format which is essentially a moving image. The majority of these are split-second clips of videos, which, when posted on social media, are removed from their original context and often gain new meaning. A GIF of someone laughing, for instance, may be tagged onto a “post” that someone finds funny.

meme can be defined as “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.” The word was coined by Richard Dawkins (b1941) in an attempt to explain the way information spreads. A particular meme that the Hope to Nope exhibition focused on was Pepe the Frog.

200px-feels_good_manPepe the Frog was a cartoon amphibian with a humanoid-like body created by Matt Furie (b1979) in 2005 for a comic called Boy’s Club. It quickly became an internet sensation with people sharing Pepe with various facial expressions as a way of displaying opinions about certain ideas. Variants include “sad frog”, “smug frog” and “feels frog”.

Whilst the Pepe meme was initially harmless, Furie was dismayed when the innocent green frog became a “hate symbol” used by white-supremacists. In 2016, Pepe became associated with Donald Trump who “tweeted” a version of the frog drawn to look like himself with the tagline “you can’t stump the trump.” Later, Pepe was used as a means of attacking Hillary Clinton’s election campaign in a supposedly humorous manner.

Social media has provided plenty of opportunities for anyone to create memes and parodies of well-known ideas. This has been particularly beneficial for campaign groups, such as Greenpeace. In 2017, Greenpeace launched their Don’t Let Coke Choke Our Oceans campaign in order to raise awareness of plastic pollution, the greatest threat to marine life. Appropriating Coke’s branding, the environmental organisation launched an attack on one of the biggest sellers of plastic bottled beverages. As well as spreading their message online, Greenpeace campaigners went into shops, placing cleverly crafted labels over Coke bottles to make the product look like an empty, ocean-weathered piece of plastic.

More often than not, memes and parodies are deliberately comical, spreading ideas through light-heartedness rather than going for the shock factor. The clothing company Diesel, parodied the 1960’s anti-war slogan “make love not war” to advertise what they believe in, not just as a merchandiser, but as a global brand as well. By altering the phrase to “make love not walls”, Diesel is making a stand against hate, stating that their products are for everyone and they wish all could live in harmony.

The advertisements for “make love, not walls” uses symbolic imagery such as a rainbow coloured tank and happy people dressed in a “hippy” style holding flowers to represent freedom and love.

“At Diesel, we have a strong position against hate and more than ever we want the world to know that, to use our voice for good, love and togetherness is crucial in creating a society we all want to live in, and the future we all deserve.”
Nicola Formichetti – Diesel Artistic Director

Although the company declares their motives were to emphasise their position against hate, it is so soon after President Trump’s notion of building a wall between the USA and Mexico that many may wonder if there is a subliminal political agenda hidden within their advertisements.

Whilst social media has been used for spreading radical ideas and campaigns, for instance, in 2015 the hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” was tweeted 6500 times a minute the day after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, physical protests and demonstrations have been the go-to method for campaigners for hundreds of years. Graphic design plays a vital role offline as much as it does online. Posters, badges and placards need to be carefully designed to attract attention and provoke debate. Even the suffragettes developed their own branding at the beginning of the 20th century.

38419793_10214474022035772_7029360020294729728_nThe Hope to Nope exhibition focused on a handful of demonstrations from the past decade, including video footage of marches and loud protests. A great deal of effort was focused on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which occurred on 14th June 2017 and is still close to many Londoners’ hearts. A year on from the worst residential fire since the Second World War, hundreds of green-clad activists took part in a Justice for Grenfell Solidarity March demanding justice for the victims who lost their homes and loved ones. Investigations revealed that the incident was an accident waiting to happen and people are still angry about the way the situation was handled.

Designers with links to the Grenfell Tower designed badges for protesters to wear. The Green for Grenfell and the Unity Heart pins are a symbol of hope, unity and love to be worn in memory of the 72 lives lost. British politicians, including the current Prime Minister, were seen to support the appeal.

The Grenfell disaster also inspired an art project titled 24Hearts which was begun by a local artist, Sophie Lodge. The initial plan was to produce 24 handmade hearts to represent each floor of the tower, however, with help from school children and residents in the area, over 100 hearts have been made. Many of these were used as placards during silent protest marches.

Hanging from the ceiling at the exhibition was an enormous blowup rubber duck sporting the Spanish phrase “Chega de Pagar o Pato”, which translates into English as “I Will Not Pay the Duck”. In Brazil, the phrase “pay the duck” refers to taking the blame for something that is not your fault and was adopted by the São Paulo State Federation of Industries in protest against rising taxes. Although a rubber duck may look childish or make people laugh, it definitely catches people’s attention.

Another protest the Design Museum focused on was the ongoing Women’s March, which began on the first day of Donald Trump’s presidency. Since then, around 914 women-led marches have occurred all over the globe with over 4.5 million voices protesting against Trump’s attitude towards women and people of minority. Rather than branding their campaign with a specific design, the majority of placards have been handmade with angry or witty slogans that reflect Trump’s behaviour.

President Trump got more than his fair share of attention during the Hope to Nope exhibition. The final section focused on personality and identity, which is something Trump has been strongly aware of throughout his career as a politician. In the lead up to the presidential election, Trump and his supporters were recognised by their red caps with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Powerful leaders are often obsessed with their image and this was only the beginning of Trump’s attempt to create a memorable identity for himself. Unfortunately, it has also lead to numerous satirical cartoons in magazines and newspapers.

The opinions about Donald Trump are divided into love and hate, nearly all of the museum’s examples stemming from the latter. The most controversial exhibit, by a long shot, was the All-Seeing Trump machine which was launched in 2016, a month before the presidential election. Resembling a fortune teller machine that could usually be found in early 20th-century penny arcades, the Trump-dummy gives users a greeting followed by a promise for the future. These promises are based on what anti-Trump campaigners believed would happen with him in power, for instance, “a terrific nuclear war” and changing Obamacare to “I don’t care”.

Many other politicians have been the target of ridicule in recent years, particularly members of the current British parliament. The final pieces in the exhibition drew attention to a few opinions about Prime Minister Theresa May (b1956) and other Tory MPs. In 2017, illustrator Chris Riddell (b1962) produced a series of political cartoons of May wearing her trademark leopard-print kitten heels in savagely humorous situations. The artist has been portraying the PM in this manner since 2002 when she was the Home Secretary, as well as other important figures.

Theresa May has also been depicted many times on the cover of Private Eye, a current affairs magazine currently edited by Ian Hislop (b1960). Although the magazine aims to tell the truth about world affairs, it illustrates articles with high-brow humour and cartoons. Usually, the cover page includes a photograph of prominent individuals overlayed with comical speech bubbles and topical captions. Despite its satirical nature, Private Eye does not try to influence people’s opinions or political preferences.

The aim of Hope to Nope was to express the importance of graphic design in politics. Whilst there were many opinions, some which may have caused insult, the focus was on the way graphic design was used to get these views across. Often, graphic designers are forgotten about, their hard work unappreciated, whereas, in reality, their contributions are frequently the key to success. This exhibition helped to open people’s minds to the presence of the people who help to make a political campaign or protest visible and memorable.

The Design Museum’s exhibition Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18 closed on 12th August 2018, however, leftover merchandise from the gift shop may still be available online or from the museum.

DISCLAIMER: Similarly to the Design Museum, I do not necessarily agree with everything I have discussed in this blog, nor do I consider them to be necessarily justified, truthful or accurate. 

Votes for (Some) Women

“Reasons for supporting Women’s Suffrage … Because – to sum all reasons up in one – it is for the common good of all.” – NUWSS

A hundred years ago, 6th February 1918, a campaign decades-long came to an end with the Representation of the People Act. Until then, women were allowed no say in parliamentary business and were deemed lesser creatures than their male counterparts. The determination of thousands of women turned the tables on this inequality, and this year, 2018, marks the centenary of their greatest triumph.

The campaign for the right to vote began in the United Kingdom in 1867 with a “Ladies Petition” that was presented to the government by Liberal MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Despite over 1500 signatories, the bill was immediately dismissed. However, that was only the beginning; by 1918, parliament had received over 15,000 petitions for women’s suffrage, but it was not those appeals alone that achieved one of the most celebrated successes in history.

Even before all the centenary advertising started filling magazines and bookshop windows, most people were already familiar with the term “suffragette”. Coined by the Daily Mail, these were the women who fought for their rights, however, the campaign did not begin with them. Less known is the term “suffragists”, which describes a less violent group of women who named themselves the NUWSS.

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Millicent Fawcett

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed on 14th October 1897 and united many smaller, middle-class suffrage organisations that had already begun to emerge, such as the Kensington Society, which was involved with the original Ladies Petition. Also included in the group were the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage.

Under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), the NUWSS aimed to campaign in a non-confrontational and constitutional way. This mostly involved petitions, lobbying, and writing leaflets and newspapers.

Millicent Fawcett had grown up in a wealthy family in Suffolk along with her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) who would become the first female doctor in the United Kingdom. Millicent was inspired by the drastic opinions of John Stuart Mill, whose speech on equal rights for women she witnessed at the young age of 19. Impressed by his public and practical support of women, Millicent became an advocate of his campaign.

“I cannot say I became a suffragist,” Millicent later wrote. “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government.”

It was through her connection to Mill’s politics that Millicent Fawcett, neé Garrett, met her husband, Henry Fawcett (1833-84). Henry also shared the opinion of both Millicent and Mill, however, he died of pleurisy before the campaign for women’s rights really got underway. Left a widow at the age of 38, Millicent threw herself into political campaigning and was quickly elected the president of the NUWSS.

The NUWSS held public meetings for anyone to attend and distributed leaflets to spread their opinion and encourage other women to take up the cause. The main target of the society was the Liberal Party who hoped to win the next election. Their demand was that they receive the right to vote on the same terms “as it is, or may be” granted to men.

Although women’s rights were the organisation’s main concern, the NUWSS also supported the abolition of the slave trade and set up a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer war. Essentially, their central aim was equality for all, regardless of sex and background.

 

 

 

The NUWSS’ progress was slow and some members began feeling restless, impatient and disillusioned with the lawful methods of campaigning. These women began to break away from the group to join a more radical organisation, the WSPU. Founded in Manchester in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the Women’s Social and Political Union preferred to raise public awareness of their campaign by using militant tactics.

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Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst came from a family with a history of radical politics; furthermore, she married the lawyer Richard Pankhurst (1836-98) who had strong views about the rights of women. Richard was the author of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women the right to keep their earnings and property in their own name after marriage. Their daughters Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960) also became a vital part of the WSPU’s campaign.

The members of the WSPU are the women the Daily Mail christened “suffragettes” and they became the talk of the media for the following decade.

With the motto “Deeds not Words”, the WSPU gained notoriety with their aggressive demonstrations, many of which resulted in police intervention. Christabel and her friend Annie Kenney (1879-1953) snuck into a Liberal Party meeting and shouted their demands until forcibly removed, whereas, other suffragettes became involved in window smashing and arson. Some were even arrested for making bombs with the intent to blow up buildings. Nevertheless, the WSPU did not wish to harm other people, targetting empty properties instead.

Women refused to let being arrested hinder their campaign. Whilst detained behind bars, the suffragettes refused to eat to the point that they were seriously malnourished. In fear of being accused of murder, attendants began force-feeding the prisoners, a torturous and painful method involving tubes thrust up noses or down throats. This abusive treatment created an uproar among campaigners and other members of the public, therefore, the Cat and Mouse Act was developed.

The Prisoner’s (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913, most commonly referred to as “Cat and Mouse Act” allowed for the release of hunger-striking prisoners into the community to be nursed back to health, at which time they would be rearrested. Many suffragettes found themselves repeatedly in and out of prison during this time.

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Emily Wilding Davison

By 1913, the WSPU was at the height of its campaign. They were conducting as many violent acts as they could get away with in order to show how serious they were about receiving the same voting rights as men. One suffragette went a step further resulting in the loss of her life in honour of the women’s movement. Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) attended the Epsom Derby in June 1913, kitted with a banner stating “Votes for Women” which she intended to attach to the King’s horse as it raced by.  A teacher who had given up her career to be a suffragette, Emily stepped out onto the race course and was fatally trampled by the horse’s hooves. At the time, women proclaimed Emily to be a martyr for the cause, throwing herself to her death, however, today it is believed that her death was an unintended, unfortunate accident.

The WSPU’s militancy came to an end, not with the success of the campaign, but with the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Emmeline Pankhurst called an end to the protests and encouraged women to support the war effort. Millicent Fawcett, although a pacifist, also asked the NUWSS to help in any way they could. Many women took on the roles the fighting men had left behind, whereas others worked in munition factories.

With the war entering its final year, women were finally granted the right to vote when the Representation of the People Act was passed on 6th February 1918. This allowed men over the age of 21 and certain women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Whilst any man could vote, women had to be householders or occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or a graduate from university. Whilst this was not equal, many women felt successful, however, certain women from the NUWSS continued campaigning until 1928 when women were granted equal voting rights with men.

Although many women were left out of the original Representation of the People Act, the country is busy celebrating the centenary of the suffragette and suffragist success. Many museums, publications, television channels and so forth are celebrating in various ways throughout the year. The following are a handful of things that are currently going on or something to look forward to:

Votes for Women at the Museum of London

 

 

Free to enter, the Museum of London has a temporary display until January 2019 commemorating the Act of 1918. It is dedicated to the hundreds of women who campaigned for the right to vote over 50 years, particularly focusing on the final decade. As well as this display, the museum has a permanent exhibition of suffragette memorabilia, including Emmeline Pankhurst’s Hunger Strike Medal, handwritten letters, banners and sashes in the suffragettes’ iconic colours (green, white and purple), weapons used for window smashing, and belts and padlocks used to chain themselves to railings.

The main aspect of the display is a powerful film reflecting on the militant campaign and how these women have inspired and shocked the world. The items on show highlight the extremes the suffragettes went to and bring the realities of the lives of these women to the fore. To emphasise that these women were real and not just stories, the museum has revealed handmade items a few campaigners put together both at home and in prison, for example, an embroidered handkerchief and Ada Flatman’s (1876-1951) scrapbook.

The museum’s gift shop contains a wide variety of suffragette items from books and postcards to hats and badges. Look out for the board game Pank-a-Squith, a replica of the original produced by the suffragettes to entertain themselves whilst in prison.

Votes for Women at the National Portrait Gallery

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Henry Fawcett; Dame Millicent Fawcett by Ford Madox Brown

Until 13th May 2018, the National Portrait Gallery is displaying a complimentary showcase highlighting Victorian pioneers of the movement as well as paintings, works on paper and photographs representing key figures in the campaign for women’s suffrage, both for and against.

With educational details, photographs and paintings are explained in order to inform visitors about the significant events from the campaign. Photos include those of Emmeline Pankhurst, documenting her speeches and arrests.

 

Voice and Vote in Westminster Hall

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From 27th June until 6th October 2018, Westminster Hall will be home to the Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition featuring unseen historic objects, photographs, and documents from Parliamentary collections. A large amount of the exhibition will involve interactive technologies to help tell the story of the women’s campaigns, protests and eventual success.

Curators have recreated historical places of the Palace of Westminster to emphasise what a woman’s experience of Parliament would have been like at the time of the suffragette movement. These include a Ladies’ Gallery with restricted views of the chamber and a loft space where women once sat to listen to the goings on in the room below.

The exhibition is free to enter, however, tickets must be booked in advance due to the limited capacity of the hall.

Processions

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On Sunday 10th June, women in the cities of London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh are invited to walk together in celebration of the suffrage movement. Wearing green, white and purple, marchers will be showing off artworks that have been produced specifically for the event. In workshops throughout the UK, women are producing colourful centenary banners and plan to turn the city streets into a river of colour during the procession.

Participants must register to take part in advance of the date of the procession.

Millicent Fawcett Statue, London

 

 

For the very first time, a female statue will stand in Parliament Square, London. In honour of her work and determination, Millicent Fawcett will be honoured forever as she takes her place amongst politicians such as Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. Designed by Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing, the statue will be surrounded by 52 photographic etchings on tiles depicting 59 key women who played a significant role in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Emmeline Pankhurst Statue, Manchester

img_1265In Manchester, her home city, Emmeline Pankhurst is also being honoured with a statue. Scheduled to be completed in December 2018, sculptor Helen Reeves has designed the bronze tribute to “stand guard as an enduring reminder of the struggle for the vote, beckoning us to keep going forward as we continue the journey towards gender equality.”

 

 

Many more celebratory events will be happening around the country. Regardless of what they are, their focus is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. Unfortunately, most of these tend to lean more towards the suffragette influence and forget about the passive campaigns of the NUWSS. Also, many of the working class women who joined the campaign were unable to vote, either due to their age or lack of property. Nonetheless, this was the first time women could vote and, whilst it was not equal to the rights of men, it was a significant success in the emancipation of women.

The centenary has sparked debates about the importance of the suffragists and suffragettes. Some argue that women got the vote due to their war work and others claim it was to make up for the loss of lives on the battlefields. Others dispute the celebration claiming that the suffragettes were guerilla terrorists and should not be honoured for their violence, whereas, some suggest they should be pardoned. It is doubtful that the suffragettes would wish to be pardoned for their crimes, they were openly and deliberately committing them to express their views – they knew exactly what they were doing.

Regardless of these debates, the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is one of the biggest turning points in British history with similar Acts occurring at different times throughout the rest of the world. Women (and men) have every right to celebrate, reflect on how far society has come, and push forward with the determination to achieve equal rights for all.

“Once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”

Churchill War Rooms

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Winston Churchill making a radio address from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. © IWM (H 20446)

Everyone has heard stories about the Second World War, Britain’s involvement and the famous speeches of wartime-Prime Minister Winston Churchill. With the conflict still fresh in the older generation’s minds, the media is forever portraying the battles, the bombed-out cities and living conditions of the public on our wide-screened TVs. It is a topic that is unlikely to ever be left alone.

Although documentaries and films tend to focus on the violence and dangers of war, a lot of it was fought in secret, unbeknownst to the general British public. In more recent years, these classified undertakings have gradually been revealed, bringing to light many unsung heroes.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the prime minister during the war, is obviously not overlooked in British history, however, at the time, it was not clear exactly what he was doing. Nevertheless, the hidden location beneath the streets of London, where Britain’s leaders made decisions to lead the country to victory, has been revealed to the public in London’s Westminster. The Cabinet War Rooms were situated underground in the basements of the New Public Offices and since 1984 have been widely available to tourists. The Imperial War Museum has restored many of the rooms to their original appearances to give an authentic insight into the daily life of the War Cabinet. Adding a Churchill Museum in 2005, the site was renamed Churchill War Rooms and celebrates the life of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.

“This is the room from which I will direct the war.” – Winston Churchill, May 1940

After descending the stairs underground, paying a fee of £19, and receiving an audioguide, visitors find themselves in the masses of corridors hidden beneath the Treasury Building (the former New Public Offices) opposite St James’s Park. At some times narrow and claustrophobia-inducing, these corridors connect a series of rooms where vital meetings and work took place during the Second World War. Even the main corridor, now mostly empty, would have been full of typists crammed together at small desks, toiling away at the never-ending piles of written correspondence.

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Cabinet Room at Churchill War Rooms. Source: Imperial War Museum

The audio tour begins with a glance into the Cabinet Room where the Prime Minister would chair meetings with his advisers and Chief of Staff (heads of the army, navy and airforce). The room is displayed exactly as it would have looked like before a meeting commenced, with paper and pencil in front of every seat, and ashtrays ready to receive the ashes from Churchill’s legendary cigar.

Churchill’s position at the table is clearly marked by a posher, more comfortable chair, whereas everyone else had to make do with the uniform basic versions. For the interest of visitors, a diagram is provided detailing the seating plan, explaining the importance of each meeting attendee.

The audioguide directs each visitor around the war rooms, explaining the uses of rooms and adding in interesting bits of information. Although some information boards are positioned around the corridors and rooms, the audioguide is much more beneficial, providing details about and describing the atmosphere during the war years.

There are still secrets to be revealed about the war rooms, mostly because a lot of the rooms were stripped bare at the end of the war with many items being thrown away. Fortunately, the most important rooms were left as they were, and in some cases, photographs have assisted museum workers to reconstruct the various chambers.

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Transatlantic Telephone Room

Some of the secrets the Imperial War Museum has unearthed were not even known to the majority of people who worked there. One of these was the Transatlantic Telephone located off the centre of the main corridor. Originally a storeroom, a lavatory-style lock was added to a door in 1943, giving rise to the rumour that Churchill had been given his own private toilet (there were no flushing toilets available to anyone underground). However, this cupboard-sized room had actually been adapted to accommodate a secure radio-telephone link between the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States of America.

Although not allowed to enter these small rooms, doors are left open so that visitors can peer in at the 1940s decor and furnishings (although rather sparse) and imagine what working underground must have felt like. Also on show are the private rooms such as bedrooms, kitchen and dining areas, built with the intention of being used during bombing raids.

Included in the tour is Churchill’s bedroom, although it is reported he only stayed the night there three times. However, he did make good use of the room, retiring there for a nap during the afternoon. Often, Churchill would dictate his speeches to his Private Secretary whilst lying on his bed, which would then be given to a typist to type out ready for use later in the day. In fact, Churchill made four radio speeches directly from his bedroom using microphones installed for this very purpose. The wall behind the bed is covered with a large map of Europe, implying that the Prime Minister would plot out potential landing sites for invasion.

The most important room of the entire Cabinet War Rooms was the Map Room. Here, officers from the army, navy, airforce and Ministry of Home Security would sit awaiting phonecalls to tell them of the latest news in Europe. This information would then be passed on to “plotters” who would attach pins, ribbons and so forth to wall-sized maps, displaying the latest situation and location of enemies and allies. From these maps, potential courses of military action could be assessed and planned –  a vital contribution to the eventual victory.

To try to prevent confusion, the Map Room contained phones of varying colours, each connecting to different correspondents. White phones were connected to the armed services, black to the outside world, and green to intelligence services. Rather than ringing, which would have caused an incessant racket, the phones would light up to indicate an incoming call.

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The private rooms contain items that had to be sourced elsewhere by researchers because nothing remained of the original furniture and so forth. The Map Rooms, however, were left exactly as they were when the lights were turned off after six years of war. Other items have been fortunate to survive and are also on display around the corridors and rooms to create an authentic appearance. This includes a door complete with key rack where many of the original keys to the rooms still hang, as well as a gun rack mounted on the wall of the corridor (thankfully, the guns are nailed down).

“The greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time.” – Clement Attlee, Churchill’s wartime deputy, speaking in the House of Lords the day after Sir Winston’s death

The Cabinet War Rooms were already in use during the year before Churchill became Prime Minister. Neville Chamberlain held the first war cabinet meeting on 21st October 1939, however, it is Churchill who the war rooms have now been named after. In some ways, it is thanks to Churchill that the war rooms were built. In a meeting in July 1936, Churchill asked the present Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “Has anything been done to provide one or two alternative centre of command, with adequate deep-laid telephone connections and wireless, from which the necessary orders can be given by some coherent thinking mechanism?”

Despite so many people being involved, Churchill was certainly the leading man in the underground rooms and deserves the recognition he has received. In celebration of his life, a third of the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms takes place in a museum dedicated to the Prime Minister. The Churchill Museum tells the story of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary life from birth until his death at the age of 90.

The museum is split into five sections that can be viewed in any order, although the audioguide suggests sticking to a clockwise path around the exhibits. The most pertinent of the five sections is set between 1940-45, which outlines Churchill’s time as War Leader. The other sections cover his childhood (1874-1900), his entry into politics (1900-29), his political exile (1929-39), and his life after the war (1945-65).

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on 30th November 1874 in Blenheim Palace. His aristocratic parents, Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, sent him to boarding school at the age of eight and had very little to do with his early years. Rather than immediately following his father’s footsteps into politics, Winston opted for a military career, eventually becoming a Boer War journalist for the Morning Post. However, Churchill could not avoid the pull of politics for long, and as of 1900, started a new career as the Conservative candidate for Oldham.

To begin with, Churchill was not the popular man he was destined to become and clashed with many other politicians. With so much antagonism against him, Churchill returned to military service in 1915 until 1924 when he rejoined the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, he fell out of favour with the subsequent Prime Ministers, eventually becoming exiled from politics in 1929. However, with the beginning of the war in 1939, Churchill was given the responsibility of the role of First Lord of the Admiralty and eventually began to earn respect. As a result, at the age of 65, Churchill was chosen as the new Prime Minister after Chamberlain’s resignation.

From 10th May 1940, Churchill supported Britain through the war, working extensively in the Cabinet War Rooms. Evidence of his hard work can be seen in the museum through visual, audio and interactive displays.

02_churchillIn the centre of the museum stands a 15-metre-long, digital, interactive table that provides a timeline of Churchill’s life. By using a touchstrip at the edge of the table, visitors can select and explore dates and events during Churchill’s life, viewing over 2000 documents, images and videos. This lifeline is continuously updated as more is discovered about the prodigious War Hero.

Unlike the War Rooms, preserved in their original appearances, The Churchill Museum is a contemporary feature. With so much to watch, read, hear and touch, the large room becomes crowded and overstimulating as everyone tries to explore the life of the famous figure. But with so much to learn, it is inevitable that the room becomes cramped and filled to capacity. Fortunately, the Imperial War Museum provides an in-depth guidebook which can be purchased at the entrance, or later in the gift shop. However, seeing personal items belonging to Britain’s most famous Prime Minister is much better in person, than within the limited pages of a book.

Following the audioguide and taking time to look at everything in the museum may take a couple of hours. A café is located two-thirds of the way through the tour, providing refreshments and a selection of lunches to replenish people’s energy for the final section, which includes the Map Rooms.

The Churchill War Rooms is a vital place to visit to get a true sense of the wartime efforts of the British government. If you are willing to pay the price (£19 adults, £9.50 children), it is certainly worth a visit. School history lessons barely cover the Second World War in comparison to the information provided in this secret bunker. You are guaranteed to learn something new.

The Churchill War Rooms is only a 20-minute bus ride from IWM London or HMS Belfast. It is also close to a wide range of famous tourist attractions including Tate Britain, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. St James’s Park is also on the doorstep.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended. 

2017: Wolfgang Tillmans

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La Palma, 2014

Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ debut exhibition 2017 at the Tate Modern is a week away from closing but is still attracting the attention of many visitors. Although born in Remscheid, Germany in 1968, Tillmans has spent many years in the UK and became both the first photographer and the first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize in the year 2000. Most of the works displayed at the Tate today, however, are from 2003 onwards.

Although the exhibited photographs span the past 14 years, 2017 is not a compilation of Tillmans developing style and skill, but rather a focus on the present day. Most people would define a photographer essentially as someone who takes photographs, but Tillmans takes the name to new levels. Each room has been specifically arranged by the artist to help visitors engage with themes of community, politics and society.

Rather than simply hanging photographs on walls, Tillmans has experiemented with whole-room installations, publications, videos and music. As visitors walk around the gallery, they can see snapshots laid out on tables where individual pieces can be studied in detail. The majority of the works that are on the walls are printed on papers of a considerable size, often meaning they are better viewed from a distance. With these mix of approaches, Tillmans is trying to represent how culture and technology shape the way people understand the current world.

Initially, the opening rooms may not enliven onlookers, and, without the provided guide leaflet, may not make sense or mean anything. However, with thanks to the Tate’s written explanations, it becomes clearer that method is just as important for Tillmans as the final outcomes. For instance, Tillmans likes to experiment with technology to show how advanced it has become, comparing digital methods with the outdated manual. For example, Tillmans reveals how much easier it is to photograph an urban night scene from a moving vehicle without the photograph being ruined by blurring. This is a result of the faster shutter speeds the latest cameras possess.

Each room of the exhibition contains a new theme, idea or approach, often displaying photographs from a particular project. One such undertaking is a series of photographs titled Neue Welt in which Tillmans visited the different continents taking snapshots of communal spaces, food, people and still-life, recording the differences and changes that time has had on the different cultures. Some of these are quite beautiful and are a contrast to some of his more abstract works.

Another project is titled Truth Study Center, which is focused less on a photography and more on research. It is in the room that Tillmans has made the most of the scattered tables in order to present his findings. Photographs, newspaper clippings, advertisements and so forth are laid out to express contridictory opinions and statements that have been issued by the government and politicians over the past couple of decades. This study questions what truth is and whether it is possible to trust what individuals, groups or organisations profess.

 

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Shanghai Night, 2009

It is clear from a great number of photographs that Tillmans primary topic of interest is
social life. He believes that everyone is vulnerable and is determined to prove his belief through unstaged imagery. He is particularly concerned with freedom and the interweaving spheres of personal and public life. Tillmans photographs people on the street and contrasts them with pictures of a more private nature, occassionally consisting of nudity.

 

Like many photographers, Tillmans has played around with portraiture, however his commercial outputs, and presumably his method of earning money, are a mix of posters, catalogues, magazine spreads, leaflets and books – principally items that can be mass produced. Examples of these can be found on tables in one of the exhibitions rooms. There are too many to be able to study them in detail, but the underlying theme is prominent. These lucrative formats are a means to express political opinion and contemporary interest. Although these compositions may not make his name known, Tillmans can still impress his views and beliefs over a widespread audience.

Interestingly, since he was born, lives and works in Berlin, Tellmans is passionate about the effects of Brexit, and in 2016, produced a series of posters encouraging British citizens to vote “remain”. Not many of these advertisements are amongst the selection of commercial items, however the photographs used on the designs are displayed in the final room of the exhibition. These images may look like tranquil sea-scapes, but they have an ulterior purpose. Tellmans is intrigued with the tangible lines and borders on the horizon caused by what looks like the meeting of the sea and sky, whereas, in reality, these are fluid. These photographs of the Atlantic Ocean are metaphors for opposing time zones and national frontiers, which may not be causing waves right now, but have the potential to in the future. This is why this series was suitable to illustrate the Brexit posters, because leaving the EU is a journey into the unknown. No one knows how it may affect the “tides”.

These posters were found in an article in the magazine Dezeen.

2017 is an interesting exhibition and not necessarily what you may be expecting. Seeing the processes and research that Wolfgang Tillmans undertakes makes the final outcomes far more meaningful than if viewed solely as artworks with no substantial background information. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the exhibition is finishing soon, the final day being Sunday 11th June. However, there are over 200 photographs on the Tate website for those who wish to receive a basic impression of Tillmans photography, and one series of work (Concorde Grid, 1997) is on show at the Tate Britain as part of the  Walk Through British Art display. There are, of course, books such as Books for Architects, available for purchase.

Revolution!

Russian Art 1917-1932

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Russian Art’? The majority would probably picture geometric shapes, sharp angles and bright colours, but this is only an example of one genre of art that has emerged from Eastern Europe. It is one of the few styles that managed to spread to the Western world before the Russian government had an opportunity to crush it. Russian art is actually so protean, it cannot be summed up in a simple description. How would you describe British art, American art, French art, Italian art etc? So many movements have influenced artists, thus constantly changing the styles and fashions of each country. Russia was no different.

For centuries, Russia was under the autocratic rule of the Tsars until in 1917, provoking a civil war, Vladmir Lenin rose to power as a Communist leader. With this revolution came dramatic changes to Russian society, and art was swept up alongside it. Avant-garde artists were excited about the new developments and the opportunities they would bring about for creative individuals.  However, their eagerness was short lived.

Lenin and the Bolshevik party came to power so suddenly, they has been unable to gain the support of the majority; therefore drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure they gained popularity. This, however, was not going to be an easy thing to tackle in the profusely illiterate country. For that reason, artists were given the task of spreading ideology through the means of mass propaganda.

In April 1918, Lenin revealed his Plan for Monumental Propaganda, which relied heavily on artists and photographers to carry out. Paintings, sculptures and everyday paraphernalia were utilised in order to glorify Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Graphic designers were commissioned to design posters sporting slogans that honoured the party. The colour red was often used to represent the revolution.

One of the most shocking tasks Lenin demanded was the removal of artworks used by the Russian Orthodox Church, replacing the figure of Jesus with an icon of himself. It is hard to imagine how a predominantly Christian country would agree to let this happen, however, it did, and Lenin became almost saint-like.

After Lenin’s death, Russia became a very dangerous place to live, especially for artists who wanted to express their own voices. Joseph Stalin took Lenin’s place as leader of the Soviet Union. Throughout his dictatorship, Stalin made many changes and demands. One of these was the proclamation that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable artistic style. Gone were the opportunities for artists to experiment with their creativity. Ironically, the artworks accepted hardly revealed the truth about the Soviet Union, despite being classified as Realism.

Stalin believed that Russia was behind the times and was determined to industrialise the country. He introduced the concept of a Five-year Plan, which would set targets for every factory and farm belonging to the Soviet Union. Physical labour was demanded of all citizens in order to reach these goals. To encourage the population, Stalin commissioned – or more likely forced – designers, photographers, film producers etc. to promote his scheme. Photography was perhaps the preferred medium since its content is more believable than a painting and could be easily reproduced on posters and spread amongst the masses. However, these photographs were often staged in order to make situations appear better than they really were. Behind the lies of smiling faces, most workers were treated like slaves, often imprisoned or killed for not working as well as others. Thousands died from accidents, starvation or poor living and working conditions during this period.

Kazimir Malevich

The effects of the Russian revolution and Stalin’s dictatorship is evident through many artists’ changing styles. Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a significant example of this. Although Social Realism was not enforced until the very end of his life, the reshaping of Malevich’s personal style documents the gradual elimination of techniques by the Soviet Union.

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Black Square 1929 by Kazimir Malevich. Photograph: State Tretyakov, Moscow, Russia

Born pre-revolution, Malevich believed that art was a method of expressing spirituality, therefore outcomes need not be realistic, and could be based on metaphor rather than truth. At the height of his career in 1915, Malevich patented a style named Suprematism, a purely abstract art movement characterised by the use of geometric shapes and a limited range of colour.  A particular famous piece that symbolises this movement is Black Square.

Unfortunately, Malevich’s movement was eventually denounced by Soviet authorities on the basis that it failed to convey social realities.

Malevich attempted to conform to Soviet ideology, however was still adamant to work in an abstract style. Despite rebelling against the governments artistic rules and regulations, Malevich’s new paintings were accepted and displayed at the State Russian Museum in 1932.

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Woman with Rake, c.1932 Photo:as above

Presumably the subject matter of Malevich’s paintings were what granted him approval to painting in an abstract style. Depicted were anonymous figures showing peasant workers out in their fields. The blank faces and limited colour make up a characterless person that hides the truth about their working conditions. On the other hand, it also represents the loss of identity these people felt under the oppressive rule of Joseph Stalin.

At the very end of his life, shortly before dying of cancer, Malevich was painting in a style that the Soviet Union was enforcing throughout the country. Contrasting Malevich’s final self-portrait with an earlier one shows these dramatic changes and emphasises the control the Soviets’ held.

Although there were artists who refused to conform, yearning for the days when art showed the beauty and charm of Tsarist Russia, the world saw a utopian version, hiding the terrible truths.

As you can see, it is impossible to categorise something as “Russian Art”. There is pre-revolution art, which encompasses a wide variety of styles, and then there is Soviet Art, a “realistic” portrayal of Russia under Lenin, and then Stalin – as long as it expressed Communist ideology. Then, of course, there are contemporary artists living in a post-Soviet country, giving “Russian Art” a brand new meaning.

To fully understand the effects the Soviet Union had on the art world, it is best to see it with your own eyes. Luckily we have hindsight on our side, preventing us from falling into the trap of believing the lies and exaggerations shown in paintings and photographs.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1931 is an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. You have until 17th April 2017 to go and see it.

 

 

Essay Resources

As part of my Graphic Design degree I had to write four essays (not including dissertation and proposals). In some ways I enjoyed writing these as it gave me the opportunity to learn new things. My essays varied on subjects from Bauhaus and illustration to sustainable design.

For those studying the same subject, or thinking of taking it up, I thought I would share with you a few of the books I bought to help me with my writing.

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Clean New World: Culture, Politics and Graphic Design

By Maud Lavin

This book is great for research into political aspects of graphic design. Lavin reveals the political influence on design from democracy to anti-Nazi propaganda. There are also chapters that focus on women designers and their contemporary activist work.

 

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Digital and Video Art
by Florence de Mèredieu

I purchased this book with the hope that it would help me to argue whether graphic design counts as an art form. It had a few helpful quotes and prompted me to research further in to particular designers and theorists. However it mostly focuses on computer graphics rather than graphic design or digital illustration.

 

 

 

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A Designer’s Research Manual: Succeed in Design by Knowing Your Clients and What They Really Need
by Jennifer Visocky O’Grady and Ken O’Grady

It was recommended by my tutor that I buy this book, not for essay writing, but for help with research. It provides a step -by-step guide about how to go about seeking the information you need. This is particularly helpful when you are tasked with writing your own brief for a project – something I had to do in my final year, and many designers have to do during their careers.

 

 

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British Posters: Advertising, Art & Activism
by Catherine Flood

I recommend this book for anyone interested in poster design regardless of whether or not you have an essay to write. It contains a vast selection of British posters from the V&A collection from 1945 through to the present day. It covers various advertising companies and countercultural groups, including the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign, hand-printed punk posters, public art projects and the more recent political advertisements.

 

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Graphic Style: From Victorian to New Century
by Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast

Finally, if you’re looking for information about different styles of graphic design then this is the book you need. Admittedly there is not a lot you can quote, however it gives enough information to help you further your research. Beginning with the typical styles of pre-war graphic design, Heller and Chwast talk you through every art movement and development until the digital design of the 2000s. Accompanied by plenty of relevant images, this book provides a great insight into the changes and directions that graphic design has taken.

Naturally, I used hundreds more books and websites in my bibliographies, but these were a few of my favourites. I hope you also find them interesting whether as essay resources or a source of personal enjoyment.