Judy Groves: On your first visit to the Soviet Union in 1970, you found everything visually stimulating. Were you already familiar with some of the things you saw?
David King: I don’t think I did find it visually stimulating. What I did find was that it reminded me of childhood. Everybody said “No” and the streets were incredibly wide. It seemed to be permanently dark – well, it was February – and it got terribly cold at night, minus 30 degrees. It was exceptional, like being transported back into childhood just after the war. I absolutely loved it in that respect, the strangeness of that time, the Brezhnev period. Well, there were many things about it.
JG: This was for Lenin’s anniversary?
DK: Yes. But I think I started getting interested in Russian material earlier than that, in 1967 at The Sunday Times. It was the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and I did a big thing in the magazine – 10 pages. Actually, it was the first time that the magazine ever won a design award. It was an A to Z of the Russian Revolution, but the material was collected in London. Three years later in 1970, it was the anniversary of the birth of Lenin. I suggested to The Sunday Times that they send me to Russia to collect material on Lenin and his life. So that’s what happened and I went officially at that stage. I brought back vast amounts of stuff and it started forming the basis of my collection. We did two issues of the magazine – 22 pages. It was incredible, quite unlike magazine publishing today.
JG: Were you politically engaged at that time?
DK: I had been politically engaged at art school. From 1960 to 1963 I did some political work for CND, the Committee of 100, things like that. I did a huge CND banner in 1964. But no, I didn’t really do any political work until after I’d left The Sunday Times in 1976.
JG: You went to Washington for the magazine to do a piece about Nixon and you covered the Moon launch in 1969. Neither of these events triggered a life-long obsession with collecting material, so I’m assuming that the Russian Revolution was more politically relevant to you.
DK: The Sunday Times was a wonderful place to work, but of course they wouldn’t let me do the Russian Revolution every week, so I had to be interested in other things. I was at the magazine as a designer and I designed it for several years. But I got bored with that. I wanted to contribute visual articles to the magazine. The people who were contributing generally weren’t visual people. They’d been to Oxford or somewhere and had no conception of visual ideas. It was done from the words point of view first. So, I tried to change that quite a bit by collecting all the visual material – photographs, graphics, whatever – first. Then someone could stick text with it. If it wasn’t me, then someone else.
JG: In any case you weren’t just a designer, part of a design team, you were a rather young art editor.
DK: I was an art editor from the age of 22 from 1965, which, yes, was incredibly young.
JG: Did the Russian avant-garde photographers or artists influence your work?
DK: The photographers didn’t at that time, not until later. I’ve never been so much interested in names as in pictures, I suppose, when I think about it. I’m interested in subjects like the revolution, or the Great Terror, or the gulag as opposed to who necessarily took the pictures. In a way I never actually liked Rodchenko’s pictures all that much. He was a good designer and photographer but just because it was a photograph by Rodchenko never really interested me. There were so many photographers, so many designers.
JG: You went to his house in Moscow.
DK: It was Rodchenko’s studio. I went there because Bruce Chatwin recommended it in 1976 or 1977. It was where the headquarters of LEF, the Left Front of the Arts magazine was produced, under Mayakovsky. And now, the third generation after Rodchenko still lives there – the grandson [Alexander Lavrentiev].
JG: You took a photograph out of the window…
DK: Yes, a deliberate Rodchenko. But I did that more successfully in St Petersburg with the famous photograph of the overhead shot of the demonstration – on July 4th 1917 – of Bolshevik demonstrators fleeing the bullets of Kerensky’s troops. It was taken on the crossroads of Nevsky Prospect and Sadova. A great photographer, Viktor Bulla, who had a studio on that corner, heard shots. He looked out of the window and saw everybody running. He got his camera and took one of the most famous pictures of the 20th century. I happened to be there a few years ago and the building was still intact. But now it was a typical Russian department store so I went up to the third floor, which was a kind of stock room. They said, “What do you want?” and I told them I wanted to photograph out of the window because this used to be Bulla’s studio. Of course, they’d never heard of him. I got exactly the same picture, except that instead of demonstrators running everywhere there were BMWs queuing up at traffic lights. They weren’t being shot at. It was extraordinary because I didn’t have the original photograph with me, which was annoying, but I approximated it 95 per cent.
JG: On all these trips to the Soviet Union and elsewhere, you must have made a lot of contacts. Is this how you located your material?
DK: What happened was that in the old days the material that you could find there was almost entirely censored, especially if you were a foreigner. Export regulations and customs were very strict. The only things available really were what they wanted you to see. It was officialdom. So, the airbrushed photographs from The Commissar Vanishes were roughly all from Soviet sources. Most of the interesting material found before the period of change – the collapse of the Soviet Union – was found in the West.
JG: Where, mostly New York?
DK: Second-hand bookshops, junk shops and from people who just had kept things and didn’t want them. A lot in London, socialist bookshops that now no longer exist.
JG: In New York, there were all those Russian immigrants who had material.
DK: Yes, exactly, there were lots of those – and American socialists. In France there was a lot of political interest.
JG: By now you had links with political groups.
DK: What I’m trying to say is that in all those places there was material available, which way back in the 1930s had been banned in Russia. But it was still available in the West because of the dissemination of political propaganda by the Bolsheviks in that revolutionary time in the 1920s, through the Comintern. So, there were loads and loads of Russian photographs, graphics, photographic albums, portfolios of photos, magazines like USSR in Construction, lots of multilingual magazines published in the 1930s. All that stuff was still available in the West – even if it was on the floor of a junk shop. It had been totally suppressed in Russia. But after Gorbachev came to power everything changed and I started going to Russia much more frequently. Vast amounts of stuff came to the surface, which was completely amazing because so much of it was so contentious. If you had been caught with it in the old days you would have been arrested. Not many people want to be arrested for having a photograph in their possession, but so many people were. The amount of Trotsky material that came out was astonishing – giant pictures, posters, vast amounts of stuff.
JG: Can you think of any items that were so rare that you can still remember finding them?
DK: I think the most important thing really is the conté drawing of Trotsky that is hanging in Tate Modern. It is a large portrait made in 1923 by the artist [Sergei] Pichugin, who studied under [Ilya] Repin. Trotsky fell out of favour with the regime shortly afterwards and Pichugin pasted a heavy piece of white card over the portrait. It remained like that for about 70 years until after the artist’s death. When the family was going through his stuff they found it and pulled the card away. There was this wonderful, untouched portrait of Trotsky underneath. I bought it through an intermediary via the family and left the bits of white card round the edges to show that it had been hidden from history.
JG: I remember when you first started collecting USSR in Construction it was very challenging when you had certain issues missing.
DK: Well, I have them all now! The first copy I ever saw was an amazing issue on Soviet coal miners. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it the most extraordinary piece of design I’d ever seen.
JG: The magazines had lots of gatefolds didn’t they?
DK: Yes, and lots of photomontages. They were incredibly well designed by very famous Soviet designers who had originally been artists in the revolutionary period – avant-gardists like El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko.
JG: What were you interested in as an art student?
DK: I studied graphic design at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts [now the London College of Communication] and the course was completely brilliant because there were two teachers every day for five days a week and you got two more every evening at night school. So, there were all these teachers, and as a 17-year-old with difficulties, there was always going to be someone there who you could relate to. There were some very good people, politically very interesting people. There was Rolf Brandt, who was a great basic design teacher. There was Robin Fior, who was a very good typographer and Trotskyist, and other people as well. Tom Eckersley, a renowned British poster designer, had put the course together. But he didn’t stick with his own very English style when it came to appointing lecturers. He employed a very wide range of people. So, it was a wonderful course, based very much on the Bauhaus. I was there for three years, but all the time I was thinking – it’s OK the Bauhaus, but it isn’t political, not hands-on political. It’s a socialist approach but not really revolutionary.
JG: It was exploring radically different ways of living – that’s political.
DK: It was probably more revolutionary than I thought at the time, it’s certainly true. Then a tutor there called Keith Cunningham said, “Why don’t you work on a magazine? You like photographs and doing things with pictures. You can do photo layouts, you can relate them to Eisenstein’s films – close-up, long shot, make exciting displays of material.” I got very excited about this. Then I was fortunate enough to be made art editor of The Sunday Times Magazine in 1965.
I used to walk to work from my home in Islington to the magazine’s offices in Gray’s Inn Road and I used to dream of there being some unknown past of visual politics that hadn’t been discovered. I wished that there’d been a revolutionary design movement – and of course there was! So, then I went to Russia and started seeing some of this stuff.
JG: Where did you see it, in what sort of institution?
DK: In the Museum of the Revolution [in Moscow; now the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia]. Although they didn’t have much on the revolution, they had a hell of a lot of things that were incredible, brilliantly designed. They had posters, books, book covers, but not the avant-garde, one-offs that had been made as presents for Stalin, although Stalin’s name wasn’t mentioned at the time! They just said, “Presents for the Leaders.” There were huge three-dimensional hammers and sickles, or wheat sheaves stamped out of metal – just the most amazing things. Then of course I started seeing these huge albums and I used to wish that I could get some of them, because I thought they were just incredible – although they were not avant-garde at all. The avant-garde was taken up in the West more as a money-making opportunity, it seemed to me. They really promoted it and jacked up the prices of the early paperback designs of the revolution and things like that. They were very much “for sale” as sub works of art. You couldn’t get a canvas by El Lissitzky, but you could get a book cover designed by him, and they were very good.
JG: Or a theatre poster…
DK: Yes, they were very good too, but the whole thing became very much a western market. But I was very interested in the history of what had happened in the first workers’ state and how it went wrong. All the archaeological digging up of Trotsky photographs, all the detective work involved, travelling around finding it and meeting such interesting people – it all took over.
The idea of the library actually evolved from me being a designer in quite a strange way. At the same time as computers were widely used, Gorbachev came to power. I was no longer interested in design, and certainly not in designing on a computer. With Gorbachev came an incredible opening up of the Soviet Union (as it still was called). My life seamlessly changed from ancient designer to something new. The world and her husband kept on phoning up, “Have you got a picture of Lenin?” There was a sudden major interest in Russia.
JG: At what point did you realise that you’d created an archive, which would be useful to other people, rather than just a collection of things that interested you? Did you have an idea about how to organise it as a working library?
DK: I wanted the collection to be as wide-ranging as possible, not just avant-garde, not just Russian Revolution, not just Bolsheviks and not just Trotsky. It should encompass the whole Soviet experience and try to show alternatives to Stalinism. In order to do that, you also have to include Stalinism to “contrast and compare”.
JG: You have to rehabilitate – to use one of their terms – people who have been obliterated from the history books.
DK: Entirely, yes, of course. But the idea is that it’s not just a narrow visual field of constructivist or avant-garde photography, with everything at an angle. It tries to include everything, a visual history.
JG: Who mainly uses your collection and has that changed over the years?
DK: One of the main areas of interest that has grown tremendously is educational publishing. Lots of articles in the western press spoke of how the Soviets had to rewrite all their school books because they’d made no mention of anybody who had been disallowed and had lied so much about their own history. But the hilarious thing was that at the same time all the western school books had to be rewritten as well. There had been the Cold War – now suddenly the Russians were our friends.
JG: During Stalin’s reign of terror they wouldn’t go to the expense of reprinting books, so offending people were inked out.
DK: The Commissar Vanishes shows that there were two fronts regarding retouching. The first was official retouching, as in the art departments of the newspapers Pravda and Izvestia and in the State-run publishing houses. If somebody became a non-person an order would be put through: “Don’t show that person in that photograph, only show the other [person].” So, the person in the picture had to be cut or airbrushed out. The more viciously you obliterated them – if you attacked them with scissors, or with a knife or fork or spoon, or threw ink at them – the clearer it became that you were a good loyal Stalinist and that you were infuriated by their existence on the page. So, obliteration was a two-fronted thing.
JG: Sometimes the retouching is very crudely carried out. The person may be cut out with scissors, but an elbow or something remains.
DK: Yes. In the introduction to The Commissar Vanishes, I write about how sometimes these bits of people were left in deliberately so that people in the future might be able to recognise that someone has disappeared – the dead being undead, that sort of thing.
JG: Some of the best things from your collection are now housed in a room at Tate Modern. How did that happen?
DK: The Tate came round to see me about something else and saw all this Russian stuff. At the time, the Barbican was thinking of doing a big exhibition of my collection but I didn’t think it would look very good there. The Tate suggested that I do a room at Tate Modern, a display which could stay there for a year or 18 months – that I could do a series of rooms there. So that got very exciting. We did the first one with Soviet posters – a fast-forward of the history of the Soviet Union through posters, round the wall of one fair-sized room on the fifth floor. The response from the public has been fantastic.
JG: Yes, when I’ve been there there’s been such a lot of interest – it’s one of the busiest rooms.
DK: Last time I was in there, there were 40 people, and they were all reading the captions and talking about it – it was absolutely amazing.
JG: It’s quite a learning resource, isn’t it?
DK: Absolutely, and people are just so interested in it because the Tate have nothing of that material themselves. This is something entirely different for them. So, they’re very, very pleased that we’re doing these things.