A Cooler Shade of Red

A new museum exhibition of Cold War art leaves the nastiness of the communist system completely unacknowledged

It takes a special kind of genius to make the history of the Cold War dull and uninformative. That genius seems to have been behind the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970. To be fair, the exhibition was not quite as bad as I feared when I read in the introductory notes that the competition in the post-war period was between two kinds of society: free-market democracies and those organised “for the benefit of ordinary people”. I gritted my teeth in expectation of being told that there was no real difference between the two systems and, if anything, communism was slightly preferable because it cared about “ordinary people”.

Then it improved and several unpleasant things were mentioned: suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and of the Prague Spring, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and … well, nothing much else except for the fact that beautiful designs in the West were available to many people and in the East never went into production. With no background information, no timeline, no real explanation who the various people mentioned in the notes were and what happened to them, this exhibition provides some entertainment to those who knew about the Cold War and nothing much to others.

A group of bored-looking students stopped by a display of late-1940s drawings and posters: Picasso’s dove, Topolski’s sketches of participants in the Soviet-sponsored Wroc?aw Peace Congress and a very funny French anti-communist poster that showed Stalin as a Paris tough with the peace dove on a leash. They were silent for a couple of minutes, then a boy said: “Must be American.” More silence. One of the girls read the notice and muttered tentatively: “No, I think it’s French. Yes, it says it’s French.” I was sorely tempted to suggest that the fact that the writing on the poster was in French and the address given was in Paris might have been a clue but was even more intrigued when the first boy replied to the girl: “I thought if it’s Western, it must be American.”

That is the sort of ignorance we have to deal with and the exhibition did not provide the necessary antidote. In the end, design and illustrations are not really what the Cold War was about, but the V&A is not equipped to deal with politics, ideology or the sheer nastiness of the communist system.

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