David King: The man who rescued the avant-garde

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Graphic designer David King, who died last month, was inspired by the art produced in revolutionary Russia. Roger Huddle looks back on a pathbreaking artist and his contribution to political struggle over five decades.

The news of his death came as a shock. We had come through the same history, but together for only a short period.

As times were changing during the two decades from 1965 young socialists began to discover the cultural upheavals during Russia’s revolution, hidden by Stalinism and ignored in the West. As the new left reconnected with Trotsky, those involved in cultural production discovered Constructivism, Agit-prop, the poetry of Mayakovsky and the photography of Rodchenko.

First through the door was designer David King, with his jaw-dropping design for a pre-Murdoch Sunday Times colour supplement; his extraordinary eye as a picture editor, working with photographers such as Don McCullin and Red Saunders. Feature articles brought him to Moscow’s picture archives where he unearthed a treasury of revolutionary graphics. This had a deep influence on Dave, who then took it into his own work and influenced me and other designers working on the socialist left.

Articles researched for the Sunday supplement became books — Trotsky: A Documentary, with Francis Wyndham in 1972 and Mayakovky: 20 Years’ Work, with David Elliot in 1982. Not only was the past brought back into the present but he developed a new visual language.

His continuing design of exhibition catalogues mainly for the Oxford Museum of Modern Art — on Rodchenko, the photography of the Mexican Revolution, Stalin’s falsification of history — all came together in his magnificent Red Star Over Russia: A visual history of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the death of Stalin (Tate Publishing, 2009). This final volume of stunning visuals and photographs based on King’s own collection is a must for all socialists.

Rescuing the avant-garde graphic design from the revolutionary years in Russia was a feat in itself, but his own design became bolder and iconographic. His reintroduction of extra bold serif type, mostly set in capitals; his use of flat primary colours; his playfulness with angles all added to the wonder of his work.

In 1976, after Eric Clapton’s racist rampage on stage in Birmingham, we formed Rock Against Racism, and because we were visual workers and from left organisations, we immediately wanted a logo. Red Saunders asked his friend Dave King to come up with an idea — the RAR star was the outcome. For the next four years it became known throughout Britain and beyond, appearing on the covers of DIY punk 45s, as stickers on guitars (Tom Robinson and Jimmy Pursey the most notable), on banners, and mostly as a badge, thousands and thousands of badges, multi-coloured, multi-sized.

Visually the RAR star is complete: a five-cornered star adopted by the Third International from a design by El Lissitsky, representing the five continents of the world; held in a circle (a bit like a pop art sheriff’s badge), the text in block capitals unbreakable.

After producing the star Dave was approached by Paul Holborow, organiser for the Anti Nazi League, to design a logo for them. What followed is, I think, some of the finest graphic work, not only on the left, but anywhere. King’s ANL arrow is a masterpiece. An arrow taken from constructivist design used by German anti-Nazis in the late 1920s. The arrow worked as a stencil used to paint across Nazi slogans appearing on walls. The early ANL posters were extraordinarily powerful, matched by his work for the first ANL/RAR Carnival in Victoria Park in 1978.

For a short period he reinvented the propaganda poster and set a path for us all to follow. For Socialist Worker, for the ANL, for Amnesty, for Anti-Apartheid. His Free Nelson Mandela poster is so powerful because it is so simple.

When the staff at Time Out, after a long and bitter dispute with their management, left to form their own weekly listings magazine, City Limits, they asked Dave to design the cover for each issue. He had free rein in a very tight space to experiment. The resulting covers are a marvel.

Finally, Dave had a bad experience with orthodox Trotskyism in his student days, and although becoming centred on Trotsky the historical figure, he abandoned revolutionary politics. A good fellow traveller for a while, he became more concerned with the aestheticism of design rather than its practical application in struggle. For a short time though he was King of Design.

Roger will be speaking on RAR at Marxism 2016. For details go to www.marxismfestival.co.uk