WEBEXCLUSIVE

Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film

The Jewish Museum | September 25, 2015 – February 7, 2016

My most respected
comrades of posterity!
Rummaging through
the present days'
petrified shit
studying the darkness of our era,
you,
may also,
want to know about me.
And one of your scholars
may just impart,
[. . .]
that indeed there lived
a certain boiled water bard,
standing up to raw water
in fierce opposition.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Moisei Nappelbaum, Stalin, ca. 1934, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann.

The Jewish Museum’s Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film is a simple exhibition aiming to battle an enormous subject. The walls of the old museum are packed with small, familiar, modernist, black and white photographs; the space is filled with vitrines holding books, magazines, catalogues, and a room in the back has been turned in to a cozy theater for the daily film screenings. The artists exhibited and the tale of their failed revolution may be well known, but through its telling and retelling its narrative has become part of a simplified history. This exhibition succeeds in representing this material in a way that allows for a reconsideration of these artists and their environment, and it provides a timely opportunity to meditate on the ever-pressing subject of art, war and politics.

Power of Pictures achieves this by focusing on a short time period, beginning from the 1917 revolution and ending by Stalin’s reign of terror. Sorted thematically and focusing on modern mediums, the exhibition establishes an evolutionary narrative that begins with these artists seizing upon the new possibilities offered by the liminal space created in the aftermath of the revolution and follows their path to cliff edge of authoritarian control. These familiar works cease to be indexed historical lessons and reassert themselves as the visions of a revolution. They are a testimony to the humanity of their creators, artists high on dreams of unlimited potentials and blind to their ability—as revolutionaries, as pioneers, and most-catastrophically as artists—to destroy and being destroyed.

Georgy Petrusov, Caricature of Alexander Rodchenko, 1933–34, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Artwork © Georgy Petrusov, courtesy of Alex Lachmann Collection

The first room presents hope for new promises. Some of the best examples of the era’s avant-garde photography are gathered in this section, titled “New Perspectives”. The work exemplifies the experiments and achievements of artists freed from old constraints. Here they are creating new definitions, as visual artists, as individuals, and as parts of the society. From Georgy Zimin and El Lissitzky’s playful photograms in the studio to Alexander Rodchenko’s unique and extreme view of the street—making one see all anew, they push the boundaries of the young medium. They reconstruct the image of the artist; a prophet-like character with opened eyes.. Made through simple darkroom methods, both Lissitzky’s Self-Portrait (1924 – 25) with the added third-eye and Petrusov’s Caricature of Alexander Rodchenko (1933 – 34)—where his staring profile symbolizes his mindset—emphasize the insight of the new revolutionary artist. 

Most importantly, these artists aimed to redefine their role in society. Their goal was to join the social/political conversation by inserting their ideas into the public discourse through books, catalogues, and magazines. But with their formal choices politicized the attempt by authorities to control or suppress those choices began. Standing between this room and next is a small yet poignant example. Rodchenko’s Pioneer Playing a Trumpet (1930), is an utterly simple image—a man playing the trumpet shot from his iconic low angle—that resulted to sharp criticism; the artist prosecuted solely for his avant-garde vision—utterly inadequate for the positive image of the soviet youths the authorities desired. The horror of Stalin's totalitarian authority awaits.

Arkady Shaikhet, Express, 1939, gelatin silver print. Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York. Artwork © Estate of Arkady Shaikhet / courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery.

The next room covers two themes, “Metropolis” and “Constructing Socialism,” in which the political agendas of the artists precede their work. Seemingly simple modern photographs—celebrating cars, buildings, trains, etc.—become more potent with a closer look. These are masterful examples of the new languages that were being created by Soviet artists. The messages they carry run counter to our Western perspective, rejecting transcendental values, capitalism, consumerism, and even individualism. These images protest our expectations of art. They are not expressionistic, emotional, entertaining, personal; they do not even allow desire. But seeing them together in this context, they surpass all the distance the years have created and communicate something simpler. In these images, banal rectangular objects turn into melodic forms, lines of demonstrators become marvelous geometric designs, silhouettes of workers become icons of humankind; these are the first traces of a new visual language being born.

Georgy Zelma, Three Generations in Yakutsk, 1929, gelatin silver print. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Image provided by Rosphoto, State Russian Centre for Museums and Exhibitions of Photography, St. Petersburg.

The following room deflates all of this energy, focusing on work produced under the Stalin’s propagandistic authoritarian control. It is stiff and uncompromising. In a corner stands a picture of Stalin around 1934. Created by Napplebaum, this slightly blurry informal portrait announces his Stalin’s sovereignty over the room. All ideals once held dearly are now reduced to facades; the army is turned into a formal tool, the marginalized into comical actors of the theater of happiness; the cult of health a cover up for the starving, and the poor only promotional material for the powerful.

Moisei Nappelbaum, The Poet Anna Akhmatova, 1924, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann.

On the wall adjacent to Stalin,’s, portraits of the famous artists are lined up—Gorky, Brik, Dzerzhinsky, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Eisenstein, Stepanova, and Mayakovsky—as if to be prosecuted by the surrounding evidences of what their aims amounted to. It is hard here that one must confront to forget the horror that awaited most of these artists: restriction, prosecution, silence, forced labor, exile, and suicide.

Throughout this show these seven artists are the only people who stare directly back at us. No matter how cold or problematic they've become, their work testifies to a unique voice full of ambitions and determination, courage and playfulness, and considerable originality. Ultimately, it is a voice of humanity at its most mythic capacity: blindly hopeful and horridly fallible.
 

Contributor

Yasaman Alipour

YASAMAN ALIPOUR is an Iranian artist/writer based in New York. For further information visit yasamanalipour.com.

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