The “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Early Soviet Film” exhibition at the Jewish Museum offer insight into a period of rapid change in Russia in both politics and art during the 1920s and 30s through fantastic photography–masterpieces of innovative formal development. They also tell an alternate story of early photography that differs from the traditional one of Modernism. In the politically charged climate of Russia, artistic innovation was initially bound to utopian ideals of Communism. This exhibition shows how the codification of visual style from avant-garde Constructivism to a brutal Social Realism parallels a changing society: one that went from revolution and idealism to totalitarian state control over the course of some-twenty years.
In its beginnings, photography was both an art form and documentary tool. Formal and technical developments, such as photograms and photomontage, fascinated artists as walls like the one pictured above testify. The portable, late-1920s model Leica cameras freed photographers from the bulky equipment previously required. The Jewish Museum quotes Lenin as declaring that the camera, as much as the gun, was an important weapon in “class struggle.” Dying in 1924, Lenin would not see how photography came to be used by Stalin and other leaders of the Communist party to assert ideological control.
Stunning compositions from 1930s, like Shaikhet’s Assembling the Globe, demonstrate growing state control over the images produced as well as strong formal composition. It depicts the installation of a decorative globe at the new telegraph building in Moscow, but also signifies the building of a new world by faceless workers who could be any man. Divided into thematic sections, one long gallery focuses on images of the “Metropolis” (cityscapes) and “Constructing Socialism” (trains, electricity, and factories). They form a portrait–largely unpeopled–of agrarian village society being drug into a progressive future of large urban areas and technical innovation. Images like Shaiket’s were frequently reproduced in newspapers and on posters.
Stalin, pictured above on far left, consolidated power by 1932 and experimental styles began to be frowned upon. Photography was still used for political purpose, just with tighter control. Final sections of photographs are organized around the themes of the Military, Soviets, Staging Happiness, and Physical Culture. The Military photographs emphasize might, and Soviets portray individuals in a manner that espouse the values of loyal, productive citizens. By the time one reaches Staging Happiness with its impressive fake parades that give the illusion of popular support and Physical Culture with its muscular ideal beauty, the point is clear: experimentation and artistic license gave way to strict state directives that hid the true Socialist experience. Despite this, the photographs on view are often compelling and dynamic works of art, and sometimes one can read against the grain to the shadow side of Soviet life.
Graphic design at this time was making fantastic leaps and bounds, and fortunately there are display cases of publications throughout the exhibition. The state supported elaborate photo books, such as the one above with its inventive parachute foldout. This 1935 issue of USSR in Construction was designed by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova with extravagant paper foldouts. The journal functioned both a propaganda tool and creative publication that influenced design worldwide. Such design-heavy books featuring positive images of the new Soviet state were also sent abroad.
In addition to photography, there is a focus on film in a final room of fantastic movie posters and small auditorium. The auditorium regularly screens important Soviet films such as Battleship Potemkin and lesser known gems such as Aelita: Queen of Mars. The rare film posters were printed on the cheapest paper and not considered worth preserving at the time, but their dynamic, geometric designs–instep with the aesthetic of the photographs–suggest their innovation and allure. This emphasis on film makes the point that these posters and films disseminated Communist ideology just as the photographs did, heralding new mediums for propaganda.
“The Power of Pictures: Soviet Photography and Soviet Film” traces a fascinating history of avant-garde abstraction for radical political purpose that became codified into simplified, heroic forms of Socialist Realism as a totalitarian government took tighter control over its public message. A rare chance to see many of these works together (some 180 works in all, featuring Sergei Eisenstein, El Lissitzky, and Alexander Rodchenko among others), make sure to see this exhibition before it closes February 7, 2016.