Georgy Petrusov, Caricature of Alexander Rodchenko, 1933–34, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Artwork © Georgy Petrusov, courtesy of Alex Lachmann Collection
Covering the period from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution through the 1930s, The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film explores how early modernist photography influenced a new Soviet style, and how photography, film, and poster art were harnessed to disseminate Communist ideology. Casey Dalrymple, Marketing Editorial Intern, scoured the recently-opened exhibition that presents “stunning photography from the 1920s and ‘30s” and “films of the era [that] remain a testament to cinema’s radical possibilities” (The Wall Street Journal). Here, Dalrymple relays his experience of the show.
Now on view at the Jewish Museum, The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film presents 180 photographs, films, posters, and periodicals, which generally exemplify the communist agenda — images depicting legions of stalwart soldiers and tanks, and armies of untiring workers and farmers, demonstrating strength and solidarity; a “paradise of perpetual, militant progress” (The New York Times).
Georgy Zelma, Meeting at the Kolkhoz, 1929, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann
But among more straightforward propagandistic photographs are those that, frankly, seem unusual, reflecting a more free-wheeling propaganda machine than perhaps previously imagined. There is, for example, Georgy Petrusov’s Caricature of Alexander Rodchenko (1933 – 1934): Portraying the face of the artist’s friend and colleague exposed on the back of his own bald head, the subject’s disgruntled mug interrogates the viewer in an inversion of the typical proletarian portrait. Where the other subjects in the exhibition confidently gaze upon a bright socialist future, Petrusov’s subject wears a face of skepticism, even disgust, making the viewer wonder whether this image was serving, or challenging, communist ideology. This photograph epitomizes the avant-garde movement that flourished in the midst of the Soviet Union’s march towards conformity and repression under Stalin, capturing the more radical spirit of the revolution — when the Soviet experiment first began.
This spirit exists even within apparently more conventional depictions of workers, farmers, and soldiers. Adhering to the state’s socialist ideal, images such as Georgy Zelma’s Meeting at a Kolkhoz (1929) are, nonetheless, striking and dramatic — members of a collectivized farm are assailed with blazing sunlight, some bathed in it, some silhouetted, casting all members as heroes. With those glaring sunbeams, one can’t help but think of the dawning of a socialist paradise. In this, the photograph is breathtaking, while still carrying the state’s desire to validate the virtues, even romance, of collectivization.
Alexander Rodchenko, Soviet Photo, no. 10, 1927, Mikhail Koltsov and V. Mikulin, editors. New York Public Library, New York. Artwork © Estate of Alexander Rodchenko (A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova Archive) / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York. Image provided by New York Public Library, Astor, Tilden and Lenox Foundations, Rare Books Division.
This balancing act between aesthetics and ideology is a defining aspect of the exhibition — how the artists on display explored the medium while abiding by the regime’s ideology. This is seen most famously, perhaps, in Alexander Rodchenko’s Mother (1924), an intimate portrayal of the photographer’s formerly illiterate mother reading through a spectacle. Viewers can feel Rodchenko’s warmth toward his subject, with its close-up perspective and tight cropping. But there is more at work in this piece than filial affection. It also advertises for the government’s educational campaigns — a graphic demonstration of the Soviets’ power to enlighten the working people.
The exhibition encourages the viewer to reconsider what is known about the Soviet Union. The firearms and tanks and uniformity are all very well represented — but, within them, and beside them, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, is the spirit of the idiosyncratic and dramatic. The Power of Pictures bears witness to that spirit of innovation that, in some way, shone through the hedge of communist ideology that encircled the Soviet Union.
For more Soviet photography, both avant-garde and propagandistic, check out The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film on view at the Jewish Museum through February 7, 2016.
— Casey Dalrymple, Marketing Editorial Intern, The Jewish Museum