There is something rather austere about the photography displayed in The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film exhibition at the Jewish Museum. The photographs taken by Jewish photographers of Soviet era Russia are striking in their starkness, geometry and sterility. In spite of the avant-garde and experimental techniques employed by these photographers, the presence of an uncontested ideology looms over the subject matter of the exhibition.
These works exemplify a period of time during which visual artists — particularly photographers, filmmakers and graphic designers — were utilized as vehicles of an explicit political ideology. The resulting visual media feel fascinatingly alien to a 21st Century observer. Where we are inundated constantly by conflicting messages from every corner of the political playing field, in every form imaginable, the diverse citizens of expansive Soviet-era Russia were fed a single ideology, carefully controlled and communicated through the most universal, accessible form of communication: photography.
The Power of Pictures presents, for the first time, a very comprehensive display of photography and film, and posters produced during the 1920s and '30s in Soviet Russia, beginning in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, in the frenetic youth of the Socialist government, and extends into the Union's darker days of stricture and propaganda. “If you look at the situation in Russia in the twenties and thirties,” says Susan Goodman, the exhibition's Senior Curator Emerita, “there was such a close connection [between the government and the artists], yet the artists were able to maintain their interest in formalism and avant-garde art, even under the strictures of the regime, because if they continued to show approved subjects, they were allowed to work in an avant-garde style. That's what we see throughout the exhibition, even in the thirties.”
Although the mood and relationship between the government and its citizens — and particularly its artists — changed significantly over the course of time, there is a remarkable stylistic cohesion throughout the exhibit. A fascination with dramatic, avant-garde composition is as palpable in El Lissitzky's early Self-Portrait (The Constructor) a moody photomontage in which the artist's and books are superimposed over his face, casting much of his expression in shadow, shot in 1924 as they are in Arkady Shaikhet's Express, a striking taken in 1939, well after the USSR had tightened its strictures upon artists. The image feels both triumphant and ominous — perhaps a reflection of the changing political atmosphere.
Even as the relationship between the government and these photographers changed, they were able to forge ahead with experimental techniques. The exhibition features a significant number of photographs of athletes, representative of the Soviet Union's fanatical pride in and desire to draw attention to the physical strength and beauty of its citizens. Many of the images, however, feature the athletes in extravagant, or odd poses, shot from inventive angles made possible by the drastic reduction in the sizes of cameras (several motion picture and still cameras are on display at the exhibition). According to Goodman, even though the effect is that the images are slightly bizarre, “there was almost a cult of the human body at that time, so it fit in very well to their propaganda ... they knew the best way it could be conveyed was through the latest style.”
However, this principle did not always protect the aesthetically radical endeavors of Soviet-era photographers and filmmakers. Lissitzky, as Goodman explained, for example, ”moved from being a kind of revolutionary artist, using the most avant-garde styles and devices, to becoming an artist that — in order to survive — became the art editor of USSR in Constrution and did some of the most avant-garde layouts and very ingenious magazine designs instead of continuing with his own art.” The exhibition includes a number of these highly modernist designs. Rodchencko, too, faced the harsher realities of employment by the Russian Socialist government.
The very stylistic choices that the Soviet Union accepted for the purpose of demonstrating their modernity and progressiveness worked against the photographer and filmmaker. The bold co-founding editor of LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts was eventually subjected to what was “considered to be a kind of enlightened penal rehabilitation, which is very controversial,” and consisted of his photographing the construction of the White Sea Canal, says Goodman. This penalty was largely the result of his series of photographs of “Young Pioneers” and athletes, which were considered too avant-garde by the Soviet government. The tension between the prolific artist and the government that employed him is evident in the rather disorienting compositions of these photographs.
Indeed, the entire exhibition, for all of its sterile trademarks of propaganda, is possessed of a certain disquieting quality. The compositions are almost too perfect; the subjects and settings adhere almost too exactly to lines and precise angles. Both the synchronicity with, and rebellion against the ubiquitous Socialist doctrine by the featured artists are apparent in The Power of Pictures.
The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film Jewish Museum 1109 Fifth Ave. UES Map 212 423 3200 thejewishmuseum.org Sept 25, 2015 through Sun, Feb 7, 2016 Hours: Sat-Tues, 11 to 5:45; Thurs, 11 to 8; Fri, 11 to 4.