See the Avant-Garde Photos that Helped Spread Soviet Communism

'The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film' is now on display at the Jewish Museum in New York.

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Oct 25 2015, 12:30pm

Arkady Shaikhet, Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station, 1928, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Artwork © Estate of Arkady Shaikhet, courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery.

The Soviet Union is usually seen by the West as a barren, soulless place with no freedom of expression or artistic spontaneity. Such a misconception is understandable when most pop-culture references to the USSR involve depictions of heartless government drones or dejected, hungry victims. In truth, artforms like dance, film, theater and photography hold an important place in the Soviet cultural identity—and not always for a political cause. Nevertheless, The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film, a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York shows a time when the revolutionary excitement had not yet died down, and photographers and filmmakers were utilizing their crafts to further their ideas about government.  

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

The exhibit showcases “striking Soviet avant-garde photographs and film from the Revolution through the 1930s [that] highlight art’s impact on social change and radical political engagement.” Early Soviet governments encouraged unconventional and radical artforms, believing them to be a symbol for radical political change. At a time of 70% illiteracy, illustrations and posters were often the most effective modes of communication with the masses. Apparently, “Lenin himself declared that the camera, as much as the gun, was an important weapon in class struggle.” It wasn’t until the rule of Stalin that a more conservative outlook was introduced (good artists always find a way to work around and within the system—art remained no less original).

Still from Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, black-and-white film, 68 min. Image provided by Deutsche Kinemathek.

Between 1917 and 1930, constructivist, modernist, and avant-garde influences were “harnessed to disseminate Communist ideology” by artists who were considered active and successful agents of social transformation. The Power of Pictures proves that the artistic works produced for this purpose “encompassed a much wider range of artistic styles and thematic content than previously recognized.” The instantly recognizable graphic style of the posters and publications selected “reflect the utopian ideals and rigorous experimental aesthetics which were applied to the many modes of creative endeavor during the early Soviet era... nearly a century after many of these works were created, they still convey a fresh and revelatory sensibility.”

The Creators Project spoke to Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs at the Jewish Museum, about the relevance of these photos today and the role of art in the political:

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

The Creators Project: The press release says that the exhibit is “revisiting a moment in history when artists acted as engines of social change and radical political engagement.”  Would you say that is no longer the case? 

Jens Hoffmann: It is hard to generalize this statement. There certainly artists that are still very politically engaged, and it also depends on the context in which artists operate. Artists in Asia do different work than artists in Africa or Europe, and some is more political than others. Overall, there is much less of a preoccupation with politics and social issues in art then there has been in other moments in the history of art. I am, however, also very careful about the use of art as tool in service of propagating particular political agendas and ideas. For me, political radicalism has to always go hand in hand with aesthetic progress. 

Anton Lavinsky, poster for Battleship Potemkin, 1925, lithograph. Collection of Merrill C. Berman

Does political art have a different role today than it did then? Do images play a different role in the political sphere in the digital age?

I don’t think images play a different role, but they play a much bigger role. We are constantly confronted by images—on computers, tablets, iPhones, TV screens, etc.—there is no escape and that has changed our relationship with images. Images, or so we thought, were objective documentation of an event or situation. But today we are all so very aware that images can be manipulated that we no longer trust them. Our views on representation have changed. 

Anatoly Belsky, poster for Five Minutes, directed by Alexander Balagin and Georgy Zelondzhev-Shipov, 1929, lithograph. Collection of Merrill C. Berman

Are there any contemporary artists you can think of who are direct descendants of the movement encapsulated by these artists, whether in a political or artistic sense?

There are many artists whose work stands on the shoulders of artists like Rodchenko or Lissitzky. They embody a radical political approach to art-making that simultaneously pushes formal boundaries. Martha Rosler, Andrea Bowers, Dan Voh, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Park McArthur, the list could go on and on…

Georgy Zelma, Voice of Moscow, 1925, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann.

What do you hope modern viewers will take away from the exhibit?

The most important aspect of the show is the fusion of politics and art. That if we want to transform a society, it must happen on a political but also on an aesthetic  level. And of course, we have to be careful that politics do not just employ art as a tool to disseminate radical ideologies.

See more images from the exhibition below:

Arkady Shaikhet, The Parachutist Katya Melnikova, 1934, gelatin silver print. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Artwork © Estate of Arkady Shaikhet, courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery. 

Alexander Rodchenko, Stairs, 1929–30, gelatin silver print. Sepherot Foundation, Vaduz, Liechtenstein. Artwork © Estate of Alexander Rodchenko (A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova Archive) / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York. Image provided by the Sepherot Foundation.

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

The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film is on view at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave at 92nd St) from September 25, 2015 - February 7, 2016.

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