Hey everyone! It’s been a while since I last posted. It was a busy semester, and I didn’t have a ton of time to be visiting museums and blogging. But (Thank God) I’m back in NYC until January 22nd and will be visiting a ton of museums and galleries until then. I will also be making a much-needed trip to Michaels for some art supplies… DIYs to come. And then, on the 22nd, I’m flying to Amsterdam for my spring semester! I can’t wait to see the Rijksmuseum, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, and the vibrant contemporary art scene in the Netherlands.
This past weekend I visited the Jewish Museum with my family. The Jewish Museum is one of my favorite museums and I finally bought a museum membership. There’s always a ton of events going on there, including the New York Jewish Film Festival, running from January 13th-26th. Read more about the program here.
I spent several hours at the museum exploring the masterful exhibit, “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film.” The exhibit first traces the innovations of photojournalists directly following the Russian Revolution, at a time when the avant-garde was heralded as the manifestation of radical politics. When Joseph Stalin gained power, he strove to eliminate independent artistic styles, and unify artistic production under socialist ideals. “The Power of Pictures” details this shift.
“The Power of Pictures” allows viewers to peer into a particular window of history through the unique lens of photojournalism. It makes the viewer feel both separate from and directly connected to the early years of the Soviet Union. Below are a series of highlights from the exhibition that I feel best encompass its historical and emotional themes.
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The first gelatin silver print was taken by Georgy Petrusov in 1933. It is entitled “Caricature of Rodchenko.”
Petrusov employed double-exposure techniques to superimpose the profile of Rodchenko, Petrusov’s contemporary, on an image of Rodchenko’s head. The result is disorienting. Looking at the work is an experience of oscillating between the bald head and the focused profile. These parts do not stay locked in place. Is the profile part of the foreground or the background? Which image is in front of which? Are we meant to see these images as equal to one another, or is some sort of hierarchy being established?
“Caricature of Rodchenko” reflects Petrusov’s progressive, avant-garde style. He experimented with innovative photographic techniques to create images that startled and haunted the viewer. This innovative portrait also reflects the ideology of its subject, the artist Alexander Rodchenko, who, like Petrsuov, was known for his radical photography. “Caricature of Rodchenko” took the genre of portraiture and modernized it, allowing the viewer to see multiple angles of the sitter and form a more nuanced impression of him.
Petrusov’s work mirrors the atmosphere of the early Soviet Union before Stalin standardized the field of art. During these years, it was common for artists to carve out their own niche. This emphasis on personal style echoed the positive feelings towards radicalism in the late 1920s.
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“Stairs,” by Alexander Rodchenko (1929-1930) is another example of early Soviet avant-garde photojournalism.
This photograph, taken by the subject of the previous print, was shot at a plaza in Moscow. Rodchenko aimed his camera high above the subjects, and turned it along a diagonal. The result is an organized, geometric print whose focus is not actually the anonymous people strolling across the steps, but the play of light on pavement. The repetitive, even spacing of sepia stone and shadow evokes a sensation of calmness. For the viewer, the experience of gazing at this photograph is one of serenity. This is fascinating, given that Rodchenko was the founder of constructivism, a school of thought that believed geometry and design had emotional and societal effects. A photograph such as this was meant to instill tranquility in the viewer, and the people as a whole. The desire to calm viewers was directly related to the interests of the Soviet Union, who wanted to reassure people of the stability of the new state, despite its turbulent beginnings. The emphasis on line in this photograph is emblematic of its importance in photography during the late 1920s. Line served as a visual cue for order.
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“Red Army Marching in the Snow” is one of my favorite images from the exhibit. It was photographed by Arkady Shaikhet in 1927 or 1928, and depicts the Red Army- who supported Bolshevik Socialism- performing military training.
Light plays as great a role in the construction of the final image here as it did in “Stairs.” Sunlight streams through the trees at equal intervals between the skiing soldiers. The effect is similarly calming. Both nature and geometry evoke a sedative response from the viewer. This photograph is evidently the work of post-revolution radicalism for several reasons. Firstly, it elevates the status of the Red Army while assuring viewers of the soldiers’ capability. At the same time, it bears the distinctive mark of an individual artist who has framed the scene in an innovative and meaningful way.
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“New Building from Above,” by Georgy Petrusov (1930) and “Pouring Steel,” by Boris Ignatovich (1938) are examples of early Soviet photography aimed at glorifying the new state.
Skyscrapers and industrial machines were symbols of Soviet progress. The way they were photographed emphasized this relationship. The building on the left, the headquarters of the House of State industries in Kharkov, Ukraine, was photographed from above, on a diagonal. This angle made the building appear massive and looming, while drawing the viewer’s eye to the constructivist structure’s geometry. Rows of rectangular windows seem to extent downwards infinitely. The top of the building is out of frame, suggesting that it might continue upwards forever as well. These framing tactics demonstrate the architectural prowess of the Soviet Union, which is directly connected to its power and stability.
The image on the right is of a steel-manufacturing factory. Most of the image is very dark. It is difficult to see what lies beneath the shower of glowing sparks and the background is too dark to make sense of. The cylindrical machine in the foreground is large and black. Even the tiny person controlling the machine is barely illuminated. The success of the photograph is in the contrast between light and dark, which emphasizes the industrial might of the machine, and transitively, the Soviet Union as a whole.
“New Building From Above,” which was taken in 1930, still bears witness to the earlier, avant-garde style that was popularized after the Russian revolution. It was taken from a strange angle, and though it glorifies the New State, it self-consciously refers to the individuality of its maker. The imprint of the artist is present in the unique angle and play with shadows. “Pouring Steel” was painted eight years later. By this point, Stalin had adopted uniformly staged photography as the national style. “Pouring Steel” represents this shift. It was photographed frontally, and mostly eclipsed the individual controlling the machine. His identity is important only in that he is a hardworking soviet man, contributing to the success of the state. Machines, factories, and public works were emblems of the utopian identity claimed by the Soviet Union. Their depiction helped Stalin paint the Soviet Union as an emerging economic power.
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“Lunch in the Fields,” by Georgy Petrusov (1934) is an excellent example of the propagandistic photography adopted during Stalin’s rise to power.
“Lunch in the Fields” illustrates life in the collective farms of the Soviet Union as peaceful and prosperous. Farmers sit together in harmonious circles while animals graze freely around them. The sky is bright and the land appears to stretch for miles before it reaches the horizon. The faces of the people are too far away to make out- in such a way they lose their individuality and become emblematic of the state. They are symbols of the peace and success of socialism. This photograph was taken straight-on, without any indication of personal artistic style. The scene has been staged, but for propagandistic, not stylistic, purposes. It is fascinating to see how Georgy Petrusov’s work reflects the changing culture of soviet photography. This photograph was only taken a year after “Caricature of Rodchenko,” but Petrusov’s personal touch has been almost entirely erased. The fact that the artist produced such different images in a two-year period does not indicate that artistic tides shifted so rapidly. Rather, it demonstrates photojournalism’s gradual shift away from individual style and towards a uniform socialist style. The mid 1930s witnessed an overlap between the two while the shift was underway. It became less and less feasible for photographers like Petrusov to print works like “Caricature of Rodchenko” as the 1930s wore on. Towards the end of the decade, images like “Pouring Steel” were the norm.
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“Women First!” by Alexander Rodchenko, (1934) exemplifies how human subjects were treated in the socialist artistic style.
The women are lined up geometrically, though the frame is off-center. The shadows formed by the women’s bodies are almost identical. The women are not overly-sexualized, though their clothing reveals them to be physically fit. Despite the large number of human figures, their faces are still obscured by several tactics. The woman facing the viewer is far enough back that one cannot make out her face clearly. Furthermore, a thick shadow encompasses half of her face. The remaining women lining up on the viewer’s right conveniently have their faces turned away from the camera. The result is puzzling. We are given a large number of human body’s in relatively close proximity to the viewer, and yet we still know virtually nothing about them. They remain anonymous symbols of the soviet state. One can see Rodchenko restraining himself from more avant-garde techniques (which actually got him in trouble several years before this was taken). He gets away with the off-kilter framing and the particular use of geometry because of how well he avoided the identification of his subjects.
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It was very difficult to choose photographs to discuss for this post. I only talked about seven photographs when there were at least fifty more at the Jewish Museum, all haunting, whether they were part of the avant-garde or socialist movements. ” The Power of Pictures”also included movie posters and a soviet propaganda film, but I wanted to focus this post on the photographs because they told such a linear story.
What is so unique about this exhibition is its ability to analyze the rise of Stalin in a methodical, chronological way, purely through the use of images. I found the audio guide to be a very concise yet thorough companion (downloadable for free from the app store), but the exhibit was curated so well that it stood on its own. Very rarely do I feel like I come away from an exhibit feeling like I have learned something so solid and compact. Of course it is wonderful to exit with questions, and I have many, but “The Power of Pictures” anticipated so many of the questions that arose inside me as I studied each picture and answered them soon after.
“The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film” is open through February 7th. Make a point to see this exhibit while you can. It is truly fascinating.
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe <3