March 11 – July 4, 2016
By Georgia Erger
The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Film, organized by The Jewish Museum and most recently on view at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, consists of an impressive array of over 150 photographs and films. The exhibition is structured both thematically and narratively: it explores the transition from a period of highly innovative artistic output following the Bolshevik Revolution to the stifling “socialist realism” of the Stalinist era. We tend to think of communism, paradoxically, as being committed to a conservative aesthetic, yet this exhibition questions that conventional association, and invites us to rethink the relation between political and aesthetic radicalism.
The exhibition begins with a collection of truly stunning early Constructivist works from the late 1920s. In a series of self-portraits, El Lissitzky depicts himself with a bandaged skull. Darkroom manipulations, including photomontage and photograms were utilized to include a third eye in the center of the artist’s forehead and the hyper-exposed shape of a mathematical compass obstructing the image. In another work, entitled Maquette for “Cinema Eye,” Lissitzky superimposes Vertov’s portrait onto the pupil of an enlarged eye. These obvious and unapologetic manipulations are antithetical to the later Stalinist commitment to naïve realism, which emphasizes social content at the expense of aesthetic form.
Much of the drama of The Power of Pictures inheres in its exploration of the complex and changing relations between content and form, which the curatorial decision to present photographs in thematic groupings within a chronological narrative deftly facilitates. Works dated pre- and post-1930 – before and after the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution – are placed side by side, which invites comparative analysis. A powerful 1929/1930 photograph Stairs by Alexander Rodchenko, for example, features a woman ascending dramatically shadowed stairs. Form and content seem mutually reinforcing. The diagonal composition and the sharp geometric lines suggest a degree of aesthetic abstraction, yet the representational content of the image remains intact, even if the figure is unidentified.
Georgy Petrusov’s early Stalin-era, 1930, New Building from Above, mimics the diagonal birds-eye-view perspective and black linear shadows of Rodchenko’s, Stairs. In many ways it seems to be an aesthetic corollary to Rodchenko’s Stairs, but it suggests a somewhat different relation between form and content. It makes us question what we are supposed to admire: social content or aesthetic form – the skyscraper, the thriving Soviet economic system, or the formal elegance of the photograph?
As you progress through the exhibition, the sacrifice of form to content becomes more apparent. Arkady Shaikhet’s 1938 photograph Express, for instance, seems an unabashed celebration of technological prowess: a train barrels toward the viewer, dramatically emerging from the clouds of steam that seem to reflect the clouds of the sky. If it weren’t for the wall label, it would be nearly impossible to know that content within the photograph, in this case the clouds, was a result of aesthetic manipulation. The “constructiveness” of Lissitzky’s early images is obvious; Shaikhet’s image is no less staged, yet it purports to be only a transparent representation of the “real.”
In one of the final rooms of the exhibition, we encounter a fully realized image of “socialist realism,” a 1936 photograph by Rodchenko of female athletes marching in a parade. The photograph could easily be mistaken for an image of a Nazi rally. The only aesthetic similarity to Rodchenko’s photograph, Stairs from just six years previous, is the slight diagonal composition. The sports parade is openly acknowledged as choreographed, but the photograph itself, must seem a transparent reproduction of social reality.
The exhibition concludes with a series of early avant-garde Soviet films, which both recall and reinforce the aesthetic of early Soviet photography. Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, is celebrated for its use of montage. Classic Hollywood cinema was given to “invisible” editing, the camera attempting only to register a world that is external to it. Eisenstein, however, openly acknowledges film for what it is: a series of discontinuous images that are sewn together in order to produce the illusion of seamless continuity. Here, at the conclusion of the exhibition, film itself is presented as a “constructivist” aesthetic.
The Power of Pictures is indeed powerful, both in terms of the individual images it contains and in its ability to challenge our conventional notions of the relation between the politically and the aesthetically radical. Sadly, the great promise, political and aesthetic, of the Bolshevik revolution issued in the nightmare of Stalinism, but the Soviet experiment itself suggests that it might have been “constructed” otherwise. At the very least, The Power of Pictures reminds us that so much of what is innovative in modernist art had its origins in a revolutionary politics.