How the Avant Garde Became Agitprop: Art and Film of the USSR at the Jewish Museum

Anatoly Belsky's lithograph poster for Five Minutes, 1929. (Photo: Courtesy of the Merrill C. Berman Collection and the Jewish Museum)
Anatoly Belsky’s lithograph poster for Five Minutes, 1929. (Photo: Courtesy of the Merrill C. Berman Collection and the Jewish Museum)

The happy convergence of avant-garde art and revolutionary politics is a utopian dream nowhere more celebrated than in the creative foment of the Russian Revolution. That winsome fantasy—that art is both symptom and fuel of social progress—is everywhere on display in “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film.”

The show, on view at the Jewish Museum, is filled with fabulously dynamic black-and-white pictures of happy workers and peasants, military parades, the rising modern metropolis, industrial development—all familiar themes of Soviet propaganda photography—composed with the kind of vertiginous perspectives and unusual angles that appear as literal expressions of the upheaval that accompanied the transformation of Russian society a century ago.

This unique survey of some 180 works by Sergei Eisenstein, El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Dziga Vertov and another two score lesser-known photographers and filmmakers is open through February 7, 2016.

The portable Leica camera was the technological advance that made possible the hyperactive graphics we now associate with imagery of the Russian Revolution. (The camera was introduced at a trade fair in Leipzig in 1925.) The cheaper Soviet knockoff of the Leica was called the FED; it was actually named in honor of “Iron Felix,” or Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the feared head of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. His Red Terror campaign killed hundreds of thousands of “counter-revolutionaries” during the consolidation of Bolshevik rule. The camera was produced as part of the rehabilitative program on a commune for orphans Dzerzhinsky had founded in Ukraine.

The best-known photographic portrait of Dzerzhinsky, however, on view in this exhibition, is old school. The 1919 headshot is moody and artistic in its soft tones, though it’s easy to see a sinister glint in his eyes. The portrait was made by Moisei Nappelbaum, who before the revolution operated a fashionable photo studio in St. Petersburg. His career flourished in the Soviet era and he died in Moscow in 1958.

The exhibition includes several more portraits, including Rodchenko’s appropriately macho image, from 1924, of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and a 1924 portrait by Nappelbaum of the acclaimed modernist writer Anna Akhmatova in profile, looking rather too cosmopolitan in beads and flowered dress. Nappelbaum’s modest gelatin silver print from the early ’30s of Stalin in his trademark worker’s tunic and boots stands in as the sole representative in the show of the cult of personality that characterized the autocrat’s long rule.

The Jewish Museum’s senior curator emeriti, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, who organized the show, points out that its narrative trajectory moves from avant-garde “formalism” to Soviet Realism, from freedom of expression to complete state control. Photography and photo-graphics—a substantial selection of picture newspapers and magazines, designed with a largely illiterate population in mind, is included—increasingly became restricted to Soviet propaganda purposes.

In the end, experimental photographic methods served the regime quite well, Ms. Goodman notes, “as long as the photographer embraced the approved themes of industrialization, collectivization, healthy and happy life, empire expansion, sports and defense.” Despite its design as first and foremost a propaganda tool, “photography became the last bastion of radical visual culture.”

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