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The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Film at Frist Center for the Arts

The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Film presents a dynamic portrait of one of the most significant narratives in the history of 20th-century avant-garde art, and examines the vital place of still and moving images in the creation of early Soviet history and national identity. Originally organized by the Jewish Museum in New York under the curatorial vision of Jens Hoffmann, this exhibition asks viewers to confront the ways in which images hide as much as they reveal.

Arkady Sheikhet. Assembling the Globe at the Moscow Telegraphic Central Station, 1928; Gelatin silver print; 17 ¾ x 13 3/8 in. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Arkady Sheikhet. Assembling the Globe at the Moscow Telegraphic Central Station, 1928; gelatin silver print; 17 ¾ x 13 3/8 in. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery.

As a newly emancipated minority in “the New Russia,” Jews were optimistic for the arrival of a more egalitarian Soviet world, with many entering the newly minted professions of photography, design, and film eager to charge their aesthetic experimentations with the political goals of revolution and modernity. However, viewers of The Power of Pictures are presented with a dispiriting historical narrative of the project, as imagery shifts from radical experimentation to overt state propaganda. As Stalin began to consolidate his power and impose regulations and mandates on artists to produce work with obvious socialist content, artists struggled with the state’s directives, its limitations on their creative freedom, and the ethical implications of staging a Social Realist aesthetic that had little to do with the realities of life under a totalitarian dictator. The deep tension within these images, namely the ways in which art and politics collide and reify, gives this exhibition a powerful and timely political weight.

In the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War, artists sought to present a new image for their new country—one that would provide a strong case for the success of the class struggles to the masses as well as to the West. For a brief period, the synergy between vanguard aesthetics and politics found its heights in the work of artists eager to bring the radical reductions and geometries of abstraction to bear on their work; strong angles, extreme perspectives, and disorienting compositions evoked the overwhelming monumentality of this new world. Strikingly powerful, Arkady Shaikhet’s images form the pinnacle of this visual style, which explains the inclusion of his work in many important international journals seeking to depict the might and achievements of this new nation. Shaikhet’s elegant image of two proletarian engineers shot from a low camera angle elevates the figures to an almost spiritual status in Assembling the Globe at the Moscow Telegraphic Central Station (1928); it compels the viewer to admire and celebrate the heroic labor of the Soviet worker by deploying the striking visual strategies of experimental art.

Georgy Zelma. Voice of Moscow, 1925; Gelatin silver print; no dims. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Courtesy of Naliya Alexander Gallery.

Georgy Zelma. Voice of Moscow, 1925; gelatin silver print; no dims. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Courtesy of Naliya Alexander Gallery.

The strong emphasis on the construction and implementation of advanced technologies such as skyscrapers, airplanes, and trains allowed the photographer to capture the ways in which land and space were being conquered and transformed through new state initiatives. However, what these images do not reveal are the great economic and human costs of these state-sponsored initiatives, particularly as violent pogroms, forced labor camps, deliberate famines, and food shortages became commonplace under Stalin’s rule by the 1930s. The exchange of radical experimentation for more “on message” themes, and an emphasis on “realism,” points to the ways in which artistic intent interrupts the tone and interpretation of these later images.

Arkady Shaikhet. Express, 1939; Gelatin silver print; 15 5/8 x 21 1/8 in. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Arkady Shaikhet. Express, 1939; gelatin silver print; 15 5/8 x 21 1/8 in. Collection of Alex Lachmann. Courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Georgy Zelma’s highly staged images present confrontations between “the old world” and the modern. They seek to enhance the arrangements of figures and objects for the greatest political impact and are excellent examples of the manipulations that photography faced during the later part of that decade. Zelma’s Voice of Moscow (1929) is a depiction of two Uzbek men in traditional dress handling a transistor radio. The image aestheticizes the encounter between man and technology during this period as a lighthearted, even humorous juxtaposition. Yet, as this photograph was taken, Stalin was systematically murdering many of his own citizens, often harnessing new technologies and communication devices to do so. The dark history of these images often speaks louder than the beauty and boldness of their visual aesthetic. The drama of Arkady Shaikhet’s iconic image Express from 1939 resounds as a metaphoric image of post-revolutionary Russia: a train pummeling through the Russian countryside at breakneck speed, rushing through time too quickly within a menacing cloud of steam and smoke.

The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Film is on view at Frist Center for the Arts through July 4, 2016.

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