The Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s exhibition “Total Red: Photography” commemorates the centenary of the Russian Revolution by showing the works of leading 20th century Soviet photographers, whose contributions to the field are still respected and studied today.
The exhibition features works by Max Alpert, Emmanuel Evzerikhin, Semyon Fridlyand, Yevgeny Khaldei, Yakov Khalip, Alexander Rodchenko and Georgi Zelman, among others. All of the works belong to the museum’s collection.
“The works of most of these photographers were already then important art-historical milestones, which makes the present re-encounter with them so thought-provoking,” said Suzanne Landau, the museum’s director.
Each wall in the gallery is designated to one of the Soviet photographers, and features a handful of their works to emphasize each artist’s distinctive voice and style.
“The selected works allow a profound look at each photographer’s unique and personal creation, and to reflect on the processes underway in the Soviet Union at the time,” says Landau.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 dismantled the Tsarist autocracy, leading to the establishment of the Soviet Union. The first revolution took place in February of that year, where the old regime was overthrown, while the second revolution, in October, gave power to ‘the soviets’ and marked the beginning of 20th century communism. This chaotic period in Russia’s history had a significant impact on all forms of avant-garde art, specifically photography.
“The exhibition photographs express the dramatic moments and upheavals that affected the Soviet Union in its early days,” says Landau.
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During this period many photographers turned to photojournalism, which played a pivotal role in the Soviet Union, functioning as both historic documentation and political propaganda.
According to Raz Samira, exhibition curator and curator of photography at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, “at that time, photography was considered to be the most effective medium of propaganda; it enabled the passing of information to the people of the Soviet Union, while also shaping the entire the world view.”
A result of this heightened emphasis on photography was the major divide of photojournalists into two very diverse factions. One camp took photographs that idealized the proletarian dictatorship, while the other was more underground and rebellious, capturing images that emphasized tension between people, machinery and the government, and presented reality as a collection of fragments. This chasm is most evident in the opposing approaches held by members of the Russian Society of Proletarian Photographers and the October group.
“Joseph Stalin said that artists were the true engineers of the revolution, and in the moment that he comes to power he focuses on photography as an important asset in his plan to forward the goals of communism,” said Samira. “Stalin saw photography, more specifically photojournalism, as a speedy, low-cost and generally efficient way to disseminate those images – of the events, processions, and people – which communicated a strong Soviet Union.”
Therefore, in 1928, Stalin began to endorse and strategically utilize the work of the Russian Society of Proletarian Photographers, whose socialist realist style best emphasized the strength and success of the new Soviet state.
“Their prevailing attitude was documentation according to the principles of socialist realism – images glorifying and exalting the proletariat, in which workers appear as heroes. These photographs, which their creators considered faithful records of reality, centered on one subject, which is presented in a broad space, from a conventional point of view, and offer a clear and easily comprehensible narrative” says Samira.
Stalin intended these photographs to be published internally in Russia, as well as in the West, particularly at world fairs. The photograph “Moscow” (1937) by Georgi Zelma precisely embodies the nationalistic pride visible in the shots of his fellow Russian Society of Proletarian Photographers. The work is easy to comprehend, and immediately evokes a sense of true allegiance with a lineup of seemingly happy, healthy, attractive youth sporting their loyalty as they march towards the future.
The utopian scenes captured by the socialist realists dramatically differed from the visually ambiguous and rebellious work of the constructivist photographers. In 1930, Alexander Rodchenko established the photography division of the October group, a group of avant-garde artists who named themselves after the revolution.
“October photographers were quick to adopt new technologies, like collage and photomontage, considering them attuned to the revolutionary spirit,” says Samira. “They regarded photography not a medium for documentation and reproduction but one offering new ways of seeing and an alternative reality by way of enigmatic and new formal associations.”
This is evident in the abstracted close-up “Pioneer with a Trumpet” (1930) taken by Rodchenko, where he sharply crops the photo to fill the frame in such a way that it feels claustrophobic. The constructivists avoided easily digested narratives and instead forced the viewer to question the image. The goal of such ambiguity was to heighten the public’s critical awareness, and thus cause them to question the political situation.
Throughout the 1930s Stalin’s regime continued to further crack down on artistic freedoms, and in 1932 the Soviet Party ordered that all artist collectives formed after the October revolution be dissolved and replaced with professional unions. The professional unions would then serve the government by supervising all activity in all artistic areas.
“So ended the perception of photography as an avant-garde expressive language, and the medium was completely appropriated in the service of the Party,” says Samira.
Soon after, in 1937, Stalin took his censorship a step further and completely removed all avant-garde art from public galleries.
“Nonetheless, despite the enforcement of the socialist realist style and political themes, and despite the perception of modernistic avant-garde as a threat, photographs produced in the Soviet Union during the first half of the 20th century are surprising in their originality and prove the importance of their creators,” says Samira. “The fingerprint of the modernistic avant-garde, especially constructivism and formalism, was so dramatic and revolutionary that its traces are felt also in tendentious works – and they remain present today in the works of many artists, especially those working in photography and cinema.”
The exhibition “Total Red: Photography” is on show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art through February 10, 2018. For information about the museum: www.tamuseum.org.il.
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