Black and white and red all over

An Exhibition that draws the eye and the heart

 A photo from the “Total Red: Photography” exhibition (photo credit: GEORGI ZELMA)
A photo from the “Total Red: Photography” exhibition
(photo credit: GEORGI ZELMA)
The cliché has it that there’s nothing like a bit of hardship to get the creative juices flowing. That may or may not be the case when it comes to the individual artist, going through the mental and emotional grinder to produce a work worth its salt. But there is definitely something to be said for artists using their craft to convey ideas, and even take political stances, in a totalitarian regime. When it came to photographers in the Soviet Union taking shots that impart a subtext that, if expressed openly in a more direct verbal form, could have landed them in deepest Siberia, the resultant imagery exudes a sense of subliminal power, bursting at the aesthetic seams.
The “Total Red: Photography” exhibition, on show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until February 10, certainly packs a punch. The works span around four decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s. That may not seem like a particularly wide stretch of time, but with respect to Soviet politics, you are talking seismic shifts aplenty. When Alexander Rodchenko took the stunningly intimate Portrait of the Artist’s Mother in 1924, Joseph Stalin had recently taken over the reins of power and things were still relatively loose in terms of freedom of expression. As we now know, Stalin developed into an iron-fisted leader who did his utmost to keep a firm lid on almost every avenue of individual enunciation.
Be that as it may, “Total Red” covers a wide swath of thematic bases and the portrayal thereof. As you might expect, there are shots that tend toward the monumental, such as Max Alpert’s Construction of the Fergana Grand Canal from 1939. The frame appears to be the fruit of a creative process free of the constraints of political dictates or stylizing intervention. Then again, there is a Hollywoodesque feel to the monochrome shot – à la Cecil B. DeMille and his grandiose sets – with what looks like hundreds of laborers toiling away in a race against the clock. It is the epitome of gung-ho collectivism and makes for almost hypnotic viewing.
The earlier items in the exhibition, particularly those by Rodchenko, draw the eye and heart. In addition to his shutter-snapping exploits, Rodchenko was a painter, sculptor and graphic designer. He was one of the founders of the Constructivist movement and his photography took a structural approach to his pictures. Girl with a Leica, from 1934, is a lyrical offering that owes much to Rodchenko’s documentarist take on the visual. He tended to present his subjects from unusual perspectives, and the light-shade interplay in this work conveys a heightened sense of drama and mystery. The Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is an alluring piece depicting the subject as a dapper, yet evidently troubled, character. While the shot is clearly staged, there is nothing wooden about it, and the writer’s body language and piercing gaze grab your attention. Mayakovsky’s is an intriguing case in point. He was a staunch supporter of Communism, yet for some reason had a stormy relationship with the post-1917 revolutionary powers. Nevertheless, after his suicide in 1930 at the age of 36, the writer was lauded by Stalin as the crème de la crème of Soviet writers.
Rodchenko’s left-field documentary style comes through perhaps most palpably in Stairs, with the thought-provoking line of visual attack echoing that of Girl with a Leica, while Pioneer with Trumpet is a symphony of form, perspective, light and shade.
“Total Red” features the work of 11 Soviet photographers, nine of whom were Jewish. The style spread spans a marriage of aestheticism and functionalism, unadulterated art and politics, and firmly held tenets and morality. There is also a divide between focusing on details and addressing the whole picture, as reflected in the contrasting schools of thought of the October group and members of the Russian Society of Proletarian Photographers.
Rodchenko led the October bunch from the front, offering a different perception of life, using such visual syntax as unnatural angles, space density and portraying slivers of the narrative on view. Then you have the likes of acclaimed photojournalists Alpert and Arkady Shaikhet, who presented everyday scenes as they were, eschewing reality-editing tools such as cropping.
The representational drama of life under the Soviet regime is deftly displayed in Yaakov Khalip’s work in no uncertain terms. Guard Duty, The Baltic Fleet from 1936 uses intelligently crafted perspective to communicate the colossal dimension of the state’s naval stature accentuated by the relatively diminutive, yet steely, lone figure of the sentry. The mammoth anchor in the foreground takes the oxymoronic scale contrast up a further notch. The sentiment is maintained in Khalip’s Large-Bore Cannon, The Baltic Fleet which seems more than a mite cheesy by today’s more sophisticated standards, but which would surely have done the propaganda trick 80 years ago. The works simply reek of heroism.
It is not all starched gray state politics-driven fare in the exhibition. There are some entertaining works in there, too, courtesy of Tashkent-born Georgi Zelma, who traveled the Soviet expanses extensively, documenting ordinary folk at work and more ceremonial events in his home state and other Islamic republics. His oeuvre spans a broad gamut of sensibilities. Uzbek Noodles, Tashkent, taken in 1960, exudes a sense of pure exhilaration, while conveying a politically “kosher” message of the ordinary workingman joyfully doing his job. Then there’s Zelma’s wartime photograph To Help Odessa, Observer, which clearly has a political agenda behind it, as does the somewhat risible group picture of tennis racket-wielding young men and women, simply titled Moscow, snapped in 1937. Cotton Harvester, from 1952, evokes a sense of life out in the sticks, and the confluence of a traditional lifestyle and relentless march towards modernity.
If it’s grand theater you are after – albeit obviously designed to arouse powerful emotions – you have Alpert’s 1942 print The Regimental Commander, which was presumably used to stoke the fires of patriotism and keep the war effort on track. Possibly the most iconic item on show in “Total Red” is Yevgeny Khaldei’s Raising of the Soviet Flag over the Reichstag, Berlin, May 2, 1945. The image of the soldier bearing the USSR flag aloft over the ruins of the smoldering German capital was reprinted thousands of times and did the rounds of the globe. It was, it later transpired, slightly doctored, but the monumental drama of the moment of victory is undeniable.
As the Soviet Union evolved and political leadership tightened its grip on everyday life, control of artistic expression became ever tighter and photographers whose work had once been lauded often suffered a dramatic fall from grace.
In 1932, works by many avant-garde photographers were shown for the last time and, following the Great Purge of 1936-38, directed against anyone thought to undermine Stalin’s rule, all such works were removed from public galleries. Many artists, including Socialist Realists, fell victim to political repression and show trials, and were generally executed or banished to gulags.
In retrospect, despite the stylistic and ideological dictates, the photographs produced in the Soviet Union up to the 1950s are wonderfully original. The impact of modernist avant-garde was so dramatic and revolutionary that its traces are evident even in the enlisted art of the time.
The photographs in the exhibition are silver prints from the collection of Tel Aviv Museum of Art, donated by Howard Schickler, David Lafaille, and by an anonymous donor through the American Friends of Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
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