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Soviet Photography at the Jewish Museum

Jeffrey Kassel
October 13, 2015

by Jeffrey Kassel

Discussed in this essay: The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film, curated by Susan Tumarkin Goodman. The Jewish Museum, September 25, 2015 - February 7, 2016.

[caption id="attachment_39638" align="alignright" width="300"]Lilya Brik by Alexander Rodchenko, 1924 Lilya Brik by Alexander Rodchenko, 1924[/caption]

THE JEWISH MUSEUM in New York City has mounted an exhibit, "The Power Of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film," on display until February 7th, with films screened daily. Why is this exhibit at the Jewish Museum? They have not gone socialist on us; rather, many of the photographers and cinematographers in the Soviet Union from 1921 to 1932 were Jews. While I was familiar with the artist El Lissitzky and cinema giants Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, many of the photographers and filmmakers were not familiar to me: Georgy Zelma, Yakov Khalip, Boris Ignatovich, Arkady Shaikhet, Moisei Nappelbaum, as well as Yakov Protazanov, Boris Barnet, Esfir Shub, Lev Kuleshov, Viktor Turin, Grigory Kozintsev, Mikhail Kalatozov, Vsevolod Pudovkin.

The Soviets recognized that the media of still photography and film were perfect for spreading the message of change that the 1917 revolution brought, since seventy percent of the citizens of the new Soviet Union were illiterate. Just as the Russian Orthodox Church, throughout its history, used images, including icons, to obtain the devotion of their followers, so, too, did the communist movement use photography and film to mold the "new Soviet man and woman."

The curator of the exhibit, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, is critical of the propaganda focus of the photography, which shows the super-positive progress made in the new Soviet Union but fails to show the reality of everyday life, including the harsh challenges to simple survival and the use of prison labor to build the new canals and dams. There is no question that a lot of what is on display in this exhibit was propaganda: These artists were employed by the state to serve the Soviet Union. The Soviets and many of their photographers and filmmakers would agree with Bertolt Brecht, who wrote that culture is not a mirror to reflect society, but a hammer with which to mold it. The Nazis, too, used propaganda films of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and of the Nuremburg Nazi rally to promote their cause. Here in the United States today, the use of the media to mold minds is evident in every television commercial. Whether it be a commissariat or a corporate board, those who pay are likely to obtain the kinds of messages they seek.

????????THE EXHIBIT is divided into several subjects, the first being the avant-garde abstraction of El Lissitsky (1890-1941) and Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956). Everyday objects such as eyeglasses float in a photo; a face is superimposed upon the back of a bald head (Rodchenko's photo, at left). Photographs show new buildings at vertiginous angles. As the curator mentions more than once throughout the exhibit, Stalin put an end to this kind of experimentation. What followed were easy-to-understand yet very moving art photos in a propaganda style.

I remember visiting the modern art museum in Prague some years after the fall of Czechoslovakia's communist government. The socialist realism works were relegated to one gallery, and the attitude of the curator was to disparage such portraits of heroic workers and peasants. I have to admit, nevertheless, that while I enjoy abstraction and conceptual art, I appreciated the realistic work as well. Yet it is a a pity that the abstraction of the 1920s was silenced — even while, in the Hermitage in Leningrad, visitors could see confiscated impressionist and abstract paintings from other cultures. How contradictory! Could not there have been room and resources for many types of expression within the boundaries established under the Soviets? Substituting socialist realism in photography, the plastic arts, music, theater, and film patronizes the people and assumes that the proletariat is unable to understand abstraction.

"STAGING HAPPINESS" is the next gallery I viewed at the Jewish Museum. The Jewish photographers here portrayed daily life as falling in love and getting a suntan, and the new Soviet man and woman as super-healthy and super-athletic gymnasts and skiers. Next come huge military events and parades, demonstrating the power of the Soviet armed forces, and photos of dam construction on the Dnieper, the electrification of Russia, and the construction of the Baltic-White Sea Canal. Ethnographic photos were also made to record the many minorities in the new Soviet Union, such as tribal peoples in Siberia. Oddly, the ethnic section does not show any photos of Soviet Jews, who were recognized at that time as a legitimate ethnic minority by the Soviets.

Then there is a section on portraiture, including photos of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Stalin in full length.

Another section shows magnificent glossy magazines, such as Soviet Life, produced in many languages for consumption around the world, with photos of smiling collective-farm workers and huge industrialization projects. There is also a gallery devoted to beautiful silent-movie posters, most produced in bright colors and an enticing avant-garde style.

Finally, movies are shown daily. They include the well-known work of Sergei Eisenstein, “The Battleship Potemkin,” Kozintsev’s Gogol story, “The Overcoat,” and Dziga Vertov’s “Man With A Movie Camera,” as well as nine other films, all in rotation during the course of the exhibit.

AS A JEWISH LEFTIST, I am critical when capitalist nations censor and restrict thought and culture, as when American libraries restricting LGBT children’s books. When religious or rightwing forces restrict freedom around the world, I am outraged, as when Iran arrests filmmakers. In the past, however, I admittedly have apologized and excused the left when our "comrades" do the same. I have accepted the argument that both internal and external counter-revolutionaries force the left to "look the other way" or even justify censorship and cultural restrictions. "The Power of Pictures" prompts me to reconsider any tolerance I've given for censorship in the socialist movement over the years. Isn’t there a universal culture? Shouldn't there be a universal opposition to censorship?

Jeffrey Kassel is a retired civil service worker who a founder of his union, the Public Employees Federation, and served as a union officer for twenty-eight years.