In the rearview mirror of history, the Soviet Union has come to look like one of the most ambitious and most disastrous social experiments of the 20th century — a roller coaster ride from the lofty goals of the Russian Revolution into bleak Stalinist oppression.
Before the dream collapsed, its public face was crafted over decades in photographs produced for official Communist newspapers and magazines. Such images gave visual form to hopes for a future of progress and equality but also sometimes masked a more complicated reality.
That discrepancy, and the journalistic photography that helped shape an image of Communism, is the focus of a small but engrossing exhibition at St. Pete’s Museum of Fine Arts. Picturing a New Society: Photographs from the Soviet Union, 1920s-1980s features just over 30 images from the MFA’s permanent collection of photography, which has grown in recent years to become one of the most important collections in the Southeast.
The bulk of the works in the exhibition were drawn from a single donation of 200 photographs to the museum by Howard Schickler, a former art dealer who lives in Sarasota. In the late 1980s, around the time that the USSR began to dissolve, Schickler visited the country and collected photographs from the families of photographers who had worked for Communist newspapers. Because such prints were often destroyed in the course of publication — sometimes cut up to create photomontages of workers or youth — they are now rare, says MFA curatorial assistant Sabrina Hughes, who organized the show.
As stand-alone images, the photos in Picturing a New Society are not glaring examples of propaganda, but they are reminders, in intriguing ways, of photography’s long service as a political tool and its sometimes contradictory identity as both document and aesthetic construct.
“All of these photographs should be taken with a grain of salt,” Hughes says.
That necessity is most amusingly apparent in photographs of children and strapping young folk in 1930s athletic parades that trumpeted the USSR’s well-being in propaganda magazines. Photographer Georgi Zelma captures pint-sized gymnasts and tennis players marching on Red Square, while Emmanuel Evzerikhin turns his lens on smiling young co-eds — shot from a low angle seemingly to accentuate their height and the angle of their proud gazes out of the frame and into the future. (Zelma’s images come to the MFA from collector Janice Tuckwood rather than Schickler.)
Such images stay true to the idealizing style of Socialist Realism, the preferred aesthetic mode of the Communist party under Stalin. Two of the party’s favorite subjects, labor and industry, are represented extensively in the show. Female laborers make a variety of appearances: a woman farmer posed heroically in front of agricultural machinery; a quartet of women operating industrial drills in the sun, white kerchiefs tied around their heads; and a pair of women assembling weapons during World War II in front of a banner urging citizens to fight for the defense of Moscow. (Men at work accomplish somewhat more dramatic tasks, like the construction of Moscow’s subway system in the 1930s.)
Other images spotlight the USSR’s rural and ethnically Eurasian republics. A pair of pictures commemorates the construction of the Grand Fergana Canal in Uzbekistan, a 45-day project completed by 200,000 local farmers without the aid of machinery. Though the project was likely grueling at times, Max Alpert’s photographs for USSR in Construction, a major propaganda magazine, depict the joy of productivity — a pair of barefoot farmers pushing wheelbarrows and a festive celebration of the project.
Picturing a New Society becomes most engaging in photographs that appear to blur the line between Socialist Realism and more formal concerns. Alexander Ustinov’s “Worker Taking Measurements” (no date, printed 1950s-1970s) transforms the most banal of subjects — a worker measuring teeth on a giant gear with a pair of calipers — into a gorgeous study of geometry and black-and-white tonal range. Though interest in form for its own sake would have been anathema to a dyed-in-the-wool realist, Ustinov’s photograph suggests that he was concerned with making an image as intriguing to the eye as true-to-life (or ideology). His “Packing Artillery” (c. 1940s) is another of these; in the photograph, a diminutive woman in a black dress, composed delightfully off-center amidst a breathtaking sea of metal artillery shells, carefully packs the shells into a crate.
Decades after their life as Communist promotion, Ustinov’s images stand as art.
Speaking of collecting, a new installation at the MFA invites visitors to collect original works of art for $5 a pop. The museum now boasts its own Art-o-Mat, one of the lovingly restored vintage cigarette machines that Clark Whittington of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has been refurbishing and stocking with miniature artworks since 1997. More than 80 of the machines live in museums and other art-friendly locales from Canada to Austria and throughout the U.S.
Whittington conceived the Art-o-Mat as an experiment in art populism. Would a vending machine stocked with artworks have the same lure as one loaded with candy bars and cigarettes? In this case, temptations include photographs by Wisconsin artist Corey Hengen, ink drawings and watercolor paintings by Providence, North Carolina-based Lemon Tree, and fan pulls (yes, beaded doodads for ceiling fan and lamp pull chains) by Tarpon Springs artist Kat Adams. Each artwork comes packaged in a cigarette pack-sized box, and the machine’s contents is periodically replenished with new art. Go ahead and pull the lever — this addiction’s good for you.
Bravo for "New Swirl Order" Megan!
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