Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Quiet Resistance


At London's Somerset House there's a new exhibition of Russian pictorialist photography mostly from the 1920s and 30s, featuring the work of Rodchenko, Lissitsky, Ignatovich and others -- artists who in the early years of the Revolution defied the prevailing military ideology and attempted to convey the emotional aspect of reality, and to express individual perceptions and interpretations of events and phenomena. As the exhibition brochure makes clear,
Their subject matter was mostly confined to traditional pictorial themes, i.e. landscapes, nudes, shots of old mansion houses, and unpretentious genre scenes. A brilliant sense of composition and virtuoso technique of execution endeared the pictorialists to organisers of international photo shows and salons. Foreign press devoted much attention to them and, curiously, just like Soviet critics, regarded them as aesthetic opposition to the militant Soviet ideology. For instance, after the Paris salon of 1925 a British photography magazine observed that ‘…whatever their political convictions, the Russians in the shots they sent firmly stand within traditional bounds’.

Pictorialist photographers were vehemently attacked by Soviet critics, who vainly pointed out the right way to Socialist Realism. As one author put it in 1936, ‘…contemporary Soviet reality is such that laughter, joy and smiles are typical features of our new way of life’, so that ‘our life has become really wonderful’.

Photographic debates of the late 1920s were mostly about aesthetics, focusing on the advantages of certain compositions and opportunities offered by different optical devices or printing techniques. However, by the early 1930s aesthetics yielded to ideology. From the late 1920s onwards all spheres of Soviet life, including the art of photography, were haunted by the search for enemies of revolutionary changes. The ‘enemy’ image became a foundation for ideological propaganda. On the one hand it paralysed everyone’s personality with fear, on the other, it aimed to consolidate and inspire the masses in their heroic efforts for the sake of radiant future. Thus pictorialists ended up as ‘enemies’ in photography. They were accused of predilection for the old non-revolutionary world, where bourgeois values reigned supreme and ignored class struggles. Passion for landscapes, old palaces or naked women was condemned as ‘Turgenev’s stuff’ (after the nineteenth-century writer) and ‘political short-sightedness’.
Hat tip: Marius
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