By Liam Hoare
Jewish photographers were pivotal to pioneering new forms of artistic expression in early Soviet Russia, so contends a new exhibition currently being staged at the Joods Historisch Museum in the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam.
Revolutionary times required revolutionary modes of artistic expression – and the camera became one of the tools that allowed for such dramatic change. Cameras had hitherto been bulky and cumbersome, stuck on tripods, and destined to capture landscapes and portraits in standard fashions. Now handheld, portable, dynamic, the camera and the photograph were liberated, ready to become an instrument of the artistic avant-garde whose radical style was seen as the expression of radical politics: active, energetic, progressive, and optimistic.
Photographers and filmmakers were urged by the Soviet regime to use unusual, novel techniques in their art: collage, montage, darkroom manipulation, unconventional camera angles, fast-paced editing, and shifts in depth of field. This box of tricks allowed the viewer, the new Soviet citizen, to experience a familiar reality from an unfamiliar perspective. The creation of the new Soviet man required new ways of seeing things, for fostering class consciousness and a socialistic education inevitably demanded the abandonment of prerevolutionary, bourgeois modes of artistic expression.
Early Soviet photography captured the ongoing technological revolution and the mastery by man of nature and the environment. It placed on emphasis on newness, physicality, militarism, and eschewed the individual and individualism for the sake of man’s overall contribution to the great collective endeavor. Absent, at least from the photography of the 1920s, is the portrayal therefore of difference: of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. The concept of a national minority would not become a theme in Soviet art until the time of Stalin.
In early Soviet Russia, Jews were the artistic avant-gardes. Jews found a certain freedom in the newer fields of film and photography, at a time when the more established professions felt closed off. Jewish artists were looked upon with favor by the new regime on the one hand because they were seen as ideologically sound (for this Jewish avant-garde believed in the revolution and revolutionary principles as key to their own liberation) and on the other hand because they had no vestigial loyalty to the old regime, Tsarism and the Russian Orthodox Church, which had after all been the source of much misery for Russian Jewry.
While this would undoubtedly change during the time of Stalinism – whose views on art were rather more conservative, to say the least, and to say nothing regarding his views on Jews, which manifested themselves later on – for now Jews were part of the Soviet artistic elite. Jewish photojournalists dominated the Russian Association of Proletarian Photographers, for example, which championed the documentation of reality and non-manipulated reportage. Behind the camera, they would document the Russian Revolution using revolutionary means from a revolutionary perspective.
Major contributions to early Soviet art by Jewish practitioners included: the filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who documented urban life through montage in Man with a Movie Camera; Alexander Rodchenko, a founding members of the Constructivist movement whose photography was awash with extreme angles and wide frames; the documentarian Esfir Shub; and Sergei Eisenstein, director of the two most iconic pictures produced in early Soviet Russia, the revolutionary odes Battleship Potemkin and October.
By the time Stalinism became the dominant ideological strain in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, however, these Jewish artists faced a stark choice: compromise or censorship. Eisenstein, having returned from Hollywood, sought ways to get by in changing times, going onto make more formalistic, romantic movies about Russian history including Alexander Nevsky and the incomplete Ivan the Terrible. Once it became the role of Soviet art to portray the everyday lives of the Soviet people in a state of permanent contentment, to glorify the revolution and in turn the leader, to capture reality not as it is but as one might hope it would be, revolutionary, hyper-realistic, in-your-face forms of photography pioneered by Jewish artists were defunct and the great period of artistic experimentation came to a close.
Also on show in the Jewish Cultural Quarter at the moment is the haunting collection of paintings by local artist Jeroen Krabbé, “The Demise of Abraham Reiss.” Born in December 1944 to a Jewish mother and Christian father, almost all Krabbé’s Jewish relatives were subject to deportation during the Holocaust. This included his grandfather, Abraham Reiss, who died in Sobibor and to whom these artworks, which are based upon diaries and letters and utilize various materials and techniques, constitute a tribute. “The Demise of Abraham Reiss,” the National Holocaust Museum states, “expresses the pain of the postwar generation and their need to learn more about the final stage in their relatives’ lives.”
“The Power of Pictures” runs at the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam until November 27. “The Demise of Abraham Reiss” runs at the National Holocaust Museum until October 2.