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Classic Soviet Modernist Photographer Max Penson and the Soviet Modernisation of Uzbekistan 1920-1930s

29 November 2006 - 24 February 2007

Photo: 'Military Parade', © Max Penson, 1935, courtesy 
                  of Russian ACT
Military Parade, © Max Penson, 1935, courtesy of Russian ACT
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On the Construction Site for the Liagan Canal, © Max Penson, 1942, Courtesy of Russian ACT
Photo: man blowing a Karnai horn with workers in the background, 'On the construction site for the Liagan canal', © Max Penson, 
                  1942, Courtesy of Russian ACT

Over 200 photographs by Max Penson (1893-1959) documenting the radical transformation of Uzbekistan from a highly traditional feudal society into a modern Soviet republic taken between 1920 and 1940 will be exhibited for the first time in the UK, here at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, from 29 November 2006 to 24 February 2007.

The exhibition is staged by the Moscow House of Photography and curated by Olga Sviblova, one of Russia’s leading arts specialists. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has sponsored the exhibition catalogue.

The exhibition forms the photography element of the 2006 Russian ACT festival, a major celebration and showcase of Russian culture taking place at venues across London from 4 October to 2 December. The festival includes orchestral music, theatre, jazz, and two dance events; one featuring Igor Zelensky and Darcy Bussell and the other bringing contemporary dancers Diana Husein and Anna Abalihina to London for the first time.

Photo: 'Spectators at a Football Match in Dynamo Stadium', © Max Penson, 1930, Courtesy of Russian ACT
Spectators at a football match in Dynamo Stadium, © Max Penson, 1930, Courtesy of Russian ACT
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Solar eclipse being watched by passengers through the windows of a bus, © Max Penson, 1934, Courtesy of Russian ACT
Photo: 'Solar Eclipse being Watched by Passengers through the Windows 
                  of a Bus', © Max Penson, 1934, Courtesy of Russian ACT

The 20th century history of Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan had remained largely hidden until the collapse of communism during the early 1990s. Penson's archive contains roughly 30,000 images taken while he worked as a photographer for Central Asia's largest newspaper, Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East), from 1926 until 1949. But, accused of being influenced by the West, he fell from official favour and in 1948 rising anti-Semitism forced him to leave his job after 25 years of working at the paper.

Penson's photographs document the sweeping social transformation that happened during this period, as well as showing an awareness of the Modernist aesthetic being explored by artists throughout Europe. Many of the images are clearly underpinned by a socialist, propagandist agenda and show an idealisation of life under Soviet rule. However, Penson also sought out his own subjects. In 1937 Penson took part in the World Exhibition in Paris winning the Grand Prix for Uzbek Madonna, a portrait of a young woman, unveiled and publicly nursing her child.

Some images depict women in traditional horsehair veils while in others they wear trousers and drive tractors, previously unheard-of tasks for women in this part of the world. Men are shown digging vast irrigation canals, attending literacy classes and watching sporting events or theatrical performances.

Photo: men marching with fixed bayonets, 'If There is a War Tomorrow', © Max 
                    Penson, 1940, Courtesy of Russian ACT

If there is a war tomorrow, © Max Penson, 1940, Courtesy of Russian ACT

Max Penson was born in 1893 in the Belorussian village of Velizh, the son of a bookbinder. He studied art in Lithuania, returning to his hometown in 1915. The Russian pogroms forced him to flee to Kokand in Uzbekistan not long after, where he found employment as an art teacher. The gift of a camera in 1921 changed his life, and from then on he gave up painting, moved to Tashkent and began working as a professional photographer. He died in 1959 as a result of depression and illness.

Olga Sviblova, curator and director of Moscow House of Photography, said: “Working independently and without teachers, he attained the summits of photographic art. His work deserves to be considered alongside other Russian masters such as Grindberg Zelma and Rodchenko. His work provides an insight into the transformation of a society, hidden and largely unreported during the time of change; it is a stirring story. This is the first time these images have been exhibited in the UK and form the photographic element of the 2006 Russian ACT festival.”

 

 

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