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Soviet life in pictures

(Monday 08 January 2007)
EXHIBITION: Classic Soviet modernist photographer Max Penson and the Soviet modernisation of Uzbekistan 1920s-1930s
Somerset House, London WC2

CHRISTINE LINDEY is glad to see the work of Soviet photojournalist Max Penson, but says that it should be shown in a proper context.

Have you heard of Max Penson? Most of us haven't. This major exhibition of over 200 of his photographs introduces his work to a British audience for the first time.

A Ukrainian Jew born to a bookbinder in 1893 in a village near Vitebsk, he escaped the pogroms of 1915 by moving to central Asia, where he became a photojournalist and settled in Tashkent for life.

From 1926 until 1949, he worked for central Asia's largest newspaper Pravda Vostoka - Truth of the East - as well as magazines such as USSR Under Construction.

In 1949, his photographic permit was withdrawn, he lost his job and he spent the last 10 years of his life engaged in retouching the eyes of the people in his life's work.

His archive was buried in the 1966 Tashkent earthquake, from which some 50,000 negatives were dug out by his daughter and her husband.

Penson documented the massive social, political and ideological changes which the Bolshevik revolution brought to Uzbekistan.

Following the socialist realist method, he showed ordinary people setting about changing their material conditions by engaging in collective action and by embracing modernity.

Rural communities, recently steeped in centuries of unchanging manual labour, adopt science and technology. A young man in traditional clothes fixes a radio speaker to a collective farm's telegraph pole.

Uzbek children gather around the magic of a phonograph, young men step off a CCCP aeroplane. We see the cultural and social dimension of ordinary people's lives - spectators at a football stadium, participants in group gymnastics, music making at festivals.

In Bearer of the Order of Lenin, Khalima Alieva, 1934, a young Uzbek woman's face and book are illuminated by the electric bulb by which she reads. What would her uncles have said about such barefaced immodesty? Not only does she read, but even her hair is uncovered.

In another photograph, we glimpse women of her mother's generation wearing the traditional horsehair face and head veil. Some of the most progressive images are of the freedoms gained by young Uzbek women - they go to school, run in sports days or broadcast in a radio station.

A mixture of visual styles informs Penson's work - 19th-century realist painting, pictorialist photography and constructivism. Adopting the latter's sharp angles, odd viewpoints, asymmetrical compositions and cropped close-ups, much of his work conveys the dynamism and optimism of socialist endeavour.

In On a Construction Site, massive 1930s concrete pillars soar diagonally above us, topped impossibly high in the sky by their seemingly tiny builders.

The discovery of an unknown talent makes a good story, particularly if he can be seen as a victim of tsarist pogroms, Stalin's 1949 campaign against cosmopolitanism and if his work was rescued from an earthquake. We are encouraged to hope that a hidden genius has been discovered.

You will see some wonderful photographs, but to claim that "his works deserve to be mentioned alongside those of Alexander Rodchenko and other great Soviet photographers of the 1920s and 1930s," as do the publicity and catalogue, is to stretch the point.
He was sensitive to new and old developments in the visual arts and had a direct and emphatic knowledge of his adopted country and its people, but he did not innovate either in practice or theory in the way that Rodchenko did.

Active in the pre-television age, when photojournalism was at the height of its powers and influence, Penson was one of many excellent Soviet photojournalists.

Why are we seeing his work now? Why is the original context of these photographs virtually ignored in the display and in the unscholarly catalogue? Why is the information focused on a dramatised biographical narrative? Why is it virulently anti-Soviet?

All exhibitions are rooted in aesthetic and ideological outlooks. The assumptions which underlie this one reflect the predominant current in the cultural shifts which have occurred since 1991.

The re-evaluation of their Soviet past by Russian cultural workers often involves adopting Western critical canons. Early Soviet modernism is praised and opposed to socialist realism, which is denigrated and linked to an oppressive political system of "totalitarianism."

In fact, Penson's work shows that constructivist formal devices continued within socialist realist graphic design and photojournalism into the late 1930s and the 1940s in a way that was not permitted within fine art.

Fundamental changes in systems of patronage underlie these shifts of interpretation. No longer state-subsidised, Russian cultural institutions now operate in a capitalist climate.

This exhibition, staged by the Moscow House of Photography, is as needy of sponsorship and funding as Western institutions.

The first thing that you see is a large wall panel displaying the logos of the predominantly commercial businesses which have organised this display. The major sponsor, we are told, is Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

What the catalogue does not tell us is that one of Penson's sons was first approached by a Swiss dealer in 1997. Now, prices for Penson's photographs are quoted on the international art market. Aesthetic, financial and ideological issues are interwoven, as is Russian national prestige.

As a photojournalist, Penson gave his press office small prints. Tthe larger prints were for his private use. The catalogue says that he rarely contributed to the "intense exhibition activities" in Moscow and Leningrad and attributes his obscurity to this fact.

To now exhibit these as "exhibition prints" without including examples of the original newspapers in which they appeared, or informing us of the news stories which they illustrated, or of their captions is to transform the photographs' function. They become unique, market-friendly objects.

This contradicts the constructivist desire to combat the elitism of bourgeois commodity art by taking art into production, just as it ignores the socialist realist aim of producing culture of the people for the people.

It is great to bring Penson's excellent photojournalism to a wider audience. We can only hope that the viewers will question the exhibition's ideological stance.

Exhibition runs until February 24. Box office: (020) 7845-4600.