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Somerset House
Untitled, Uzbekistan, 1930-'40s
Somerset House,
The Strand, London, WC2R 0RN
020 7845 4600
Museums & Major Spaces
Courtauld Gallery (020 7848 2526): daily 10am-6pm, last admission 5.15pm. £5, concs £4, under-18s, full time UK students, unwaged free; Mon (except bank holidays and special exhibitions) 10am-2pm free to all. Gilbert Collection (020 7420 9400): daily 10am
Charing Cross

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Max Penson: Photographs

Until Feb 24 Somerset House, The Strand, London, WC2R 0RN map


The most obvious touchstone for the work of Russian photographer Max Penson is that of his compatriot and contemporary Alexander Rodchenko. But whereas Rodchenko, as a painter, graphic designer and photographer, was well versed in Constructivism, Productivism (integrating art into everyday life) and techniques of photomontage, Penson spent most of his working life as a press photographer in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. His relative isolation from the Russian and European avant-gardes means that the photographs on show here (from the 1920s-’40s) are mostly straightforward documentation of Uzbek life under the Soviets. Sepia-tinged images of fruit-farm workers in patterned skull caps and smock tops, horse-drawn wagons delivering big bundles of fluffy white cotton and men playing the national game of Ulag, to an accompaniment of drums and whatever sound is produced by elongated horns, all provide an insight – albeit  government-controlled – into a past way of life.

There are moments when Penson’s creativity is evident, particularly in his use of exaggerated diagonals in shots of sporting prowess, and in an abstract aerial view of a woman planting seeds into packed rows of rectangular and oval pots. His increasing struggles against the dictats of authority are here too. When the Soviets imposed the aesthetic of Socialist realism, Penson may have dutifully produced images of smiling workers on collectives, but his excessive retouching of the prints to the point of almost obliterating them reveals his true feelings.
Helen Sumpter , Thu Dec 21 2006

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