- Russian Neo-Primitivism: Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
- Kasimir Malevich and Cubo-Futurism
- Suprematism, Part I: Kasimir Malevich
- Suprematism, Part II: El Lissitzky
- Constructivism, Part I
- Constructivism, Part II
- Tatlin’s Tower
- A new world after the Russian Revolution: Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White
- Stepanova, The Results of the First Five-Year Plan
Photomontage in the Soviet Union
Have you ever wondered what came before Photoshop? After the First World War, artists in Germany and the Soviet Union began to experiment with photomontage, the process of making a composite image by juxtaposing or mounting two or more photographs in order to give the illusion of a single image. A photomontage can include photographs, text, words and even newspaper clippings.
Russia had for centuries been an absolute monarchy ruled by a tsar, but between 1905 and 1922 the country underwent tremendous change, the result of two wars (World War I, 1914-18 and Civil War, 1917-22) and a series of uprisings that culminated in the October Revolution of 1917. The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) was established in 1922 under Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The young communist state was celebrated by many artists and intellectuals who saw an opportunity to end the corruption and extreme poverty that defined Russia for so long.
The Russian avant-garde had experimented with new forms of art for decades and in the years after the Revolution, photomontage became a favorite technique of artists such as El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. Stepanova was a talented painter, designer and photographer. She defined herself as a constructivist and focused her art on serving the ideals of the Soviet Union. She was a leading member of the Russian avant-garde and later in her career, she became well known for her contributions to the magazine USSR in Construction, a propagandist publication that focused on the industrialization of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, a ruthless dictator who took power after Lenin's death and whose totalitarian policies are thought to have caused suffering and death for millions of his people.
The public targeted by USSR in Construction was mostly foreign. The purpose of the magazine was to show countries such as France and Great Britain that the USSR was also a leading force in the global market and economy. By choosing to include images rather than just articles, the public would be able to see with their own eyes the accomplishments achieved under Stalin. At first the subjects depicted were strictly industrial, but as the magazine gained recognition and readers, topics diversified, and included subjects from education to sports and leisure. Soviet strategists were well aware that many European countries were witnessing the rise of a small base of devoted Communists, despite general mistrust and even contempt by the continental social and political elite.
As its title suggests, this photomontage is an ode to the success of the First Five-Year Plan, an initiative started by Stalin in 1928. The Plan was a list of strategic goals designed to grow the Soviet economy and accelerate its industrialization. These goals included collective farming, creating a military and artillery industry and increasing steel production. By the end of the First Five-Year Plan in 1933, the USSR had become a leading industrial power, though its worth noting that contemporary historians have found that economists from the USSR inflated results to enhance the image of the Soviet Union. In this work of art, Stepanova has also used the tools of the propagandist. This photomontage is an ideological image intended to help establish, through its visual evidence, the great success of the Plan.
Constructing the image
In Stepanova’s photomontage, everything is carefully constructed. The artist uses only three types of color and tone. She alternates black and white with sepia photographs and integrates geometric planes of red to structure the composition. On the left, Stepanova has inserted public address speakers on a platform with the number 5, symbolizing the Five Year Plan along with placards displaying the letters CCCP, the Russian initials for USSR. The letters are placed above the horizon as is a portrait of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. The cropped and oversized photograph of Lenin shows him speaking; his eyes turned to the left as if looking to the future. Lenin is linked to the speakers and letter placards at the left by the wires of an electrical transmission tower. Below, a large crowd of people indicate the mass popularity of Stalin's political program and their desire to celebrate it.
Red, the color of the Soviet flag, was often used by Stepanova in her photomontages. She also commonly mis-matched the scale of photographic elements to create a sense of dynamism in her images. Despite the flat, paper format, different elements are visually activated and can even seem to ‘pop out.’ Several clear artistic oppositions are visible in The Results of the First Five-Year Plan. For example, there is a sharp contrast between the black and white photographs and the red elements, such as the electric tower, the number 5, and the triangle in the foreground. Our eyes are attracted to these oppositions and by the contrast between the indistinct masses and the individual portrait of Lenin, as an implicit reference to the Soviet political system.
As the term photomontage suggests, images are combined and manipulated to express the message the artist wants to convey. This image celebrating of the results of the First Five-Year Plan is the artist’s interpretation of events, under the strict supervision of Party ideologues.
The Plan resulted in radical measures that forced farmers to give up their land and their livestock. Many people were reduced to extreme poverty and famine became widespread. Terror, violence, and fear replaced the initial optimism about the Plan. What started as positive propaganda became, little by little, a means to hide a disastrous economic policy from the rest of the world. It became an absolute necessity for the State to project a pristine image of its society no matter how dire the situation became. Stepanova admits no fault or imperfection in The Results of the First Five-Year Plan.
Although Stepanova worked hand in hand with the Soviet government, her work shows great personal creativity. By using vibrant color, and striking images in a dynamic composition, she pioneered photomontage and revolutionized the way we now understand photography. Historical hindsight can make it difficult for contemporary viewers to engage the overtly propagandistic aspects of these images, in fact their exaggerated euphoria can even be mistaken for irony. Nevertheless, despite our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the distinction between image and reality, Stepanova's photomontages are an important reminder of how an artist can blur the line between aesthetic passion and ideology.
Essay by Jessica Watson
Want to join the conversation?
- I think that Photo-montage was started by Oscar Rejlander in the mid 19th century. I also do not understand the semi-acceptance of this propaganda as opposed to the Nazi propaganda as described in the last section called "the Avant-Garde and the rise of Totalitarianism". Please explain.(5 votes)
- Oscar Rejlander and Stepanova did different things. I don't like the photoshop analogy here, because manipulating photographs started with photography itself, in the darkroom with dodging and burning, and later by experimenting with combining different objects from different negatives onto a single photograph. This is what Rejlander did, as a photographer working in a darkroom. Stepanova cut up photographs and rearranged them on a clipboard (or new sheet of paper or whatever). Both are called photo montage, and it is confusing. Some definitions say that photomontage was first used by dadaists after 1915, and this definition is pretty much ignoring the photographer's experiments in the darkroom that came before. By photomontage they mean a collage of photographs, like the work of Stepanova. Rejlander's work is more like photo-manipulation and early "photoshop".
I don't understand what you mean by this work being semi-accepted and nazi propaganda not. I think that all propaganda are accepted as a genre of art. They are only condemned morally. And of all propaganda art, Russian communist art was really outstanding. Russian communist poster art and russian communist animation are legendary.
In the previous sections there was an essay about the difference between what Nazis perceived as good art and "degenerate art". While they chose art that fit with their ideologies for their Great Exhibition of German Art, that was not really propaganda art. These were beautiful, idealistic, academic or classical style artwork that completely ignored the problems, events and changing aspects of modern society. This is what we don't consider or accept as great art for that period.(21 votes)
- During this period of time in our world's history, tend to only focus on the horrible doings of rulers such as Stalin and hitler that we forget the beautiful and new works of art being created.(7 votes)
- I like that instead of focusing on the negatives of that time you opened your mindset to the positives. Many people can't do that.(4 votes)
- Is photo montage really the twentieth century's version of photoshop? What was the inspiration behind it?(5 votes)
- I don't really agree here. Early "photoshop" or photomanipulation appeared as early photography itself. Photographers dodged and burned, combined objects from different negatives and did amazing things in the darkroom. Just look at this article to see some early "photoshop" from the 19th and 20th century: http://twistedsifter.com/2012/09/photo-manipulations-before-digital-age-photoshop/
This is more like photo collage, and it is a great tool for visual communication and I think it is a bigger part of the history of graphic design and visual communication than photoshop.
It can be considered as a small part of 20th century photoshop though, as used by graphic designers and not by photographers :)(7 votes)
- We read, "The Plan resulted in radical measures that forced farmers to give up their land and their livestock. Many people were reduced to extreme poverty and famine became widespread. Terror, violence, and fear replaced the initial optimism about the Plan. What started as positive propaganda became, little by little, a means to hide a disastrous economic policy from the rest of the world."
Did the artist, Varvara Stepanova, ever become disenchanted with the Soviet Regime when she realized the failures of centralized controls? Or did she get more deeply involved with producing this propaganda (keep in mind I find it quite pleasant to look at and use the term "propaganda" strictly as a description)?(7 votes)
- I didn't find any evidence Stepanova "disenchanted with the Soviet Regime". Later she became a successful production designer and a theatre designer - http://locals.md/2014/varvara-stepanova-zhenshhina-dizaner/(2 votes)
- Was this piece itself one of the pictures featured in "USSR in Construction"? Or were only pure photographs included?(7 votes)
- What is the size? (It would have been really helpful if all the articles included the size)(4 votes)
- According to https://www.moma.org/collection/works/13934 the size is 11 7/8 x 8 7/8" (30.2 x 22.5 cm).(1 vote)
- Interesting that the curator only includes one Russian work. Why no "Black Square." Once could argue it is equally if not more important than many of these works presented from traditional European sources (and no, I'm not Russian :))(2 votes)
- And that's all that you can say about socialistic art? Where are sucn artists like Deineca (author of a big amount of paintings and mosaicas in Moscow subway what literally sparkling with light, energy and life (for example, "Будущие летчики", " Эстафета по кольцу Б", and heroic "Оборона Севастополя"), Pimenov (his painting "Новая Москва" is a great illustration of progress, social welfare and equal rights what can be possible only in socialistic state), Shatilov (in his painting "В Рублевском зале Третьяковской галереи" we can see young people in front of ancient icons. But it's not a church, it's museum! And personages are not praying - they are discussing medieval art, talking about its history and authors! Obviously, it's a new victory of communism - in giving an opportunity to get well-educated, do unalienated work (can you imagine Ford's worker, who goes to museum after his shift?), and have a freedom of religious beliefs for all the people, what was impossible in tsar time).
Socialistic realism paintings are magnificent and interesting to explore- besause it's truly art of most progressive socioeconomic formation.Why do you blame Soviet art in propagandism, and show it just like recombining images, opinions, facts to make up primitive and secondary picture - but next time do just the same (because ignoring positive sides of historical period or phenomenon and highlighting only negative ones is a kind of propaganda too)?
Sorry for grammatical mistakes. Names of paintings are given in Russian for comfortable googling.(2 votes)
- There's certainly more to be said. Here's some of it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_realism(1 vote)
- What is Photo montage?(1 vote)
- It is a process where one can make a composite image by putting together two or more photographs. This gives the illusion that it is a single image.(2 votes)