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Soviet Photomontage 1920s-1930s at Nailya Alexander Gallery

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Soviet Photomontage 1920s-1930s at Nailya Alexander Gallery

According to Varvara Stepanova, a leading figure in the post-revolutionary Soviet avant-garde, a photomontage is “the assemblage and combination of expressive elements from individual photographs.” An authority on the topic, she wrote about it in her 1928 essay, Photomontage, and created a movement with her peers that still resounds in visual culture today.

Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), Bud Gotov (Be Ready), 1934, Gelatin silver photomontage 8 3/4 x 6 1/4 in.

A highly regarded constructivist artist of the period, Stepanova and fellow artists in the fields of illustration, typography, and book, poster and textile design, including Petr Galadzhev, Gustav Klutsis, Alexander Rodchenko (Stepanova’s husband), Solomon Telingater, Alexei Ushin, Konstantin Vialov, and Alexander Zhitomirsky, collectively participated in the development of a new text and image based graphic language, grounded in the culture of their day.

Konstantin Vialov (1900-1976), Maquette for front cover of Kino Front I, 1925-26, Photocollage on cardstock with hand-painted lettering, 12 x 9 in.

A tightly curated selection of their works is on view in the exhibition, Soviet Photomontage 1920s-1930s, at Nailya Alexander Gallery. Much of the work was developed concurrently within the context of a burgeoning film industry in the region and a subsequent demand for movie posters and advertising materials. At the time, film directors like Sergei Eisenstein had a penchant for a montage style of film editing that played with juxtaposition and a non-linear arrangement of images as a tool to influence audiences.

Attributed to Petr Galadzhev (1900-1971), Maquette for front cover of Dreams, c. 1925, Photocollage on cardstock with hand-drawn lettering, 5 3/8 x 6 1/2 in.

From an artistic point of view, for the avant-garde artists, the rearrangement of images and their placement in new visual contexts could consolidate multiple ideas and sentiments into single images. Advances in photographic printing, lithography, and distribution methods of the time also coincided with the efforts of these artists creating an atmosphere ripe for the consumption of mass-media publications.

Konstantin Vialov (1900-1976), Maquette for front cover of Buster Keaton, 1926, Photocollage on cardstock with hand-painted lettering, 7 x 5 1/2 in.

The exhibition features a variety of media from maquettes for front covers of advertising books, cinematography journals, and movie magazines, to postcards, film posters, and personal work. One maquette by Konstantin Vialov, referencing renowned American actor/director, Buster Keaton, is described as, “a Russian constructivist advertising booklet published by Kino-Pechat…on the occasion of the screening in Russia of his [Keaton] film Our Hospitality.

Most of the work on view falls in a color spectrum that ranges from black to white, with sepia or grey tones in between. However, a handful of images use red as a resounding accent color, and a few use yellow. Both images with and without text are interspersed throughout the exhibition. For those who don’t speak Russian, the influence of these text-based images will feel quite familiar and on par with much of the advertising we see in the world today, thanks to their compositional use of scale and text placement. All of the work is small scale, less than 11”x14”, and elegantly framed.

Artist unknown, Lenin and Stalin in Gorki, 1922, Gelatin silver print, printed 1949, published in Isvestia, 1 January 1952, 9 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.

For those viewers interested in taking a deeper dive into this world of artmaking, a concurrent, albeit less intimate, exhibition, A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, Soviet Photomontage 1920s-1930s is on display at Nailya Alexander Gallery until January 14, 2017.