HISTORY AND THE VISUAL ARTS
1. REVOLUTION AND CIVIL WAR
2. NEW ECONOMIC POLICY
3. AVANT-GARDE VISUAL ARTS
4. SOVIET CINEMA
1. REVOLUTION AND CIVIL WAR
‘A war would be a very helpful thing for the Revolution’ said Lenin in 1913 and indeed the disastrous Russian campaign in World War 1 with two million dead in three years created the ideal breeding ground for revolutionary ideas. The ‘February Revolution’, named from the Julian calendar, started on March 8th 1917 in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg) when women demonstrators from a mixture of social classes, on their first International Women’s Day after getting the vote, gathered on the Nevsky Prospekt to complain about a shortage of food. Joined by striking female textile workers protesting about the lack of bread the demonstrations attracted over 100,000 by the end of the day. Over the next few days, encouraged by revolutionary activists, tens of thousands of people joined the demonstrations. The Cossacks and police failed to suppress the disturbances, and two regiments of Imperial Guards mutinied and distributed their weapons to the demonstrators. As a result of the chaos a Provisional Government was set up by members of the Duma (the Imperial Parliament) on March 12th but the army leadership was unable to contain the spread of dissent in the major cities and in the army and on the 15th March Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. Despite the bourgeois/capitalist make-up of the provisional government it followed quite a liberal agenda, including freedom of speech and union rights, but it continued with the unpopular war effort which exacerbated the already dire economic difficulties, and unrest continued to grow as peasants looted farms and food riots continued in the cities.
Vladimir Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland in April (above) promising peace negotiations to end the war with the ‘Central Powers’ (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria), the re-distribution of land, and workers’ control of the ‘means of production’. As a result of this popular programme the influence of the Bolsheviks quickly spread all over the country with peasants throwing out their landlords and workers taking over their factories. Power began to pass to the local worker’s and soldier’s councils, or ‘Soviets’ which were being set up everywhere. Following a failed coup attempt in July (which forced Lenin into a short period of exile in Finland) an armed insurrection began in Petrograd on the 7th November with Red Guards and mutinous troops seizing control of the city from the Provisional Government. Moscow soon followed but the chaos and uncertainty in the rest of the country was only resolved by a bloody civil war that began early the following year. At first, with the help of western allies, the forces opposed to Bolshevism, collectively called the ‘Whites’, made progress, advancing to within two hundred miles of Moscow, now the seat of government for the new Federation of Soviet Socialist Republics. However, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, the Red Army developed into a formidable fighting force which by November 1919 was inflicting defeats on the White forces forcing them to retreat into Crimea from where the remnants of the army were evacuated to Constantinople in late 1920. However fighting continued in the far east of the country for another two years even after the Soviet Union had been established in December 1922. It was actually not until 1934 that resistance finally ended in Central Asia.
Peasants queuing for the cinema carriage on an ‘Agit-train’ during the Civil War. Dziga Vertov organised film shows and film-making on these propaganda trains. The lettering above the door spells out ‘Soviet Cinema’ with ‘People’s Theatre’ below.
The Civil War had been an even worse catastrophe than WW1 with an estimated 7 to 12 million casualties, mostly civilians. The economy was in a dire state, partly due to the Bolshevik policy of ‘War Communism’ , with the currency almost worthless due to hyper-inflation. Public services and transportation had been disrupted, and infectious diseases thrived. 3 million had died of typhus in 1920 alone. This economic disturbance combined with drought and a severe winter led to a famine in 1921 and 1922 in which an estimated 5 million starved to death, particularly in the Volga and Ural River regions. Cities were also badly affected by the economic chaos with shortages of fuel and food leading thousands to leave for the countryside (Petrograd lost 850,000 inhabitants). As urban workers formed the core of Bolshevik support this posed a serious problem for the government. In an echo of the first revolution in 1917 a shortage of bread in Moscow caused workers’ demonstrations in 1921 and in March of that year a mutiny of soldiers and sailors broke out in Kronstadt.
 War Communism included the following policies (Wikipedia):
- Nationalisation of all industries, and centralised management
- State control of foreign trade
- Strict discipline for all workers, with strikes forbidden
- Compulsory labour for non-working classes
- Requisition of agricultural surplus from peasants for re-distribution among remaining population
- Rationing of food and other commodities
- Private enterprise banned
- Military-style control of the railways
2. NEW ECONOMIC POLICY
As a result of the increasing scale of economic and social problems Lenin realised that the War Communism policy urgently needed to change to avoid jeopardizing the survival of his regime and so at the 10th Party Congress in March 1921 the measures known as the ‘New Economic Policy’ (Novaya ekonomicheskaya politika) were introduced. The new measures included the return of most agriculture, retail trade, and light industry to private ownership and management. The state would remain responsible for heavy industry, banking and foreign trade. Wages were re-introduced rather than the previous system of rationing and free services, and compulsory labour was abolished. A tax replaced the food appropriation system that forced peasants to give any surplus production to the state for re-distribution. In theory this affordable and fixed tax would give the peasants more incentive to increase production as they could now sell their produce in the market for a profit. There was also an attempt to stabilize the currency. This partial reversal of communism was justified by Lenin as a temporary expedient to allow the economy to recover while the Communist Party consolidated its hold on power. Under the mixed economy of the NEP agricultural and industrial production staged recoveries with most parts of the economy reaching pre-WW1 levels by the late 20s. As a consequence the standard of living during this time improved dramatically, particularly for the independent private trader or ‘NEP man’ and woman who became a symbol of the era. Their nouveau-riche tendencies also became an object of contempt to the ‘true’ Bolshevik such as Dziga Vertov. In ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ he contrasts the ‘honest toil’ of the miner, foundry or factory worker with the extravagant behaviour of the NEP woman at the hair salon, or the NEP man in his chauffeur driven Crossley tourer (below) or expensive French sports car.
The rapidly improving economy and consequent social stability enabled the Party to consolidate its authority throughout the vast country, including uniting the various republics under the USSR (Union of Socialist Soviet Republics) in December 1922. A collective of prominent Communists theoretically ran the party and government but Lenin was the effective leader with Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin his closest colleagues. However, in January 1924 Lenin died aged 54 and a period of conflict arose in the party between ‘left-wing’ communists led by Trotsky who favoured ‘world revolution’ and a ‘pure’ form of Communism, and a ‘right-wing’ group around Joseph Stalin who promoted the gradual development of the Soviet Union through state run capitalism with practical programmes such as the NEP. Having consolidated his power by 1927 Stalin ousted the leaders of the Left including Trotsky who was forced into exile in 1928. He continued to oppose Stalinism until he was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in Mexico City in 1940.
Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky pictured after the October Revolution
Despite his previous support for the NEP Stalin now turned completely against it following a shortfall in the 1927 grain harvest. He believed that the affluent peasants (Kulaks) were hoarding grain and on a visit to Novosibirsk in 1928 he ordered that the Kulaks there be arrested and their grain confiscated. This marked the beginning of the end of the NEP and in the same year the first Five Year Plan was announced, replacing what Stalin thought was the irrationality and wastefulness of a market economy with a long-term scientifically organised centrally planned economy. The main aim of the plan was nothing less than the transformation of the Soviet Union from a backward agricultural nation into a modern industrial economy within a five year period. The following year the Politburo announced the mass collectivisation of agriculture, and workers’ control over industry was gradually removed as well. By the time of the premiere of ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ in January 1929 the NEP was well and truly over and the era of Stalinism had begun.
‘Победа пятилетки – удар по капитализму’
‘The victory of the Five Year Plan is a blow against capitalism’
An antisemitic poster supporting the first Five Year Plan
3. AVANT-GARDE VISUAL ARTS
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century Russian art, music and literature had already had a profound influence on Western culture; writers such as Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, composers like Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Stravinsky, and the artists Chagall, Kandinsky and Malevich had an international reputation. By the time of the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution the avant-garde, particularly in art, had taken advantage of the social and political turmoil to establish an entirely new direction in the creative arts. It was a time of ‘isms’ and Kasimir Malevich, who had been experimenting with Cubism and Futurism, invented an aesthetic based on flat, two-dimensional geometric shapes. He called his geometric abstract style Suprematism because he believed it represented the supreme pictorial expression.
Kasimir Malevich, ‘Black and White. Suprematist Composition’ , 1915
Widely regarded as the first abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky was a pivotal figure in both Abstraction and Modern Art in general because of his painting and writing. Like Malevich, Kandinsky was considered a revolutionary merely by suggesting that humans could achieve something deeper and more important through creativity, individuality and freedom of thought.
Kandinsky ‘On White II’, 1923
Just before WW1 Vladimir Tatlin began to explore a completely different approach to abstract art. Constructivism was an artistic (and architectural) philosophy that believed artistic endeavour should be a practice for social purposes not for merely aesthetic ends. Constructivism had a great effect on modern art and design movements of the early 20th century, including the Bauhaus in Germany and De Stijl in Holland, influencing architecture, sculpture, graphic and industrial design, theatre, photography, film, dance, fashion and, to some extent, music. Both Suprematism and Constructivism had utopic ideals and the style was based on a similar geometric abstract language that Malevich was using, but it was put towards a completely different, and more prosaic, goal of being ‘useful’ for the Bolshevik revolution. It was akin to Futurism in some ways with its fondness for machines, speed, and functionalism. A key Constructivist work was designed by Tatlin in 1919, a model for what was intended to be a colossal monument to the Bolsheviks. The Monument to the Third International, or “Tatlin’s Tower”, would have been 400 m tall, 76 m higher than the Eiffel Tower! It was intended to convey optimism, industrial superiority and the bright Soviet future that lay ahead. Completely impractical and structurally unsound it was never built.
‘Counter relief’, Vladimir Tatlin, 1916
The boom in consumer products created by the New Economic Policy (see above) provided a great opportunity for ‘useful art’ and the painter turned photographer and graphic artist Alexander Rodchenko teamed up with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (both friends of Dziga Vertov) as ‘Artist Constructors’ to design a series of eye-catching posters and packaging for a range of products using a completely new type of graphic language. Rodchenko and his wife, Varvara Stepanova, designed functional clothing (below), as did the artist Liubov Popova, and both women also designed wonderfully original graphic patterned fabrics for a variety of purposes.
1923 poster by Rodchenko & Mayakovsky for baby’s dummies
1924 designs for sportswear by Varvara Stepanova
Liubov Popova, Textile Design 1923–4
Reproduced in Lef, no.2, 1924
Popova and Stepanova both taught at the Vkhutemas Higher Art and Technical Studios in Moscow. Founded in 1920 the workshops were established by a decree from Lenin with the intention “to prepare master artists of the highest qualifications for industry, and builders and managers for professional-technical education.” Similar to the Bauhaus in Germany it combined craft teaching with modern technology and taught fine art, graphics, sculpture, architecture, printing, textiles, ceramics, woodworking, and metalworking. It was the centre for three major strands of avant-garde art, design and architecture – Rationalism, Suprematism, and Constructivism, and its teachers and students revolutionised the creative arts in the same way as the Bauhaus. Most of the other great names of the Soviet avant-garde taught at Vkhutemas including Malevich, Rodchenko, the architect Konstantin Melnikov, and the graphic artist and typographer Lazar Lissitzky. Known as El Lissitzky he radically transformed typography, integrating it with visual images, creating much of the visual language that we associate with this period of Soviet design. His work also influenced teaching at the Bauhaus, and he was a key figure in the European ‘New Typography’ movement.
‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge ‘, El Lissitzky, 1919
At the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, the Soviet pavilion by Konstantin Melnikov and its contents, including a space called ‘The Workers Club’ designed by Alexander Rodchenko, were a showcase for the school and an international success for the young Soviet Union, winning several prizes including the Grand Prix for the pavilion, and a medal for Dziga Vertov’s ‘Kino-Glaz’.
Photography was also revolutionised during this period, almost entirely by Alexander Rodchenko. One of the leading Russian avant-garde artists, in 1921 he exhibited monochrome paintings that he described as the ‘end of Art’ and later proclaimed, “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue, and yellow. I affirmed: it’s all over.” After developing a distinctive style of photo-montage (used to great effect for his illustrations in Mayakovsky’s 1923 book of poetry ‘About This’) he then took up photography. He regarded it as a much superior medium to painting and after a series of striking, but conventional images of Mayakovsky and others, he began to develop a radical style of photography in 1925 with extreme perspective and angled views using first a small Vest Pocket Kodak and then a Leica. Some of these images obviously influenced similarly angled shots of buildings in ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ made three years later (see below). Rodchenko bought his friend Dziga Vertov a small French movie camera, a Debrie Sept (see THE MOVIE CAMERAS section), during his visit to Paris in 1925 to supervise his design for the Workers’ Club section in the Soviet Pavilion.
Towards the end of the 1920s after Stalin’s rise to power the avant-garde was increasingly criticised for being out of touch with the needs of the people and too elitist (or Formalist to use the terminology of the time) and was losing the battle against the rise of Soviet Realism as the favoured house style of the Soviet regime. Rodchenko’s commissions became documentary exercises to promote Soviet achievements (eg the White Sea Canal), and Vertov’s and Eisenstein’s films were increasingly criticised or ignored. The suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1930 marked the symbolic end of the golden era of the Soviet avant-garde. At a time of great political turmoil, and largely because of it, this small group of people, based mainly in Moscow, had made an extraordinary contribution to Western culture in only a decade, completely changing the direction of the creative arts. Not unfortunately in their own country where Socialist Realism would become the direction that Soviet artistic culture would follow for the next 60 years.
4. SOVIET CINEMA
Dominating the avant-garde in the 1920s, the Constructivists organised themselves into the ‘Left Front of the Arts’, and produced the influential journal LEF, which was dedicated to maintaining the avant-garde against the resurrection of bourgeois art and capitalist tendencies under the New Economic Policy, exemplified by the despised NEP men and women. For LEF the new medium of cinema was more important than the easel painting and traditional narratives that elements of the Communist Party were trying to revive. Leading Constructivists were very involved with cinema, Rodchenko designing intertitles, posters (below, for Kino-Glaz 1924), and animated sequences for Dziga Vertov’s films. Even Mayakovsky made his acting debut in the film ‘The Young Lady and the Hooligan’ in 1919! Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein (see below), and the documentary-maker Esfir Shub (see below) all contributed to LEF. The magazine provided a platform for Vertov to first introduce his theories (‘The Cine-eyes. A Revolution’, published in LEF #3, 1923).
“Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important.”- Lenin.
Lenin not only saw film as an art at a time when many still considered it merely a form of cheap entertainment, but he also recognised, even at this early stage in its development, that it could have a huge and influential future in the development of the young Soviet Union. The large population was made up of people from many nations and ethnicities, most of whom were illiterate, and the means of communication within the country were undeveloped. The Bolshevik leaders were faced with the daunting task of explaining the revolution to these people and galvanising support for it, but in the middle of a civil war they didn’t have the time or conditions to do so. The possibilities of the new medium of film as a propaganda and educational tool was recognized immediately by Lenin. Soon after the revolution the film industry was nationalized in 1919 and Nadezhda Krupskaia (Lenin’s wife), deputy head of the People’s Commissariat of Education, established the Cinema Committee that set up the first state-run film school in the world, the Moscow Film School (VGIK – Vsesoyuznyi Gosudarstvenyi Institut Kinematografii, “All-Union State Institute of Cinematography”), under the direction of Vladimir Gardin. Its main purpose was to produce propaganda newsreels and agitational films (agitki).
Soviet agit-trains were initiated in 1918, as an important instrument for the dissemination of political propaganda and for the enlightenment of the rural population. These trains were not only used to produce and distribute newspapers and leaflets but were additionally equipped with mobile, independent film production units and cinemas. Dziga Vertov was enlisted in January 1920 to manage the film and photography division of the trains. He travelled on the ‘October Revolution’ agit-train during the same year (see illustration above and section on THE MOVIE-MAKERS).
Apart from films used for agitational purposes cinema after the revolution was in a dire state. Many of those involved in the film industry had fled the country, cinemas had closed, and there was a lack of film and equipment. Lenin issued a directive to organise the film industry in early 1921 in terms of supervision and censorship but the authorities had a relaxed view of private enterprise under the New Economic Policy (see above) and by 1923 there were 89 private cinemas operating, mostly showing imported and old Russian films. Most new Soviet films from this early period were documentaries and newsreels such as Dziga Vertov’s series ‘Kino-Pravda’ (Film Truth) from 1922 to 1925. In 1924 the first centralised state-owned cinema organisation was set up under the acronym Goskino (Gosudarstvennoe kino). It was underfunded and not very successful and the following year it was replaced by the more generously funded and consequently more powerful organisation Sovkino (Sovetskoe kino). Following a Soviet-German trade deal film stock from Agfa and others, and sophisticated movie cameras such as the Debrie Parvo were imported. At last Soviet film-makers had the tools to put their theories into practice. These are the major figures of this extraordinary decade of transformation and creativity (see the MOVIE-MAKERS section for Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman):
LEV KULESHOV (1899-1970)
One of the founding members of VGIK, Lev Kuleshov, had been permitted to run an experimental studio outside the formal structure of the main school known as the ‘Kuleshov Workshop’. He was the first ever film theorist to use editing and juxtaposition of images to emotionally affect the audience, known as the ‘Kuleshov Effect’. He also invented the technique of ‘creative geography’ where completely different locations are edited together to appear as a single place. Collectively known as ‘Soviet montage theory’ (montage is French for “assembly” or “editing”), it is the principal contribution of Soviet film theory to world cinema.
To illustrate his ‘montage’ theory Kuleshov used exactly the same picture of the actor Ivan Mosjoukine juxtaposed with a different image. The audience was convinced that Mosjoukine’s facial expression changed to suit the mood of each image, and apparently even praised him for his expressive acting!
Kuleshov, regarded as the ‘father of Soviet cinema’, not only taught and wrote extensively on film theory he also made several influential films including a parody Western ‘The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Soviets‘ (1924) which copied the style of the Hollywood genre while upending negative Western preconceptions about Bolshevik Russia. The far more moody and expressionistic psychological drama ‘By the Law’ (1926) was based on a Jack London story about prospecting in the Klondike. Kuleshov had a long professional life, avoiding the fate of so many of his colleagues under Stalin, becoming artistic director of VGIK in 1943, a post he held for 25 years.
SERGEI EISENSTEIN (1898-1948)
Eisenstein started his career in the theatre after initially training to be an architect and engineer. Following a period of study under Lev Kuleshov he was inspired to write a manifesto he called ‘The Montage of Attractions’ in LEF in 1923 that advocated using ‘aggressive moments in theatre’ to ‘produce specific emotional shocks in the spectator…’. He became the leading exponent of the theory and practice of montage.
He used this technique in his first film ‘Strike’ (Stachka) in 1924. A part documentary representation of the brutal suppression of a strike by Tsarist factory owners and police, it was the first revolutionary film of the new Soviet state. Conceived as an extended montage of shock stimuli, the film concludes with the famous sequence in which the massacre of the strikers and their families is intercut with shots of cattle being slaughtered in an abattoir. Esfir Shub (see below) collaborated with Eisenstein on the film.
Following the great success of this film Eisenstein and his long-term collaborator, the cinematographer Eduard Tisse, were commissioned to make a film celebrating the 20th anniversary of the failed 1905 Revolution. Rather than covering the whole event Eisenstein decided to focus on a single representative episode: the mutiny of the Battleship Potemkin and the massacre of the citizens of the port of Odessa by Tsarist troops. ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925) is one of the most important and influential films ever made, especially in Eisenstein’s use of montage, which was used in a far more sophisticated and effective way than in ‘Strike’. The film quickly gave Eisenstein an international reputation which was fortunate because his next film ‘October’, an epic commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, came out in 1928 after Stalin’s rise to power and was attacked as being self indulgent and ‘Formalist’, the Soviet term for elitist and out of touch with people’s taste.
He made two more films in the following year (‘Old and New’, a lyrical account of collectivisation, and ‘Romance Sentimentale’, an impressionistic film of images and music) before going to Hollywood in 1930, invited by Paramount Studios. This collaboration was a failure from the start as Paramount’s producers were not impressed by any of Eisenstein’s film and script proposals and he was unable to secure a film contract. Following an introduction by Charlie Chaplin he received financial backing from the US writers Upton and Mary Sinclair for a an artistic travelogue style of film about Mexico, and Eisenstein began work there in December 1932. Ignoring the limitations of the Uptons’ original concept and budget he developed ‘Que viva Mexico!’ into an epic six part film about the history of the nation and its people up to the present day. Meanwhile Stalin was becoming suspicious that Eisenstein and his collaborators on the film were planning to defect and ordered them home. This, combined with the breakdown of relations with the Sinclairs, brought an end to the filming and Eisenstein’s time in the Americas, and the 90,000 metres of film already shot was cut and edited into three films during 1933-4 without his consent (‘Thunder over Mexico’, ‘Eisenstein in Mexico’, and ‘Death Day’) as well as a series of educational films. A fourth film, ‘Time in the Sun’ was made in 1939. None of these bears any resemblance to Eisenstein’s original conception. Upton Sinclair donated a large part of the film footage to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1954 and Eisenstein’s original collaborator in Mexico, Grigory Alexsandrov edited it in rough accordance with the original concept and released it as ‘Que viva Mexico!’ in 1979 giving audiences a glimpse of a lost masterpiece.
Returning to Moscow in 1933 his next film ‘Bezhin Meadow’ was attacked by the authorities for its Formalism before its release and never shown. He did not make another film until ‘Alexander Nevsky’, five years later. An allegory about the threatening forces of Nazi Germany the film was well received by Stalin and in the West. Eisenstein’s last film released while he was alive was another epic, ‘Ivan the Terrible’ (1944) with a wonderful score by Prokofiev, and it won him another Stalin Prize. Meant to be the first of a trilogy the second film was criticised by the authorities and was only released in 1958 ten years after Eisenstein’s death. Part three was confiscated and mostly destroyed. Despite such a limited output Sergei Eisenstein is widely regarded as the greatest of Soviet directors with an enduring influence on cinema.
VSEVOLOD PUDOVKIN (1893-1953)
Another student of Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin was also a master of the montage technique but generally used it for narrative rather than symbolic purposes. His first notable work was a comedy short ‘Chess Fever’ (1925) co-directed with Nikolai Shpikovsky. The following year he made what is regarded as his greatest film ‘Mother’ (‘Mat’ 1926), based on a Maxim Gorky story of strikers and Tsarist oppression in which a family is destroyed during the 1905 Revolution, a woman losing first her husband and then her son to the opposing sides. The film was internationally acclaimed for the ambition and intensity of its montage, as well as for its emotion and lyricism. Pudovkin was praised for his innovative style; “Being the first to introduce the idea of creating characterizations by means of montage in films, he has done in the cinema what Dickens did in novels.” (Grigori Roshal, Soviet director).
A still from ‘Mother’ 1926
‘Mother’ was the first of a ‘Revolutionary’ trilogy of silent masterpieces by Pudovkin being followed by ‘The End of St. Petersburg’ (1927) and ‘Storm Over Asia’ (or The Heir to Genghis Khan) (1928). Like almost all of his contemporaries Pudovkin was accused of the crime of ‘Formalism’ following the release of his experimental sound film ‘A Simple Case’ (1932). After a period of ill health Pudovkin returned to film-making in the late 1930s with several historical epics including ‘Minin and Pozharsky’ (1939) about Russia’s struggles against the Poles in the early 17th century. This film, and the following ‘Suvarov’ (1941), a stirring epic about the famous 18thC Russian General Suvarov who never lost a battle (released on the eve of the Nazi invasion), have been compared favourably with Eisenstein’s historical films. Pudovkin was awarded a Stalin Prize for the films, the first of three.
As well as directing and screenwriting Pudovkin was also an educator as a professor at VGIK and an author of several books on film theory.
ALEXANDER DOVZHENKO (1894-1956)
Born in a Ukrainian village, the son of illiterate peasants, Dovzhenko was a teacher, diplomat, illustrator and cartoonist before turning to film in 1926, working at the Odessa Artistic Film Studio. Another master of Montage, one of his first films ‘Zvenigora’ (1927), about the hunt for buried Scythian treasure in the hills of the title, established him as a major Soviet film-maker. Part of a ‘Ukrainian’ trilogy it was followed by ‘Arsenal’ in 1929, about the revolutionary events in Kiev in 1918, and his masterpiece ‘Earth’ (‘Zemlya’) in 1930. This was a propaganda epic about collectivisation in the Ukraine (which would lead to the deaths of millions in the subsequent famine) and the tensions between the peasants and the Kulak landowners. Although praised in the West ‘Earth’ received severe criticism from the Soviet authorities for not being ‘positive’ enough about collectivisation, and Dovzhenko was condemned as a Ukrainian nationalist He received the same treatment from the authorities for his next film ‘Ivan’ (1932) about the building of the Dnieper Dam, and after losing his job at the Kiev Film Institute moved to Moscow where he lived in exile for the rest of his life. He made several more films but from the beginning of WW2 he devoted more of his time to writing short stories and novels.
Dovzhenko filming ‘Earth’
‘Dovzhenko’s rich lyricism, his vivid characters, and the poetic power of his landscapes earned him the reputation as the first poet of the cinema, and as one of the world’s leading film directors’ (Encyclopedia of Ukraine). ‘Zemlya’ was voted one of the best 12 films in world cinema by an international jury in 1958, and often features highly in subsequent BFI polls. ‘‘Earth’ is celebrated as one of cinema’s supreme visual masterpieces. The immensity of the sky bears down on the Ukrainian steppe as the arrival of a tractor signals a fundamental change to a centuries-old way of life, but the plot is secondary to the extraordinarily potent images of wheatfields, ripe fruit and weatherbeaten faces.’ (British Film Institute).
Poster for ‘Earth’ (Zemlya), Georgii & Vladimir Stenberg 1930
ESFIR SHUB (1894-1959)
A member of the Constructivist Left Front for the Arts (LEF) group, Esfir Shub was friends with all the leading personalities in the Soviet avant-garde, including Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Vertov, Eisenstein and Pudovkin. She had first worked in the theatre, collaborating with the great director Vsevolod Meyerhold and Mayakovsky. Shub became interested in film in the early 1920s and her first job was with Goskino editing films to remove ‘politically incorrect’ sections. She became interested in the editing process and developed a completely new form of documentary genre, the ‘Compilation’ film. This incorporated sections of old newsreels, amateur footage, and other documentary material, much recovered from a damp old cellar in St Petersburg, and all edited together to form a single narrative. Using restoration methods, Shub also saved and restored precious early revolutionary footage that might otherwise have been lost. She also worked with Sergei Eisenstein, writing the shooting script of ‘Strike’ and co-editing part of ‘October’.
For her masterpiece of documentary film-making ‘The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty’ (1927) she looked through over a million metres of film in order to select around 6000 metres to be combined as a montage compilation. Her method of blending shots that had no strict causal or temporal relationship to make a precise political point, took further what she had learned from Lev Kuleshov as well as Eisenstein’s theory of montage.
Esfir Shub makes a cameo appearance in Man with a Movie Camera
BORIS BARNET (1902-1965)
Photograph of Boris Barnet on the set of ‘Moscow in October’ (1927) by Alexander Rodchenko
Born in Moscow with English ancestry, Barnet joined the Red Army at 18 and became a professional boxer. Having met Lev Kuleshov in the early 20s he appeared as one of the principal characters, Cowboy Jeddy, in ‘The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Soviets’. He then turned to directing making his first film as sole director with ‘The Girl with the Hatbox’ (1927), an inventive American-style comedy. The following year he made ‘The House on Trubnaya’ (Dom na Trubnoy) widely regarded as one of the classic Soviet silent films. His early sound films ‘Outskirts’ (1933) and ‘By the Bluest of Seas’ (1935) are also regarded as masterpieces. He became one of Russia’s leading and most prolific film-makers with a career spanning four decades. His post-war spy film ‘Secret Agent’ (1947) was influenced by Hitchcock and brought Barnet to a wider European audience, though he was never as well known in the West as he deserved to be. Film directors such as Scorsese, Godard, and Tarkovsky have acknowledged his influence, and Jacques Rivette declared him to be ‘the best Russian director alongside Eisenstein’. Despite his great critical and public success Barnet was convinced he had been a failure and tragically committed suicide in 1965.
MIKHAIL KALATOZOV (1903-1973)
Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, Kalatozov’s career in the film industry started at an early age as a cinema projectionist, film cameraman, actor and film editor. His first film as solo director was ‘Their Empire’ (1928). ‘Salt for Svanetia’ (1930) is regarded as a seminal Soviet film. A sensitive and beautifully filmed account of life in a remote village in the Caucasus it was not appreciated by the authorities who did not approve of the scenes of death and suffering in the film. His second film ‘The Nail in the Boot’ (1932) was banned for the same reason. Following this brush with the Soviet regime Kalatozov was assigned to administrative duties for the next two decades. He did not resume his directing career (apart from several propaganda films during the war) until 1950 but produced little of note until ‘The Cranes are Flying’ in 1957. The film (poster below) depicts the cruelty and destruction of war and was the only Soviet film to have won the ‘Palme d’Or’ at the Cannes film festival.
‘I am Cuba’ (1964) was a Soviet/Cuban co-production depicting the suffering and destitution of the Cuban people before the revolution and the beginning of the rebellion against the Batista regime. It was not well received by either Russian or Cuban audiences but was re-discovered by US film-makers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in the 1990s who appreciated the idiosyncratic cinematography of the film. ‘The Red Tent’ (1969) was another international co-production, this time with Italy, based on the 1928 rescue mission of the airship Italia that crashed in the Arctic. There was also an international cast including Sean Connery, Peter Finch, and Claudia Cardinale!
VIKTOR TURIN (1895-1945)
Born in St Petersburg, Turin went to study at MIT in the USA in 1913 graduating as an engineer and then went to work in Hollywood for several years. He returned to the USSR in 1922 and settled in Ukraine. His first major film was ‘Struggle of the Giants’ (1926) followed in the same year by a spy melodrama ‘Provocateur’. However, the film for which Turin is best known is ‘Turksib’ made in 1929. A documentary drama about the herculean efforts to build the railway between Turkmenistan and Siberia the film is remarkable for its use of montage and its portrayal of collective effort and the power of modern engineering overcoming adversity. It was greatly admired by British documentary makers, and an English version of ‘Turksib’ was prepared by John Grierson in 1930.
Turin’s film had a particular influence on the famous British documentary ‘Night Mail’. Made in 1935 by John Grierson’s GPO (UK Post Office) film unit to commemorate the centenary of the travelling post office the directors, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, sought to apply the lessons of silent Soviet cinema to inter-war Britain. Viktor Turin’s ‘Turksib’ was an important model. Using techniques borrowed from Hollywood (Turin was obsessed by Westerns) ‘Turksib’ turned a social, political and technological exposition into an exciting tale of progress. The film cast the train between Turkestan and Siberia in the role of the lone gunslinger bringing order to the frontier. ‘Night Mail’ apes this approach, albeit modestly, by illustrating how Britain is socially, economically and technologically bound together by the railway.
Extracts from ‘Night Mail: a classic?’ courtesy of The Postal Museum Blog.
A dramatic poster for the film by the Stenberg brothers
For other notable film directors of this period refer to David Gariff’s essay below and the excellent MUBI website that covers most of them and their most important films. The film historian Denis Grunes has a comprehensive overview of Soviet Cinema (and the rest of Eastern Europe) in his blog.
5. SOURCES (see also BIBLIOGRAPHY)
‘Russia’s Great War Project’ – http://russiasgreatwar.org/media/culture/avantgarde.shtml
‘New Worlds, Russian Art & Society 1900-1937’, David Elliott, Thames and Hudson, 1986 (an excellent concise account of this era)
‘Art into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914-1932’, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, USA, (multiple authors), 1990
‘The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932’, multiple contributors, Guggenheim Gallery, New York, 1992 (the definitive account of the culture of this era, the catalogue of the blockbuster exhibition)
‘A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde’, MoMA Exhibition December 3, 2016 to March 12, 2017 https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1668
Kasimir Malevich – MoMA Artists
Wassily Kandinsky – 100 Years of Bauhaus
Vladimir Tatlin – MoMA Artists
El Lissitzky – https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/el-lissitzky-1519
El Lissitzky, writing in 1922, stated, “The (painted) picture
fell apart together with the old world which it had created for
itself. The new world will not need little pictures. If it needs a
mirror, it has the photograph and the cinema.”
Alexander Rodchenko – MoMA Artists
Lev Kuleshov – ‘Introduction to: Lev Kuleshov and the Kuleshov Collective’, University College London
Sergei Eisenstein – Where to begin with Sergei Eisenstein? (BFI)
Vsevolod Pudovkin – Kinoglaz online
Alexander Dovzhenko – Senses of Cinema
Esfir Shub – Women Film Pioneers Project
Esfir Shub – Selected Writings
Boris Barnet – Revolutionary Road (BFI)
Mikhail Kalatozov – Russiapedia
Viktor Turin – Riding the Soviet Iron Horse
‘Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918-1935’, Denise J Youngblood, University of Texas Press, 1991 (the definitive account of this era)
‘Russian and Soviet Cinema in the Age of Revolution (1917-1932)’, David Gariff (Notes to accompany the film series Revolutionary Rising: Soviet Film Vanguard presented at the National Gallery of Art and American Film Institute Silver Theatre, October 13 through November 20, 2017
Soviet Cinema – Encyclopedia Britannica
‘Landmarks of Early Soviet Cinema’, DVD boxed set of eight silent films reviewed by Harlow Robinson, Cineaste magazine, Vol. XXXVII, No.2
Period Soviet photographs, posters, and illustrations are in the Public Domain.
Illustrations of art by Kandinsky, Malevich and Tatlin are in the Public Domain.
Liubov Popova fabric design courtesy of Tate Papers #14
For screenshots see other sections.