Nailya Alexander Gallery is pleased to present The Art of Photography and Architecture in Soviet Russia: 1920s-1930s, on view online Monday 7 September to Saturday 10 October 2020. Our exhibition explores the relationship between photography and architecture in the Soviet Union during a time of unprecedented artistic, urban, and industrial transformation, when Constructivism began to recede in prominence and Stalinist architecture became the dominant style. The exhibition includes photographs by the leading Soviet photographers of the era, including Arkady Shaikhet (1898-1959), Boris Ignatovich (1899-1976), Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956), Georgy Petrusov (1903-1971), Ivan Shagin (1904-1982), Yakov Khalip (1908-1980), and Naum Granovsky (1910-1984).
With the consolidation of state power under Stalin by the late 1920s, enormous industrial and construction projects were undertaken across the country, creating novel expressive outlets for the architects and designers of the era. At the same time, photography was at the forefront of visual experimentation, and became an ideal tool for documenting and interpreting the new architectural marvels. Photographers employed unexpected angles and perspectives to express the artistry of these awe-inspiring projects.
On view are Arkady Shaikhet’s famous photograph of the silhouettes of two workers constructing the revolving glass globe that decorated the façade of Moscow’s Central Telegraph Building (1928); and Boris Ignatovich’s striking photograph of the roof of the Bakhmet'ev garage (1933), designed by architect Vladimir Shukhov, who also designed the steel diagrid Shukhov Tower featured in a 1929 photograph by Rodchenko. In Floors (1929), Ignatovich captures the the radical triangular-shaped staircase of the Constructivist Communal House of the Textile Institute, highlighting the depth and seamlessness of the gradual ramps between the floors. These photographs demonstrate the dominance of Constructivism as both an architectural and a photographic style, characterized by strong geometric forms, minimal stylization, and an emphasis on modern design and materials.
Alongside with the reconstruction of Moscow and the building of the Moscow Canal, the construction of the Moscow Metro was one of the most significant architectural projects accomplished by the Soviet state. Great attention and expense were lavished upon the architecture of each station. Brightly lit and with high, arching ceilings, the stations resembled palaces; throughout the platforms and tunnels, towering sculptures, mosaics studded with precious stones, and bronze bas-reliefs reminded both Soviet citizens and international visitors that they were experiencing one of the most magnificent public transportation systems in the world. Our exhibition features several photographs of the first stations, including rare vintage gelatin silver prints attributed to the Hannes Meyer Brigade, which use deep perspective to emphasize the curving and spacious passageways.
By the late 1930s, architectural styles in Russia had shifted dramatically from avant-garde designs to monumental, Empire-style Stalinist architecture, characterized by a unique mix of stark, imposing exteriors, meant to communicate the overwhelming strength and power of the regime; and opulent interiors, adorned with elaborate details and neoclassical and neo-Gothic elements. Stalinist architectural projects included not only skyscrapers and transportation systems, but also state buildings such as the house of the Council of Ministers, captured in the exhibition by Yakov Khalip in 1934, just two years from its completion. Movie theaters such as the Rodina Cinema, designed in Postconstructivist style and captured by Naum Granovsky in 1939, were built next to Metro stations in order to establish urban cultural hubs throughout the city.
Perhaps the most iconic statue of the era was Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, created for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris and photographed by Georgy Petrusov in 1939 in its new location at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VDNKh) north of Moscow; also included in the exhibition is Naum Granovsky’s photograph of the VDNKh fair site, featuring its elaborate “Golden Spike” fountain, shaped as a sheaf of wheat, and a view of the striking dome of the Cosmos Pavilion.
Photographers at this unique time in history invented new techniques to capture the unprecedented physical scale of these groundbreaking architectural projects, and to express a sense of exhilaration and national pride. Architecture and photography became powerful and complementary tools in the creation of new Soviet society and its utopian vision of the future.