New York

Left: Valentina Kulagina, Female Shock-workers Strengthen the Shock Brigades, Master Technology, and Increase the Ranks of the Proletarian Specialists, 1931, lithograph, 39 3/8 x 28 5/16“. Right: Gustav Klutsis, design for a postcard for the All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada), Moscow, 1928, photographs, paper, and gouache on paper, 8 x 5 1/2”.

Left: Valentina Kulagina, Female Shock-workers Strengthen the Shock Brigades, Master Technology, and Increase the Ranks of the Proletarian Specialists, 1931, lithograph, 39 3/8 x 28 5/16“. Right: Gustav Klutsis, design for a postcard for the All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada), Moscow, 1928, photographs, paper, and gouache on paper, 8 x 5 1/2”.

Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina

Through the course of the Bolshevik 1920s and Stalinist 1930s, the pioneering Soviet photomonteurs Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina produced some of the most terrible—in the old-fashioned sense of the word—examples of visual propaganda ever executed in the service of modern state power. Eventually supported almost exclusively by the administrative organs and centralized publishing houses of a one-party state, their often overlapping, but also sometimes diverging, design practices were directly dependent on the ever-shifting exigencies of their historical context. Unlike that of many of their contemporaries, however, the work of Klutsis and Kulagina has also managed to transcend the grim and gritty details of its historical formation—no doubt owing in part to its sheerly compelling nature qua modern design and to our alternatively lurid and utopian fascination with its construction of that major leitmotif of socialist modernity, Homo sovieticus, the New Soviet man or woman.

Organized for the International Center of Photography in New York by Margarita Tupitsyn, a Paris-based freelance curator of both Soviet and contemporary Russian art, “Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina: Photography and Montage After Constructivism” is the first major exhibition devoted to a joint consideration of the two artists’ use of photography in the graphic design of agitational posters and postcards, book and magazine covers and illustrations, exhibition installations, and, perhaps most staggeringly, monumental billboards of an unprecedented scale. Since perestroika, these two comrades in the art of montage—who married in 1921, three years after Klutsis’s arrival in Moscow from Latvia—have become increasingly visible through their inclusion in many of the group exhibitions of the Soviet avant-garde that have traveled the world and, in Klutsis’s case, also via a major 1991 retrospective of his work in Kassel and Madrid. Comprising approximately 130 objects, the present exhibition, however, is the largest showing of either artist in the United States to date. (Fifteen of its loans are from the State Museum of Art in Riga, which holds some four hundred objects donated in 1964 by Kulagina in memory of her husband, who was summarily executed in February 1938 by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.) While the exhibition’s presentation of Klutsis outstrips that of Kulagina by a long shot, excerpts from the latter’s previously unpublished diaries in the show’s catalogue reveal that she often assisted with the production of his designs, a labor for which she seems never to have been publicly credited.

The task of accommodating on a single floor such a wide range of formats—from the tiny to the gigantic—poses numerous challenges that are well met by the exhibition’s designers, Julie Ault and Martin Beck. Refraining from saturating the space in red—an overdetermined and unfortunately all too predictable color in shows dealing with revolutionary art and culture—they opt instead for a strong but restrained contrast of gray and white. This scheme sectionalizes the gallery’s available wall space, reinforcing the curatorial division of the exhibition into six primarily thematic but also loosely chronological arenas of production: “The Formation of Photomontage,” “Between the Public and the Private,” “Socialist Joy,” “Change the Leader,” “Exhibition Designs and Street Agitation,” and “The Socialist Body.” The exhibition designers have also paired a book in a glass vitrine with a digital screen that turns its virtual pages, allowing visitors to experience the entirety of the book’s design, if not its material palpability. And the massive enlargement of a number of tiny photographs (including some whimsical portraits of each artist) visually evokes Klutsis’s own important theorization of monumental photography in an essay first published in 1932 on the occasion of his production of two “super-gigantic” montaged portraits of Lenin and Stalin.

Unlike the 1991 retrospective, the ICP exhibition does not attempt to present the overall diversity of media in which Klutsis worked. Only passing reference is made—in the form of a single print from the pages of Lef magazine—to Klutsis’s first major design innovation that concerned itself directly with the mediation of the public sphere, the very problem that would become the dominant concern of his mature work. This innovation consists of a series of semiportable, multipurpose media modules (comprising radio orators and all-in-one film screen, speaker tribune, and newspaper kiosks) that Klutsis designed in 1922 for installation on Moscow’s boulevards. While these designs were much missed, at least by this reviewer, who kept fantasizing about how they might have been put to work in the current display, the exhibition’s exclusive attention to the artists’ photo-based practices is, of course, appropriate to the ICP’s mission. More important, such tight focus affords Tupitsyn maximum space in which to dramatize the manifold shifts in Klutsis and Kulagina’s exploration of their favored media over the course of the roughly two decades from 1918 to 1939.

During this period, the artists oscillated between cut-and-paste methods of montage and the darkroom manipulation of negatives, and between found and staged source material. Some shifts, however, appear to have been unidirectional, particularly those having to do with the gradual abandonment of a montage practice dedicated at least in part to impeding vision (Viktor Shklovsky’s principle of zatrudnenie, or difficulty) in favor of one of effortless legibility. Hence, the disjunctions in scale within single works, such as Klutsis’s 1930 poster featuring a massive hand and forearm juxtaposed with the much smaller head of a worker, give way to the more normative scale relations of his mawkish designs for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Similarly, the presence of multiple and contradictory spatial systems, especially the combination of axonometric projection with photographic elements in plan, elevation, or one-point perspective, yields in the late ’30s to the perspectival reorganization of space around a dominant horizon line, as seen in Kulagina’s 1938–39 photo panels for the Siberian pavilion at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition. In these late works Kulagina abandoned the signature conjunction of drawn and photographic elements that is characteristic of her most accomplished agitational posters of 1930–31. The exhibition’s presentation of these multiple shifts raises fundamental questions: Does Klutsis and Kulagina’s eventual transformation of photomontage into a mode of socialist realist practice after 1934 correspond to concurrent changes within the sociopolitical sphere? If so, does their transformation of the medium represent a capitulation to an increasingly oppressive political situation or a bid to secure the material and social privileges that often seemed to come with such stylistic realignment? Or is it a manifestation of genuine conviction?

Although the agitational posters in which Klutsis and Kulagina most efficaciously rendered their service to the Soviet state have often been shown, if not in such quantity, the ICP exhibition brings to our attention for the first time a little-known aspect of the artists’ work: a sizable corpus of photographs and montages having to do with their domestic life together. This sphere was often known in the Soviet period as the “kitchen” realm of communication, as opposed to the one under official control and scrutiny. Tupitsyn scored a major coup in arranging the loans for these objects, the majority of which seem to have come from a privately owned archive in Moscow. Some, like Klutsis’s beautiful double portrait of Kulagina and himself superimposed on a close-up of her face, 1921–29, or his double printing of her brother Boris’s face on a single sheet, ca. 1929, are darkroom pleasures made explicitly for private consumption, looping the artist’s montage practice into a circuit of pan-European photographic experiments.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of this additional corpus is that the majority of its objects ultimately intersect with Klutsis’s production for the public realm. As such, these newly available objects lend the already well-known public designs new texture and thereby facilitate more nuanced readings of them than has hitherto been possible. These private/public photographs and montages fall into roughly three sorts. The first comprises straightforward snapshots of family members that sooner or later find their way into Klutsis’s public designs: His mother-in-law, Maria Efimovna Kulagina, for example, appears as the “happy peasant” on the cover of a 1929 survey of regional agricultural practices and as Stalin’s right-hand peasant, as it were, in a design for a 1932 poster celebrating the success of the first Five-Year Plan. Another close-up of Boris Kulagin covers comrade Galin’s 1927 manifesto for the scientific organization of Communist leisure, while Kulagina herself features prominently in one of the unpublished 1925 illustrations for the poet Vladimir Mayakovski’s elegy Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In each case, private acts of communication are put into the service of public ones.

The second group of mixed-sphere photographs documents the artists and their friends performing costumed roles: as peasants for insertion within a front-page image for the daily newspaper Pravda, ca. 1933, for example, and as coal miners for the 1932 poster The Struggle for Heat and Metal. Not only do these theatrical stagings involve something more than the simple generation of stock photographs, but they also raise the issue of Klutsis and Kulagina’s contrary postion with respect to the rejection of the “played” in favor of the so-called “non-played” by many of their fellow practitioners of montage, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko and Dziga Vertov. But their dressing up in various proletarian guises goes beyond the kinds of fictionalization practiced by, say, Sergei Eisenstein, whose hiring of a Lenin look-alike to play the role of the Bolshevik leader in his 1927 film October was condemned by the factographic documentarians as “disgracefully false.” For in these stagings, Klutsis and Kulagina instrumentalize not only their artistic dexterity but also their own bodies in the fictionalization of historical truth.

The third and final instance of the mutability of the public and the private consists in a small suite of montages made by Klutsis around 1929 and featuring Lenin. The most formally compelling involves the diagonal crossing in the darkroom of two spectacular photographs—a full-length figure of Lenin, on the one hand, and an illuminated nightscape on the other—a redux, thematically speaking, of the artist’s famous early photocollage for the poster Electrification of the Entire Country, 1920. But the later montage, produced five years after the leader’s death and at the very moment of Stalin’s accession to power, was not intended for the public sphere and, as far as is known, was never circulated beyond the studio. In this work, then, one of the most public figures of the Bolshevik period is drafted into a very private moment. And thus it makes us look afresh at Klutsis’s most famous poster from the Plan years, Building Socialism Under the Banner of Lenin, 1930—first at the brilliant illumination of Lenin’s face and then at the deep shadow that ominously crosses that of his successor.

“Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina: Photography and Montage After Constructivism” is on view through May 30.

Maria Gough is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.