The Family of Man: The Photography Exhibition that Everybody Loves to Hate

“The greatest photographic exhibition of all time—503 pictures from 68 countries—created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art,” says the cover of the photo-book accompanying exhibition The Family of Man. The exhibition took place at the Museum of Modern art (MoMA), New York, from January 24 to May 8, 1955. It was highly popular—the press claimed that more than a quarter of million people saw it in New York. But it gained its central role in the twentieth century photography history largely because of its international exposure. The U.S. Information Agency popularized The Family of Man as an achievement of American culture by presenting ten different versions of the show in 91 cities in 38 countries between 1955 and 1962, seen by estimated nine million people But, contrary to the popular reception, scholarly criticism of the exhibition was—and continues to be—scathing. 

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The Peasant Woman Leads the Dance: Some Ambiguities Presented by Vera Mukhina’s Sculpture

The Peasant Woman Leads the Dance: Some Ambiguities Presented by Vera Mukhina’s Sculpture,” Russian Art & Culture 1 , no. 1 (2012): 7-15. Winner of the First Prize in Russian Art & Culture Postgraduate Writing Competition 2012. View the full issue of the journal for free here on Issu.

Russian sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953) is most widely known as the artist of the grandiose stainless-steel sculpture Worker and Collective Farm Woman (1937), which crowned the Soviet pavilion in the Paris International Exposition of 1937, strategically located opposite the German pavilion. 

However, this sculpture does not exhaust Mukhina’s oeuvre. Another challenging topic for an art historian is her Peasant Woman (1927), recently discussed at length by Bettina Jungen (“Vera Mukhina: Art between Modernism and Socialist Realism,” Third Text 23, no. 1 (2009): 35-43).

In this article, I am addressing some of the issues raised by Jungen, especially the opposition between the formalistic and politicized readings of the Peasant Woman. In addition, this article views Mukhina’s sculpture in terms of gender and class notions of the ideological background from which it emerged. Finally, I also discuss the artist’s relationship with the official art establishment in these terms as well, considering Mukhina’s upbringing in a pre-Revolution bourgeois family and her career as one of few female artists in the theoretically emancipated but in reality largely patriarchal Soviet official art institutions. By identifying some ambiguities in the current criticism and interpretations of Soviet official art, I hope to propose some perspectives for further inquiry that would lead to a thorough understanding of the contradictory and multilayered history of the official art in the Soviet Union.

Exhibition review: Ostalgia at the New Museum, New York (ARTMargins)

Excerpt from the review:

Conceived as “a survey devoted to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics,” this exhibition represents a politicized, exoticized, and marginalized view of art from the former Soviet empire, making the Communist past, or, more precisely, the Western notion of it, the central axis of the show.

Deliberately blurred notions of geography and chronology complicate the rational coherence of the show, suggesting that diverse individual artistic practices and cultural backgrounds (from Central, Eastern, Southern, Northern European and Asian countries) belong to the same cultural milieu. Arguably the dialogue of art with a totalitarian regime creates the otherness that the Western audiences most often expect from the art of the former Communist bloc. Emphasizing this dialogue conveys the same simplified identity of the Other that has been continuously constructed in the West since the late 1960s by such seemingly contradictory players as leftist intellectuals and the capitalist art market, according to Éva Forgács.

Ostalgia encourages the canonization of works that reflect the tastes and formal preferences of a narrow circle of mainly Western collectors, and narratives by mainly Russian critics and theoreticians. Art from a large part of Europe therefore seems doomed to be viewed only as a heroic gesture of political resistance that can easily “fit into either the Western or the Russian narrative,” without individual artists, trends, or schools having a distinct, singular voice outside these two grand narratives.

View selected works from the exhibition on the New Museum's website.

Read full article for free on the ARTMargins web site or download a pdf!

Five Sentences about Soviet Art

Five Sentences about Soviet Art,” Dizaina Studija 29, no.2 (2011): 68-70.

Because Latvian art from the Soviet era is at the center of my academic research, I regularly encounter questions which are yet to be explained and solved. To what extent do the artworks from this era display a “Soviet” influence, how much is there of “Latvian” art, and how much is there simply “art”? Should the fact that photography at this time was included in the field of “amateur art” be the defining factor to continue interpreting it as "amateur" from today's perspective? Is it necessary to have a broader insight into the institutional structure of Soviet art and into (no doubt ideological) texts about Soviet art published in the press of that time? Or, alternatively, is it better to have a distanced outsider’s view concentrating only on the artworks themselves, rather than the circumstances of their making? Should we call the era in question the “Soviet period”, or perhaps it is enough to simply mention the decade in which the work was made? But isn’t it also important to remember that it was made under Soviet rule, which resulted in self-censorship and the inhibition of information exchange, personal movement and other restrictions?

The Language and Value of Things under Communism and Capitalism

The Language and Value of Things under Communism and Capitalism,” Dizaina Studija 16, No. 6 (2008): 66-74; 86-88.

Photographs published in the postwar Soviet era magazines and newspapers eloquently describe for the next generation the grain and sugar beet harvests in collective farms; the increase in production in significant manufacturing facilities: the huge volume of milk gained from cows and the accomplishment of the five-year plan over a period of three or four years in factories; the triumph of the will of the people over the elements of nature and the continually increasing prosperity of the proletariat. Examining the visual material in chronological order, a gradual change in emphasis can be observed.

There are gradual changes in the choice of scenery and in the formal structure of photographs. The depiction of growth was often politicized in the Stalin era. That later turned into the final tiredness of the period of stagnation which is exemplified by the inexpressive portraits of members of the politbureau and other officials frequently appearing in the press in the 1980s. This tiredness, in turn, soon was shaken up by the unrest of perestroika and glasnost.

Meanwhile, a sort of “golden age” existed among these extremes in the 1970s. That was a time when for many Soviet citizens a certain level of comfort and well-being in everyday life became accessible. When examining photographs that speak of this golden age, it is not possible to overlook the surprising similarities with the ways how Latvia’s current version of capitalism is expressed in press and advertising photographs.

Art Belongs to the People! Socialist Realism in Photography

Art Belongs to the People! Socialist Realism in Photography,” Foto Kvartals 10, No. 2 (2008): 50-67; 95.

Although the term Socialist Realism traditionally is used in relation to painting, sculpture, literature, and cinema, photography of the Soviet era was also supposed to follow this ideology. This article offers a glimpse into the principles of Socialist Realism in the images from the photographic chronicle "Republic in Photographs" that was distributed to Latvian newspapers by TASS / Information agency LATINFORM of the Council of Ministers of Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia from 1974 to 1978.