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January 12, 2007

Christie Davies admires the artistry of the photographer Max Penson and remembers why all decent people loathed socialism: Classic Soviet Modernist Photographer: Max Penson and the Soviet Modernisation of Uzbekistan at the Gilbert Collection

Posted by Christie Davies

Classic Soviet Modernist Photographer: Max Penson and the Soviet Modernisation of Uzbekistan 1920-1930s
Gilbert Collection, Somerset House
29th November 2006 - 24th February 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (last admission 17.15pm)

Max Penson, a Jewish artist from near Marc Chagall's home town of Vitebsk, fled to Uzbekistan in 1915 to escape war and pogroms. There he learned Uzbek and mastered photography and from 1926-1949 was a photographer for the newspaper Pravda Vostoka, (Party) Truth of the East. In 1949, the beginning of the black years of Soviet Jewry, he was sacked for being a "rootless cosmopolitan", the communist version of Zhid or Yid and lost his licence to photograph. Only in the 1990s has he been rediscovered and now thanks to Roman Abramovich, the Governor of Chukotka, his work has come to London. Abramovich is said to own Chelsea FC but - given his interest in high culture - this is probably just a malicious rumour.

Penson was undoubtedly a talented photographer and Soviet Modernism an attractive style. Yet even under the malign pressure of a heavy Socialist Realism imposed from above, Penson continued to excel. His work is an excellent pictorial account of the brutal Soviet modernisation of Uzbekistan.

Under the Tsarist empire rule from the centre had been relatively mild and no attempt had been made to disturb the grotesque and oppressive social backwardness that is the inevitable accompaniment of traditional Islam. All the Tsars, like the King-Emperors of India, wanted was political acquiescence and it was safer not to disturb the "woeful superstitions of the East" with modernisation or Christian missionaries.

The militant and intolerant Soviet atheists by contrast went to war with Islam as they had with all the religions. Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, "the Red Dean of Canterbury", Order of the Red Banner and winner in 1951 of the Stalin International Peace Prize, was much in favour of the persecution of reactionary religion in the Soviet Union and not just in relation to Christians. He used to get lyrical about the demolition of mosques, the imprisonment of imams, the education of women (something deeply offensive to traditional Muslims) and the forcible abolition of the veil in Soviet Central Asia. He may, of course, have had a point. Under the Soviets, women were encouraged to burn their veils in public. In some cases their male relatives assaulted and even killed them for this shamelessness but the Soviet authorities dealt severely and appropriately with such miscreants - you will know what I mean.

Whatever its present problems, Uzbekistan is certainly in advance of the North-West frontier provinces of Pakistan, the north-eastern coastal provinces of Malaysia or Northern Nigeria which languished under British tolerance, decency and cowardice. Indirect rule is irresponsible rule. Should we be ashamed of our lack of imperial reforming zeal?

Some of Penson's photographs are technically excellent portraits of patriarchal old Uzbeks with wrinkled faces, substantial beards and colourful round or square head-hugging rimless hats. Since I look like that myself, I was less excited by these photographs than were other visitors to the exhibition. When I was in Uzbekistan, writing about the economy for the Straits Times and the Wall Street Journal (Asia), I bought and wore just such hats and a local shirt, so that I could slip through the crowds and not be pestered by locals wanting visas to go to Brooklyn. Tourists from my own hotel would fail to see me in the street and Americans in orange floral shirts and bulging-arsed shorts would include me in their photographs. I told the local women I was from the Middle East and had come to Uzbekistan to find a fourth wife to add to my other three; for some reason they found this hilariously funny.

Far more interesting and revealing than the wrinklies are Penson's capture of modernisation as in First Train, Chirekh, 1928, like something out of a Wild East film, all smokestack, steam humps and heavy coal smoke or A Difficult Task, 1930s. In the latter a young male Uzbek stands behind and works a huge vertical abacus like a cage. Unveiled female pupils watch him intently with a degree of interest and silent concentration you will never find in a British comprehensive school except in lying advertisements alongside the escalators on the underground trying to lure the unwary into teaching. A Difficult Task is obviously posed but posed by a master photographer who knew how to capture light and space.

The same is true of the unposed but carefully chosen Evening on Pushkin Street, Tashkent, 1934, where the angled sunbeams sneaking between the trees lights up a muddy road and an open top car that looks like a bigger and clumsier version of something coming out of Dearborn in 1920. As with painting, good black and white photography is about two things - knowing about light and balancing shapes.

Some of the propaganda photos carry memories of cruelty, suffering and oppression while others are unintentionally comic. Socialism is a form of society in which tragedy and farce coincide. The Estonian scholar Arvo Krikmann in his book about jokes under socialism, Netinalju Stalinist, quotes an Uzbek as saying of a set-piece joke about slavery and persecution under socialism that it summed up "the whole tragedy and drama of the event". Both Estonians and Uzbeks experienced the full horror of socialism and also of Russian colonialism. Western progressives never admitted the realities of either.

Yet the photographs of "modernisation" in Uzbekistan are photographs of both of these phenomena. There are many photographs of irrigation and other canals being built, notably Construction of the Liagan Canal 1942. How many of the diggers were political prisoners, that is to say slaves? How many were drawn from the ethnic minorities deported here in Koba's cattle trucks? How much did Penson know? What did he think?

Picking Cotton, 1930s shows a smiling Uzbek in a field, her cotton-picking hands full of handfuls of white. To what levels of poisonous pesticides was she exposed? Before the coming of GM crops, cotton needed more pesticides than any other crop and there was no independent press or unions to press for safety at work. Uzbekistan was for the Soviets a third-world colony which provided cotton as a cheap raw material. Reckless irrigation that led to the contamination of groundwater and the excessive use of chemicals eventually ruined the soil and poisoned the people, an inevitable consequence of a colonial monoculture and socialist planning. The only consolation for the Uzbek workers was that they were better dressed than their Russian managers in their tubular ill-fitting suits, to say nothing of the ex-pat European wives all of whom wore floral dresses made from the same bale of cloth.

Now the Uzbeks have to clean up the pollution, a pollution visible in Old Derrick, 1935. The entire photographic sequence reminds us of the exploitative and ecologically destructive nature of socialist relations of production.

There is the inevitable Greetings to Dear Stalin, 1930s-1940s with four traditionally dressed Uzbeks looking in reverence at a head and shoulders statue of Stalin embracing a young girl who is giving him a bouquet. Yet Penson could bring skill even to this piece of emetic kitsch. Here too is Memorial Meeting in Tashkent after the assassination of Kirov, 1934. Two men with Russian faces and Lenin caps salute. A boy in a forage cap plays the clarinet. A woman in a Christian-Lancashire headscarf holds a rag to her nose and sobs. No-one knows for sure who killed Kirov, the Party boss of Leningrad, but few genuine tears were wept. As we know from Rimmel's research both urban workers and peasants associated him with the general immiseration of the population by 1934. But who would be brave enough not to pretend to mourn a Kirov or a Horst Wessel. Besides, even in a democracy the sudden death of a worthless public figure such as JFK brings the handkerchiefs out. When Diana died you couldn't move for discarded teddy bears. Perhaps it was like that in Uzbekistan.

We can not blame Penson for such photographs, any more than we can blame Leni Riefenstahl. All we can do now is to admire their skill. Unlike Riefenstahl, Penson wasn't any good with athletes, though his photos do, like hers, bring out the close correlation between athletics and militarism. There is something particularly sad and inappropriate about women throwing javelins, women reduced to being aggression objects for the state. What on earth for? It is noticeable that the scantily clad women athletes have Slavic faces and shapes: her Russian eye is underlined for emphasis; Uncorseted, her friendly bust gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

Emancipated or not, the Uzbek women athletes are all muffled up Muslims, doomed to be hot and scratchy. Yet the happiest photo, First Step 1930, is of an Uzbek mother with a long pigtail encouraging her standing child to stay upright and come towards her. Soft motherhood was a lot more fulfilling than the sharp Soviet javelins and abortionists.

The most absurd example of the militarised new Soviet woman is Untitled, 1930s. Women civilians with Russian faces and heavy calves march together carrying rifles across their shoulders with attached bayonets. There are two problems. One is that they are not in step, nor even properly in line. The other is that they are not holding their rifles properly. This is not what women are for. It is why Russia is now dying out, for thanks to the socialist destruction of womanhood, among Russians though not among Uzbeks, there are no Russian children.

It is a pleasure to recommend this fine exhibition of photography, a real credit to Olga Sviblova of the Moscow House of Photography. Look out carefully for the best of them: Audience Watching a Soccer Match at the Dynamo Stadium Tashkent, 1930, In the meeting hall of the Uzbekistan Central Executive Committee, 1930, Bearer of the Order of Lenin Khalima Alieva, 1934, and Military Parade, 1935. The titles are ludicrous but the photography is that of a true master: Max Penson.

Christie Davies is a leading expert on jokes as protest under socialism; his work is to be found in his book, Jokes and their Relation to Society, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 1998.


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This article gives me an opportunity to put forward an idea I had recently. The Good Book says (Hebrews 4:12):

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Now can one distinguish between “soul” and “spirit” on the basis of observables, rather than by philosophy or theology? Perhaps one’s soul corresponds to the rationale of one’s mind, while one’s spirit corresponds to one’s motivation, or what really drives one.

In this country we can distinguish between the ‘soul’ of Socialism, which is fairness to all and equal opportunity, and its ‘spirit’, which is one of bitterness and envy, as witnessed by John Prescott’s drive to concrete over the Home Counties, the voting against hunting to get back over the Miners’ Strike, reported by Lembit Opik, not to mention Nye Bevan’s stated desire that the Conservative Party should become extinct.

So what can one say about the ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ of Communism? Even more of a gulf than there is with our own (New) Labour.

And if you ask me, “what about the Conservatives?”, I’m afraid they broadcast on a different wavelength from mine, so I can’t answer that one.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at January 12, 2007 09:17 PM
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