"The Commissar Vanishes is an installation of haunting images from the David King Collection, which coincides with the Russian publication of the book of the same name that traces the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin's Russia.
Like their counterparts in Hollywood, photographic retouchers in Soviet Russia spent long hours smoothing out the blemishes of imperfect complexions, helping the camera to falsify reality. But it was during the Great Purges, which raged in the late 1930's, that a new form of falsification emerged. The physical eradication of Stalin's political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence. Photographs for publication were retouched and restructured with airbrush and scalpel to make once–famous personalities vanish. Entire editions of works by denounced politicians and writers were banished to the closed sections of the state libraries and archives or simply destroyed. Soviet citizens, fearful of the consequences of being caught in possession of material considered 'anti–Soviet' or 'counterrevolutionary', were forced to deface their own copies of books and photographs.
The subject matter of this exhibit focuses on one particularly evocative example: in 1934 the artist/designer/photographer Alexander Rodchenko was commissioned by the state publishing house OGIZ in Moscow to design the album, Ten Years of Uzbekistan, celebrating a decade of Soviet rule in that state. The Russian edition, full of Rodchenko's skillful design techniques, appeared the same year and the Uzbek edition, with some politically induced changes, in 1935. But in 1937, at the height of the terror, Stalin ordered a major overhaul of the Uzbek leadership and heads began to roll. Many Party bosses photographed in Ten Years of Uzbekistan were liquidated. The album suddenly became illegal literature. Using thick black India ink, Rodchenko was compelled to deface his own book. This installation now brings together, in the form of photographic enlargements, the published portraits of the high–ranking officials victimised in Stalin's Uzbek purge, juxtaposed with their eradication by Rodchenko's hand. The macabre results – ethereal, Rothko–like, sometimes brutal and terrifying – came close to creating a new art form, a graphic reflection of the real fate of the victims."
(The Photographers' Gallery)
David King (1997). "The Commissar Vanishes".
"The creatively brilliant culture that flourished in Russia after the 1917 Revolution might be revered in the West – next month Tate Modern hosts Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism, the second major London exhibition on the Russian Modernist master in less than a year. But in Russia the period is still deeply controversial. After Joseph Stalin crushed the Russian avant–garde in the 1930s, the post–revolutionary period was almost erased from its history books. It still carries a stigma, says the historian Anna Bronovitskaya. 'Modernist aesthetics have never recovered from Stalin's denouncement,' she says. 'The wider public was never taught to appreciate modern, let alone contemporary art and architecture. It remains very conservative in its tastes.'
What Stalin was so keen to crush, and what has remained partly hidden ever since, was an immense revolutionary outpouring of energy, freedom and imagination that touched almost every form of culture. With the old order reversed, anything could happen. What Russia's artists, filmmakers, playwrights, writers and designers were imagining was nothing less than the shape of socialist Utopia, and it found its fullest expression in architecture. The buildings erected in Russia between the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of Stalin are the greatest concentration of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world, but, thanks to Stalin, and the Cold War, also the least well known. They are certainly among the most thrilling. The various architectural groups that flourished in the 1920s – Constructivists, Rationalists, Urbanists, Unurbanists – clashed over the precise form this Soviet Utopia should take. But between them, and backed by a state then eager to create a radical communist landscape, they built a vast catalogue of buildings – factories, dams, railway stations, government complexes, new cities, cultural centres, and entirely new building types, like communal housing and workers' clubs to re–educate the masses – which Rodchenko himself photographed as the face of new revolutionary Russia.
Western architects such as Le Corbusier looked on in envy. Just as the Bolsheviks experimented with new forms of government, so a new generation of Modernist architects such as Melnikov, Ivan Leonidov and the Vesnin brothers were encouraged to rip up the rulebook, creating new buildings of dizzying geometry, abstract shapes, thrilling collisions and bold new spaces – communal kitchens to release women from domestic drudgery – designed to socially engineer the new socialist citizen.
The project came to a grinding halt after Stalin's purges. Socialist Realism was imposed in architecture as much as in art, music and literature. The bold Modernist experiments in architecture were condemned as 'trash' and 'primitive boxes'; many were even 'improved' with traditional embellishments. Architects such as Melnikov were banned from practising and reviled. Ever since, says David Sarkisyan, director of Schusev, Russia's state architectural museum, 'Russia's post–revolutionary architecture has been in a catastrophic state'."
(The Times Online 24 January 2009)