Nailya Alexander Gallery is pleased to present A Pageant of Youth, an exhibition inspired by the photography book of the same name, designed by Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956) and Varvara Stepanova (1894–1958) for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The book emphasizes the importance of physical culture among Soviet youth and showcases one of the extravagant annual All-Union Sports Parades held on Red Square in Moscow, as well as other athletic activities fashionable in the 1930s. Athleticism and physical health were promoted by the newly formed Soviet state in order to serve one of its main objectives: the creation of an entirely novel and advanced type of human being called “The New Soviet Man” who would be selfless, educated, and physically strong, while constantly striving for self-improvement.
Photography, like no other media, was especially instrumental in the formation of this idealized image and its dissemination to mass audiences of young people. Artists drew from the nascent style of Socialist Realism to create emotionally uplifting scenes that would glorify a perfect body as an essential component of a perfect Soviet citizen. Our exhibition highlights the breadth and diversity of these representations of youth, health, and strength by the most significant artists of the period, including seminal photographers of the Russian avant-garde Boris Ignatovich (1899–1976) and Aleksandr Rodchenko; one of the founders of Soviet photojournalism, Arkady Shaikhet (1898–1959); and artists Aleksandr Deineka (1899–1969) and Nikolai Sedel'nikov (1905–1994), among others.
One of the most iconic images of the period is Youth, 1937, by Ignatovich, who focuses on a fresh-faced, beaming young couple. The young man and woman exude enthusiasm and energy and seem to be the embodiment of an ideal young family—the builders of a bright Communist future.
A 1933 poster by Deineka conveys the spirit of the time with both its imagery—a dynamic young girl on the verge of throwing a disc, against a background of rhythmic rows of cyclists and runners—and its slogan: “Work, build, and don’t whine! The path to a new life has been shown to us. You may not be able to become an athlete, but to become a sportsman—you must.”
Close-up perspective and framing draw attention to the classical beauty of subjects’ bodies, as in Sergey Shimansky’s (1898–1972) Navy Fleet, BlackSea, c. 1930s, where the muscular forms of young Navy oarsmen are shown straining backward against the weight of the sea; and Georgy Petrusov’s (1903–1971) Armenian Delegation at Sports Parade, Red Square, 1935, which shows the slender silhouettes of Armenian men performing a national dance. In Ignatovich’s Shower, 1935, a group of young athletes enjoys a therapeutic water massage; in the foreground is the back of a young man, whose stately figure takes up almost the entire frame. The masterful light and airiness of the image have a stunning aesthetic effect, illuminating the drops of water that are sprinkled across the spine and muscles of his tanned back. Deineka was so captivated by the powerful composition of Shower that he recreated the scene in his painting After the Battle (1937–1942). In this way, this exuberant ”pageant of youth” explores the early 20th-century Soviet state’s idealization of perfect young men and women as embodiments of optimism and a belief in a better life.
We are grateful to the Boris Ignatovich and Arkady Shaikhet estates for their collaboration on this show. We give special thanks to the Merrill C. Berman Collection for the virtual loan of works by Deineka and Sedel’nikov in this exhibition.