Nikolai Sedelnikov (1905–1994)
Airplanes, c. 1931
Collage with photogravure, gouache, ink, and cut paper
11 3/8 x 9 in. (28.8 x 22.9 cm)
Courtesy of the Merrill C. Berman Collection
This vibrant Constructivist collage by the great Soviet artist Nikolai Sedelnikov incorporates all the most important aspects of Soviet aviation: aircraft; pilots, both male and female; aerial photography; and parachutes, which were employed by the Russian Airborne Forces starting in 1930. Each component of the collage is set off by rich colors and bold diagonal lines evocative of movement and flight. As art historian Alla Rosenfeld writes in her essay "Serving the Masses: Nikolai Sedelnikov’s Work within the Context of Soviet Photomontage and Graphic Design, 1920s-1930s," in the publication Nikolai Sedelnikov: Works from the Merrill C. Berman Collection (Merrill C. Berman Collection, 2020), “In many of Sedelnikov’s photomontages, figures are added to the planes and volumes of the abstract elements. The visual impact of his designs is increased by the use of abstract typographical elements such as arrows, blocks of color, and lines...It is precisely this manipulation of the photograph, combined with political slogans and purely graphic elements that produce such strong visual effects.” This collage may have been a design for the cover of a book.
Georgy Zelma (1906–1984)
Over Red Square, Moscow (Maxim Gorky), 1934
Gelatin silver print, printed later
6 3/8 x 9 5/8 in. (16.2 x 24.4 cm)
When it was completed in 1934, the famous Tupolev ANT-20 Maxim Gorky was the largest plane in the world — it would not be surpassed in size until 1941 — and was the subject of enormous excitement and fascination among the public. On at least two occasions, the plane flew over Red Square, closely flanked by smaller aircraft in order to emphasize its great size, in celebratory demonstrations of the technological prowess of the Soviet Union. Zelma’s photograph captures one of these rare occasions; his lens is aimed at the level of the military tanks below, which appear as spectators to the stunning sight of the massive aircraft overhead. One actual spectator is visible, perched atop a tank at left — the lone human element in an image that is charged with a sense of impersonal mechanical and military might. The power of the aircraft is further emphasized by the contrast between the stark, nearly pure white of the sky and the plane’s dark, almost ominous silhouette.
Interior of the Maxim Gorky airplane, on a three-page spread of USSR in Construction no. 1, 1935
This issue of USSR in Construction was dedicated entirely to the famous propaganda plane, and includes photomontages by Nikolai Troshin (1897–1990) and photographs by Georgy Petrusov (1903–1971), Max Alpert (1899-1980), Boris Kudoyarov (1898–1973), Semyon Fridlyand (1905–1964), and others. As writer Alastair Gee describes in his article The strange history of a futuristic Soviet propaganda plane, the Maxim Gorky was a vehicle built not just for flight, but for the dissemination of propaganda. It was equipped with a powerful radio that could broadcast to the population below; a darkroom and a printing press, which could produce an entire newspaper on board, as well as leaflets that could be dispensed to the ground mid-flight; and a projector, to show propaganda films to villagers on its stops around the country. This photomontage captures several of these activities in a striking cross-section of the aircraft, with a succession of gelatin silver prints depicting not only the production of propaganda but the comfort of travel on board the plane; while the multi-page spread emphasizes the great length of the massive aircraft.
Mikhail Razulevich (1904–1993)
Maxim Gorky Airplane over Leningrad, 1934
Gelatin silver print
11 1/8 x 7 3/8 in. (28.3 x 18.7 cm)
Courtesy of the Merrill C. Berman Collection
As in the photomontage from USSR in Construction, no. 10 (please click here to view the image), Razulevich captures the propaganda operations taking place on the Maxim Gorky in this ingenious cross-section of the plane, as well as the luxury afforded to passengers on board — the plane contained lounging and sleeping cabins for seventy passengers, and food was served from an electric kitchen during flight. Indeed, the plane may have been even more effective as a propaganda machine than as an aircraft — its great size and construction made it quite heavy and slow, and after just a year of flight, the Maxim Gorky crashed in 1935 during a demonstration flight over Moscow.
Cover, USSR in Construction, no. 10, 1934
16 7/16 x 11 15/16 in. (41.8 x 30.3 cm)
Design by El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers (1891–1978)
The issue of USSR in Construction is dedicated to the rescue by aircraft of the crew of the steamship Cheluskin in the Arctic, which was one of the first major search and rescue operations accomplished by aircraft. When the steamship became trapped in ice, the crew of 111 men, women, and children abandoned the ship and set up camp on the ice, where they built a makeshift airstrip using rudimentary tools; two months later, they were saved by a group of Soviet pilots, who were also joined by two American air mechanics. The operation was highly risky, as the pilots had to fly around 100 miles each way — an extraordinary distance at the time — through blizzards, fog, and dangerously low temperatures, and over fields of ice on which an emergency landing would be impossible.
This issue of USSR in Construction was designed by El Lissitzky and his wife, Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers. The rescue of the Cheluskin men was a powerful reminder that aviation was changing not just transportation, commerce, and military operations, but also human life and the course of history. The importance of aviation in this story is underscored by the image that Lissitzky chose for the cover: an image not of the steamship or its crew, but the innovative new technology that saved their lives.
Greeting the Cheluskin Men
Photomontage from USSR in Construction, no. 10, 1934
Photograph by Arkady Shaikhet (1898–1959)
Design of the issue by El Lissitzky (1890–1941)
This photomontage incorporates a photograph by Shaikhet, depicting the grand welcome accorded to the crew of the steamship Cheluskin upon their return to Moscow. The faceless crowds gathered along the sides of the street are balanced by the individual faces included across the top of the composition; meanwhile, Shaikhet's receding perspective emphasizes the great length of the parade, shot from a high vantage point, perhaps atop a building. Confetti litters the street in celebration of the returning crew and pilots; the latter became the first recipients of the newly created title “Hero of the Soviet Union."
Arkady Shaikhet (1898–1959)
Greeting the Cheluskin Men, 1934
Vintage gelatin silver print
Signed and stamped on verso
5 5/8 x 7 3/4 in. (14.3 x 19.7 cm)
Shaikhet captures the enormous parade in the streets of Moscow that welcomed the crew of the steamship Cheluskin upon their return, perhaps with the pilots among them. Shot at street level, directly in the path of the oncoming parade, this vintage gelatin silver print depicts the great joy and excitement that greeted the returning crew. The rescue of the Cheluskin men became legendary, and the story continues to occupy a special place in Russian history, perhaps comparable in Western European history to the famous expeditions of Ernest Shackleton.
Celebration of the Arctic expedition and rescue of Ivan Papanin crew from the manned drifting station North Pole-1, 1937-38
Photocollage, with photographs by Yakov Khalip (1908–1980)
6 1/8 x 4 1/8 in. (15.6 x 10.5 cm)
The famous North Pole-1 expedition of 1937–1938 involved the establishment and operation of the first Soviet manned drifting research station located on ice. The North Pole-1 expedition lasted nine months, during which the four members — Ivan Papanin, the leader; radio operator Ernst Krenkel; geophysicist Yegeny Fyodorov; and hydrobiologist Pyotr Shirshov — lived and carried out scientific research on a floating ice floe; by the end of the mission, the floe had traveled 2,850 kilometers. While the concept of staffed drifting stations had been discussed for decades, the expedition was made possible only by the new aviation technology, which accomplished the delivery of the men and their equipment to the Arctic. Like the rescue of the Cheluskin men, the story of the North Pole-1 expedition captured the public’s imagination and has achieved an almost mythical status in Soviet memory.
This collage highlights the importance of aviation in the mission by dedicating the entire upper half of the composition to an airplane hovering in the open sky. The collage includes photographs by Yakov Khalip, who was aboard one of the ships that retrieved Papanin and his crew at the end of their mission; and may have been designed by Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, who designed the album A Feat Worthy of the Stalin Epoch (Podvig Dostoiny Stalinskoi Epokhi) (1938).
Photo by Fishman (Soyuzfoto)
Navigator of Plane USSR N-169 Comrade Akkuratov, 1937
Vintage gelatin silver print
"Photograph by Fishman (Soyzfoto)" on verso
8 1/2 x 6 1/4 in. (21.6 x 15.9 cm)
This photograph shows a navigator of one of the five planes that traveled to the North Pole in 1937 to deliver Papanin, his men, and the equipment for their novel floating research station. The four main planes were models of the Tupolev TB-3, the world’s first cantilever-wing four-engine heavy bomber. This flight was not only the start of an unprecedented scientific expedition, but it also marked the first time that an airplane had landed at the North Pole. Navigation at the poles was notoriously difficult — Akkuratov would have had to account for the unreliability of magnetic compasses in the Arctic, and would have navigated instead with a compass. The photographer captures the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in the face of the young pilot, who is framed in a closely cropped portrait; his aviator helmet speaks to his position, while the fur vest around his shoulders suggests the frigid setting where he has landed.
This photograph was taken for the Soviet News Agency Soyuzfoto, and includes the following caption on verso, which highlights the main plane, N-1970, and its famous pilot, Mikhail Vodopyanov: "Expedition of four heavy planes and one reconnaissance aircraft headed to North Pole. USSR-N-1970 plane commanded by Mikhail Vodopyanov landed at the North Pole. The Soviet Banner is now fluttering at the North Pole." – Soyuzfoto, March 1937
Make the Red Air Fleet Stronger!, 1934
21 3/8 x 28 3/8 in. (54.3 x 72.1 cm)
Courtesy of the Merrill C. Berman Collection
This poster features a dynamic melange of the many varied aspects of early Soviet aviation, from paratroopers, pilots, military formations, and aeroclubs to children playing with model airplanes. The image is bookended by the figures of Kliment Voroshilov (at left), a prominent Soviet military officer and politician, and Joseph Stalin (at right). Across the center of the image, a sort of visual history of Soviet aviation is illustrated, starting with what appears to be a glider-style plane at lower left and proceeding diagonally upwards to the famous Tupolev ANT-20 Maksim Gorki, which was the largest aircraft in the world in the 1930s, with a wingspan comparable to that of a modern Boeing 747. Peppered throughout the image are slogans predicting the bright future of Soviet aviation: “Every school will have a class for modelling planes, every factory will have a club for paratroopers, and every city will have an aeroclub.”
Viktor Deni (1893–1946) and Nikolai Dolgorukov (1902–1980)
Maquette for poster with ink and gelatin silver print
Signed "Deni, Dolgorukov" on recto at lower right
24 x 27 1/2 in. (61 x 69.9 cm)
This work is a collaboration between the great Soviet artists Viktor Deni (1893–1946) and Nikolai Dolgorukov (1902–1980), who met in 1930 and often worked together on posters promoting Soviet technological and industrial developments, including the Five-Year Plan and the Moscow Metro. In this maquette, a Soviet pilot and a young boy with a model airplane look upward beyond the picture plane, smiling and observing the aircraft overhead. Planes are shown both in silhouette, at a distance; and up close, with the details of the wheels, propellers, and machinery visible. At lower right, just above the artists’ signatures, a small gelatin silver print of a group of military officers can be seen.
Ivan Shagin (1904–1982)
In Flight, 1936
Gelatin silver print, printed c. 1960s
11 7/8 x 13 7/8 in. (30.2 x 35.2 cm)
This dramatic image by Ivan Shagin is exceptional in that it shows one aircraft captured from the seat of another; unlike aerial photographs of the time, both the photographer and his subject here are fully airborne, while the earth below is faint and distant, like an afterthought. Both planes are the Tupolev TB-3, the world’s first cantilever-wing four-engine heavy bomber, from which Shaikhet also shot his photograph In Flight (click here to view the image). The rich texture and tonality of this print communicates both the softness and variability of the cloud cover and the hard metal of the aircraft, while the slight shadow of the propeller blades suggests the great speed at which Shagin and the plane are moving.
Boris Kudoyarov (1898–1973)
Parachute Sport, Tushino, 1937
Gelatin silver print, mounted
Signed and titled on verso
22 3/4 x 16 in. (57.8 x 40.6 cm)
Kudoyarov’s photograph shows one of the lavish air demonstrations that occurred annually at the Tushino airfield to celebrate the All-Union Day of Soviet Aviation, also known as Soviet Air Fleet Day or Soviet Air Forces Day. Soviet air shows were enormous and highly significant displays of Soviet military power, as well as opportunities for the public to marvel at the spectacle of new aviation technology and to celebrate their country’s achievements. This image likely depicts the 1937 celebration, which was attended by almost a million people and included aircraft spelling in the sky “LENIN,” “STALIN,” and “SSSR.”
Kudoyarov communicates the remarkably artistic, dance-like motion of the paratroopers’ drops. At the center of the scene is the extraordinary sight of paratrooper descending with two parachutes deployed. The paratroopers most likely jumped from the wings of a plane, usually from the Tupolev TB-3, the world’s first cantilever-wing four-engine heavy bomber. Kudoyarov's framing and composition render the horizon just a thin line a the bottom of the image, which is dominated by a sky peppered with paratroopers; the varied tones of the billowing parachutes echo the shapes of the thick clouds behind them, and confer a sense of fullness and animation to the scene as a whole.
Nailya Alexander Gallery is pleased to present The Powerful Wings: Soviet Aviation 1920s–1930s, on view online Wednesday 14 October through Saturday 14 November. Our exhibition focuses on artistic representations of early Soviet aviation, from avant-garde compositions to Socialist Realist photomontage. Leading artists of the period, including Boris Ignatovich (1899–1976), Boris Kudoyarov (1898–1973), El Lissitzky (1890–1941), Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956), Nikolai Sedelnikov (1905–1994), Ivan Shagin (1904–1982), Arkady Shaikhet (1898–1959), and Georgy Zelma (1906–1984) translated the country’s ambitious plans for air travel and transport into striking new visual forms. Propelled by incredible leaps in technology, photography advanced to the forefront of both the visual arts and popular media, shaping the narrative of the nascent country through the use of surprising viewpoints, bold cropping and compositions, and the use of photomontage. These revolutionary images had an indelible impact on Soviet citizens, igniting their imaginations and promoting their optimism about the future.
Highlights of the exhibition include a rare photograph of one of the first flights of the USSR’s first national commercial airline, Dobrolet, made by Shaikhet in 1924; as well as a poster by Rodchenko, who was commissioned by the airline to create a series of advertisements exhorting citizens to buy stock in the company, as the airline was funded by the population. Photographs by Zelma and Mikhail Razulevich (1904–1993) show the celebrated Maxim Gorky airplane, the largest in the world in the 1930s, depicting the colossal aircraft on a historic demonstration flight over Red Square as well as its elaborately designed interior. A triptych of gelatin silver prints by Anatoly Egorov (1907–1986) shows the massive wingspan of the L-760 airplane, which replaced the Maxim Gorky after it crashed in 1935.
Aircraft were not just the subject of art and photography in the 1920s and 1930s, but also the setting, as photographers flew high above the cities and countryside to capture the world from a radical new perspective. For the first time, the famous dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Leningrad can be seen from above, in a photograph by Boris Ignatovich; while Shaikhet photographed a rural Soviet landscape from the Tupolev TB-3, the world’s first cantilever-wing four-engine heavy bomber aircraft.
Also on view is work by the renowned graphic designer Nikolai Sedelnikov, who highlights the importance of aviation in his 1932 collage “The People are The Red Army’s Aides”; Sedelnikov places a paratrooper at the center of the collage, hovering over the Red Square, in a remarkable composition that combines dynamic geometrical forms with vivid blocks of color.
The Soviet press trumpeted the military demonstrations and epic expeditions undertaken by the new aircraft, and created a robust mythology of aviation culture; pilots and paratroopers became modern-day heroes and populated the media. The entire tenth issue of USSR in Construction (1934), designed by El Lissitzky, was dedicated to the rescue by aircraft of the famous steamship Cheluskin; while the exploration of the Arctic is celebrated in a 1937 photocollage depicting Ivan Papanin and his crew next to a Soviet Flag that is fluttering at the North Pole. Women, too, filled new roles in aviation, and were glorified in these settings, as exemplified by glamorous images of Muza Malinovskaya, one of the first female paratroopers; and Valentina Grizodubova, one of the first female pilots. In August 1933, magnificent annual air demonstrations were launched at the Tushino Airfield to celebrate the All-Union Day of Soviet Aviation. Boris Kudoyarov captures the impressive sight of hundreds of paratroopers descending from the sky during the 1937 parade, before crowds of around a million people.
The rare works in our exhibition possess great artistic value, and have proven to be more powerful than the system that created them. We are grateful to the Merrill C. Berman Collection for their generous collaboration with us on this exhibition. Please direct all inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.