The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia

By Dickerman, Leah | The Art Bulletin, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia


Dickerman, Leah, The Art Bulletin


DAVID KING

The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia

New York: Henry Holt, Metropolitan Books, 1997. 192 pp.; 4 color ills., 271 b/w. $35.00

A slim volume with little text and full of intriguing and somewhat perverse pictures, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia is perhaps the most significant recent book published on the use of images in the Soviet era. Its central claim is an important one: the manipulated photograph stands as the cornerstone of Joseph Stalin's ideological project. And though the text does not elaborate this argument at any great length, the book provides an invaluable starting point for a deepened understanding of the role of photography in the totalitarian state.

The Commissar Vanishes offers a broad selection of visual material gathered over the last thirty years by David King. A historian inter ested in the political uses of images, King has published a photographically illustrated biography of Leon Trotsky whose face in the present volume dissolves again and again into an airbrushed haze. Long known by Soviet specialists, King's work stands as an archaeology within the archive of Soviet culture, accomplished in the face of innumerable barriers. Through the process of collection, King traces multiple generations of images-the manipulations often juxtaposed with the original print-to produce a multilayered structure that works against the coercive teleology of Stalin's own enterprise.

The implicit claims of The Commissar Vanishes offer tremendous insight into Stalinist visual representation and particularly the project of Socialist Realism itself. The first of these, revealed by the scope of the collection, is the very pervasiveness of photographic manipulation in the construction of Soviet history-its utter systematization. Such excess, of course, speaks of tremendous anxiety-an anxiety endemic to both official culture and the population at large. Beyond the administrative industry of censorship (though one cannot help but wonder at what must have been its vastness), private citizens afraid to be caught with compromising images often defaced their own books. (In a haunting image included in The Commissar Vanishes, the artist Aleksandr Rodchenko used India ink to obscure the faces of certain officials in the book Ten Years of Uzbekistan, which he had designed himself.) Even at home, these individuals thus became integral-if involuntaryparticipants in Stalin's perpetual rewriting (and reimaging) of history. The collection here attests to the symbiosis of ideological apparatuses with directly coercive ones-a powerful combined force in the production of a monological system.

King's photographs demonstrate the flexibility of the strategy of manipulation as well. The variety of ends for which image-altering processes were used cover a wide spectrum: smoothing Stalin's pockmarked face and removing litter from the leader's path; inserting text on banners within photographs so that the idea becomes legible (for example, "Down with the Monarchy" within a photograph of a demonstration); enlarging an adulatory crowd through montage; or isolating the figure of Stalin from a group. As the title indicates, King's book focuses on the multiple disappearances of individuals from photographsparticularly during the period of terror against both Communist officials and ordinary citizens, which peaked in the late 1930s and continued until Stalin's death in 1953.

Manipulation, however, also served an additive function, most notably the repeated insertion of Stalin himself into the revolutionary narrative. Many of these latter photographic reworkings address a particular historical double bind: if the legitimacy of succession in the Soviet system depended on proximity to Lenin and a central role within the Russian Revolution, and Stalin stood at the margins in both senses, how could Stalin's legitimacy be claimed?

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