Category Archives: Art

Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen at GRAD Gallery: review

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amy Sargeant, author of British Cinema: a Critical History (BFI, 2005).

As with recent exhibitions of the photography, typography and graphic design work of Aleksandr Rodchenko (at the Hayward in 2008 and at Tate Modern in 2009), it is gratifying to see the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, London, introducing a new generation to the stunning power and exuberance of Soviet film posters. This show reinforces an impression that disorientation and montage were methodically deployed across a number of design practices to arresting and persuasive effect. The respect for this work accorded by contemporary critics is acknowledged by the GRAD show’s inclusion of an advertisement for the 1926 Second Exhibition of Film Posters: people came to recognise the monograms of “named” designers; the dedication of artists to public art was officially celebrated and promoted.

The largest collection of Soviet film posters, to my knowledge, is held by the Russian State Library in Moscow, deposited as a consequence of copyright requirements. Unfortunately, in many instances, little is known about the commissioning process, nor the circumstances and extent of information supplied to designers at the time the posters were produced concerning the films advertised. To those of us familiar with the Moscow archive, the range of formats will come as no surprise – nor will the anonymity of some designers. For visitors acquainted with glossy, flat, reproductions of posters in such coffee-table compilations as Susan Pack’s Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde (Taschen, 1995), the raw texture of the lithographs on display will serve as a reminder of the technical constraints under which the work was produced. Photogravure and modern offset printing came to Russia only late in the 1920s. Offprints of the posters are here available as postcards or at A3 (£25) and a1 (£60). Posters, I recall, were a great hit at the British Council’s Yuri Gagarin installation.

The GRAD show, drawn from two private collections mostly of the monogrammed variety – the Stenberg Brothers feature prominently), alongside readily identifiable excerpts from films: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Victor Turin’s Turksib (1929) sit alongside Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Chess Fever (1924) and Storm over Asia (1928); an excerpt from Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg (1927) is accompanied by posters by Izrail Bograd and Semyon Semyonov-Menes for the same film (both featuring the monumental equestrian statue of Alexander III – as it appears in the film). An “Avrora” sailor’s hat-band, in a section of a Stenbergs’ hoarding, is sufficient to evoke Eisenstein’s October (1927).

The show confirms an appetite on the part of Soviet audiences for cinematic entertainments tragic, dramatic and comedic. The Stenbergs’ poster for Aleksandr Ivanovskii’s The Decembrists (1926) demonstrates the Soviet regime’s concern to establish precedents in Russian history for the October Revolution. There is also ample evidence of the export of American and European films to Russia in the post-Revolutionary period, likely to receive a welcome reception: for instance, Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924), significantly known in Russia as A Man and a Livery, is represented by Emil Jannings proudly standing foreground in his preposterously braided hotel commissionaire’s uniform, with, in the background, the shadowy, hunched figure he is destined  to become once retired to the hotel’s basement washroom.

The show’s thin catalogue (overpriced at £25) includes short essays by co-curator Lutz Becker and co-editor Alexandra Chiriac. The former covers key aspects of art school training, film production and distribution; the latter pays obeisance to Walter Benjamin (the 1926-27) Moscow Diary and 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility) while, sadly, failing to counter Benjamin’s uninformed estimation of the talents of Igor Ilinskii, undeservedly reported as “an inscrupulous and inept imitator of Chaplin”. Russian audiences appreciated Ilinskii as one of their finest actors, on stage and screen. An appendix outlines the education, careers and varied output of the designers recognised.

I look forward to GRAD’s coming exhibitions, notably its 2014 summer show of Soviet textiles.

By Amy Sargeant

The Kino/Film exhibition continues at the GRAD gallery until 29 March 2014

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Wood Street Pop-up Picture Palace, Walthamstow, 30 March 2012

Wood Street Pop-up Picture Palace
Wood Street Pop-up Picture Palace

Walthamstow is at the very heart of the British film industry, or at least it used to be. Between 1910 and 1930, 400 movies were made in London’s E17 postcode at four studios, including a very grand establishment on Wood Street that was built by the Broad West Film Company in 1914. Nowadays, the suburb is more associated with a 90s boyband than film pioneers, but that doesn’t mean that the locals have turned their back on the area’s cinematic heritage. This summer, for example, the BFI will be showcasing the silent work of a little-known local film-maker called Alfred Hitchcock.

Check out this picture of the Wood Street Studio in the silent era. And do read this interview by Kevin Brownlow with Tilly Day, a woman who worked there as a Continuity Girl at the time. Her memories of a sharing a scene with Kenneth McLaglen, being frightened by the horses on location shoots in Epping Forest and watching Walter West directing silent films are all fascinating.

Broad West Film Company's Wood Street studio
Broad West Film Company's Wood Street studio

The Wood Street Pop-up Picture Palace will celebrate the days when Walthamstow was in the movie business in grand style on Friday night, with a special event that includes live music and the chance to dress up like a vintage film star. There’ll also be a screening of a new silent film, which incorporates animation and live action, and was filmed with help from the children of Woodside Primary School. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but the artists involved in the project are Elizabeth Hobbs, who makes animated films, and Emily Tracy, who produces beautiful light sculptures and collaborative art projects.

The Picture Palace's home in Wood Street Indoor Market
The Picture Palace's home in Wood Street Indoor Market

I popped down to the project’s offices at the new Wood Street Indoor Market on the weekend, but sadly they were closed. However I did spot a few sketches of the old Wood Street Studio that certainly intrigued me. Do get along to the special event on Friday 30 March, if you can. It’s free and promises to be very interesting and a lot of fun.

To read more about the indoor market, and other cultural events in E17, visit the very hip and happening Walthamstow Scene website.

Battleship Potemkin flash mob, 26 November 2011

Are you a silent film fan? Do you live in London? Are you a little bit eccentric?  If you answered yes to all three of those questions you probably want to know about this interactive art performance taking place at the ICA next Saturday:

In flash-mob-performance-art-meets-iconic-cinematic-history, the Odessa Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin will be re-created on the Duke of York steps, adjacent to the ICA, in three separate performances of 60 people. It might be slightly irreverent, it might end up nothing like Eisenstein’s visionary comment on the social and political state of Russia, but it will be a lot of fun, and a chance to pay tribute to one of the greatest moments in early 20th century cinema. Members of the public can book a slot to play a role in the reconstruction and filming of the scene. Each slot will be fast-paced and full of improvisation, complete with costumes and props. An eclectic mix of artists and personalities from the art world including Norman Rosenthal, Johnny Woo, Andrew Logan, Sue Tilley and Christopher Biggins will be taking on the major roles.

Christopher Biggins? That’s what it says here. Anyway, finally, you will have the chance to experience the thrill that Brain de Palma and Kevin Costner felt when filming The Untouchables. The re-enactments will be recorded for posterity too. Artists Jane and Louise Wilson will record the performances using the 8mm apps on their iPhones, and the resulting footage will be posted online.

Tickets for one of the sessions cost just £5. I’m assuming, and hoping, that this will all be totally safe and no babies (or adults) are liable to get hurt during proceedings. Still, you might prefer to play a cossack than a peasant, if you’re worried.

Re-enacting Eisenstein takes place on the afternoon of 26 November 2011. To book, and for more information, visit the ICA website.

Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew at Blackall Studios, Shoreditch 25-29 May 2011

From Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew
From Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew

For the vintage-lovers among you, this exhibition should be a real treat. Pam Glew’s Beautiful and Damned exhibition at Blackall Studios in east London uses vintage fabrics and techniques to create poignant but gorgeous images of silent movie stars. It’s only on for a few days, so catch it while you can:

‘Beautiful and Damned’, the shows title, is of course taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel, which explores the listless lives of moneyed society during the Jazz Age. This captivating era, drenched in glamour yet tinged with tragedy is the decadent setting for this extraordinary series of work. The exquisitely beautiful movie starlets, society icons and characters on display capture the spirit of the age all who are caught in the unforgiving glare of the limelight and some sadly burn out before their time. As Pam states, “the tragedy amongst the beauty is what has inspired this show, the sharp contrast between a blessed life and one that ends in scandal, hedonism or destitution”.

Beautiful and Damned runs from 25-29 May at Blackall Studios, 73 Leonard Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 4QS. For more information, check out Pam Glew’s website here.

Mat Collishaw’s Magic Lantern at the V&A

If you’ve been walking past the Victoria and Albert Museum late at night recently, and you weren’t too distracted by the roadworks, you’ll have seen that the cupola of the museum is lit up by a moving 3D animation of moths. “That looks like a zoetrope,” I thought when I saw it. And I was very pleased to find out, when I looked it up at home, that it is indeed a zoetrope of sorts. The artist Mat Collishaw was commissioned by the V&A to make a work for circular space right at the top of the museum – and he chose to produce a vast (10m wide) version of the animated 3D zoetropes he had made before on a smaller scale.

Mat Collishaw's Magic Lantern
Mat Collishaw's Magic Lantern

Magic Lantern is a beautiful spectacle – and I would advise you to pay a late-night visit to South Kensington before it is taken down on 27 March, if you haven’t done so already. For me, the way that it combines a Victorian invention and Victorian architecture to create something that looks so 21st-century brings an endearing whiff of pre-cinema magick. As Collishaw says: “I’d like to have created something that’s very beautiful and beguiling and brings people in to look at it but I’d also like to smuggle in a little bit of doubt in there about what it is they’re actually becoming engaged with when they’re looking at the work.”

For a closer look, you can visit the museum garden to see a smaller model of Magic Lantern between 10am and 5.45pm. Magic Lantern will be in situ at the V&A until 27 March 2011.