A story about passion, art and idealism. Sonia (Sofia) Dymshitz-Tolstaya survived Russia's Revolution, Stalin's purges, and personal tragedy to create the vibrant canvases that expressed ...
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A story about passion, art and idealism. Sonia (Sofia) Dymshitz-Tolstaya survived Russia's Revolution, Stalin's purges, and personal tragedy to create the vibrant canvases that expressed her unquenchable spirit and captured the spirit of her times.Written by
Few films capture the complete sense and sensibilities about the complexities of life in Russia throughout the twentieth century. The brief euphoria and unprecedented future vision of the Avant-garde, during the first decades, provided boundless hope for artists. They saw the opportunity to contribute new ideas freely with the emergence of modern culture after centuries of Czarist autocracy.
Dashed by Lenin's untimely stroke, the unrelenting oppression and ideological tyranny that unfolded seized life by rising Stalinist values. Artists were thwarted. The freedom of expression lay in state, controlled for political purpose and gain. By the beginning of World War II, the straightjacket of purges ended the unparalleled Russian experiment in the arts, which offered multi-disciplinary inventions and breakthroughs on an international scale.
The present century of visual advances exist in part by the transforming power of ideas that began to emerge in 1920s Russia. To better understand the significance of the early modern era, the various forms of cinema, photography and literature are key sources that often provide truth beyond ideology. Historical perspectives found in the retrospectives of remarkable individuals who survived the century enlarge the wealth of understanding. Personal family archives about those individuals who interweaved their lives by their ideals and persistence of vision, throughout decades of political and social resistance, are rich sources of knowledge. From time to time, the path of related research uncovers noteworthy examples of individuals that expound the broader truths of everyday life, from where so many modern contributions flourished. For instance, contemporary research by Joshua Rubenstein reveals the mixed realities of writer Ilya Ehrenburg's complicated life. Drawn from the family archive and published in Tangled Loyalties (University of Alabama Press), the complex history of survival is filled with the quandary of a Russian Jewish intellectual through his lifetime of problematical judgments and contributions.
The Stalingrad photographs during the War, made by Georgy Zelma who received his first camera from Ehrenburg, were essential in creating the true sense of environment and daily life, for the making of Jean-Jacques Annaud's film Enemy at the Gates. The cross section of lives portrayed tells more than their personal sacrifices against the odds. The movie not only exposes the turning point of World War II. It sets the stage about the political landscape of the postwar Soviet era. Lessons through the eyes, experiences and life-threatening trials of extraordinary individuals, paints a broader picture of truth and understanding.
Most recently, the life of Gustav Klucis and Valentina Kulagina, and their historic contributions in photomontage, are recreated in the little known, independent montage film Klucis. The Deconstruction of the Artist (Vides Filmu Studija, Latvia). What the film expresses in montage and photomontage terms, about the husband and wife, their collaborative inventive spirit, and Soviet history is extraordinary. It further provides a telling cameo about the contradictions of Soviet existence.
Stalin ended the pioneering breakthroughs of Klucis with other leading Latvian artists, with the exception of Sergei Eisenstein, in his purge of the late 1930s. Life for Kulagina moved on to preserve key parts of the history in the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga where a major retrospective book is now in final stages. Art history with change in the making.
The freedom of expression is marking its twentieth anniversary in Latvia in art and art history. The recent installation of sculpture, exhibitions and symposium dedicated to portrait photographer Philippe Halsman born in Riga, and the construction of the Art Center of New York Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko in Daugavpils, represents lifetime histories brought to fruition for future generations. Both are striking models against the current tyranny of economic odds globally, which also exist in Latvia and other emerging democracies throughout Eastern Europe.
Photography and filmmaking, photomontage and montage, painting and literature, are not only centerpieces in early modern history found in Russia. The modern tools of invention of the Russian Avant-garde convey meaning about life in incomparable terms. They are important components used to recreate other noteworthy retrospectives and biographical histories.
Lucy Kostelanetz's prodigious personal research concerning the life and work of Sofia Dymshitz-Tolstaya (1886-1963), and her subsequent direction of the film Sonia, is no less encompassing in meaning and substance. Kostelanetz retraced the footsteps and memoirs of Sonia who left her Jewish family life in St. Petersburg in the early twentieth century. She contributed as an artist not only with the Avant-garde, working with Vladimir Tatlin, but lived and worked through and beyond Stalin.
Kostelantz places photography, montage and photomontage at the filmic heart of the painter's unique journey. Capturing the true meaning about the complexities of life through the artist's persistence of vision, ideals and passion, Kostelanetz helps enlighten about the true spirit of her times. Truth in Sonia's remarkable journey of exchanges, relationships, challenges and uncompromising spirit, as she responds with determined inventiveness, interweaves throughout the century of Soviet barriers.
Remarkably the film shares a comprehensive sense of Russian life in the twentieth century beyond the ideology of the moment. What Kostelantez brings to light is more than a story of an individual who repeatedly survived and transcended her time with the persistence of vision. Through the imperfective art of cinematic expression, what begins as a retrospective consideration of Sonia, becomes a biographical inset in the film. Biographical insights are used to transform the meaning of life on a larger scale.
Kostelanetz's choices in editing as well as use of various forms of modern mediums -- such as photomontage reinvented within cinematic language -- establishes a more thoughtful overview. In this way, Sonia becomes an exemplar that narrates truths about Russian life and values that outlive short-term ideology. The film moves beyond the historic changes from social and political realities. Kostelanetz enlightens with a very rare quality of sense and sensibility, like Sonia, for generations to come.
Steve Yates, Fulbright Scholar, USSR & Russia, Curator, Artist, Adjunct Professor