Exhibition ‘Colour Fragments of an Empire’
The Schusev State Museum of Architecture and Dialog Gallery present an exhibition of unique colour lantern slides by C.E. Berggren of the 1900s and 1910s.
The series of images at the exhibition Colour Fragments of an Empire constitute a rare set of over 200 hand-coloured lantern slides with views of Moscow and other areas of the Russian Empire made in the 1900s and 1910s by Carl Elof Berggren, an officer of the Swedish General Staff. These slides stand out thanks their rare photographic technology of positive projection printing on glass, the photographer’s original and passionate vision, and the unusual selection of subject matter.
C.E. Berggren served on the mission of the Swedish Red Cross in the Russian Empire for about 10 years. He fell in love with the country, learned Russian extremely well, and travelled widely, discovering and studying the most remote areas of the Empire. As an amateur photographer, he made a real photo chronicle of Russian life of the early 20th century during his travels.Berggren’s official biography contains no references to Russia. Information about him is particularly scant between 1908 and 1917 – a period when he travelled through the Empire on the Russian railways. The history of Berggren’s stay and trips in the country is full of gaps. According to family tradition, he lived in Russia for 8–10 years. Berggren’s grandson recalls that ‘the longer he stayed in the country, the more he wanted to know about it. This means that he spent a lot more time in Russia than he had initially planned.’
The photographs in the collection have extremely diverse subject matter. The numerous colour images of Moscow of the 1900s are of particular interest. With 90 lantern slides, they make up almost half of the collection. Berggren’s familiarity with Moscow and his interest in its antiquities and picturesque everyday life suggest that he had lived in the city at some time and visited it repeatedly on later occasions. The archive contains panoramas from the Belltower of Ivan the Great, views of the Kremlin and the river Moskva, and photos of many other sights. Detailed architectural scenes alternate with candid depictions of everyday city life.
Some of the images depict Crimean monuments and present rare evidence of the everyday life of Crimean Tatars. The extremely interesting series of lantern slides with views of Turkestan Province that had been annexed shortly before includes images of the inhabitants and antiquities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Another group of images presents magnificent views of the Caucasus Mountains, Tiflis and Mtskheta as well as portraits of local inhabitants. Other slides show the charm of the Russian village and give a first-hand account of a rural wedding.
As a career officer, C.E. Berggren was particular interested in soldiers and their way of life. Images of soldiers marching through snowy terrain and waiting on railway stations during troop deployment transmit the spirit of the period between the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. In Moscow life, the photographer took a particular interest in military parades and manoeuvres on Theatre and Voskresenskaya Squares, cavalry squadrons, infantry grenadier regiments, artillery batteries, and imposing palace grenadier guards. A small series of images depicts the life of the Sumsky Cavalry Regiment stationed in Moscow.
With the passion of a discoverer and the meticulousness of an officer, Berggren captured the cultural, social and political codes of the time marked by a decisive optimism reigning in the Empire and the gradually emerging dynamism of the new century. The colours added by the photographer to his lantern slides brought these purely documentary images into the field of art, immortalizing the subjects of his camera. The chorus of unexpected voices, the host of routine sounds, the multitude of startling camera angles, the heterogeneity of the backgrounds, the transparency of colours, the harshness of the bitter cold, the density of snow, the texture of fabric, the roughness of a soldier’s boot, the sound of hooves on the pavement of Red Square: these and other phenomena are meticulously studied, recreated, reinterpreted and recodified by the photographer to bring them across to the viewer.
World War I, Revolution, the fall of the Russian Empire, Civil War, famine and industrialization still lay ahead, and so Berggren’s camera captured only familiar sights, everyday scenes, architecture, military parades, and merchant caravans. The photographer depicted ordinary events from unexpected angles, analysing and colouring them long before the invention of colour photography. Far from constituting a single whole, the moments of time captured in the lantern slides represent fragments of another world, other social strata, and a different epoch.
Carl Elof Berggren expressed the spirit of his time with the skill and inspiration of an artist. He recreated the atmosphere of the final years of the Russian Empire, leaving behind a unique historical chronicle of people, places and events.
On the occasion of this exhibition, Dialog Gallery and the publishing house Kuchkovo Pole have prepared thebook Colour Fragments of an Empire: Slides of Carl Elof Berggren, 1900 – Early 1910s with the support of the Moscow City Department of Mass Media and Advertising. It presents the entire collection of lantern slides, studies the technologies used to make them, and tells about C.E. Berggren’s remarkable biography.
Mikhail Prozorov, curator and director of Dialog Gallery: ‘I acquired these lantern slides in Sweden over 10 years ago. This collection stunned me, although it differed from the artworks I usually collect: the slides seemed to be small fragments of space and time whose borders were a lot wider than the scenesdepicted on them. I was fascinated by their rare technology, completeness and, of course, colour or, more precisely, the colour of the scenes. This set of images seemed to tell a coherent story about a time of which we know many facts yet few details.
‘We took a lot of time to study the collection in detail before we decided to turn it into an exhibition and a book. Yet the more I looked at the events of our history through the coloured glass of C.E. Berggren’s slides, the more I wanted to present them to the public at large to allow it to participate in these events’.
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