Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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“Alexander Rodchenko” at the Hayward Gallery

Date: 17-02-2008
Owning Institution: Hayward Gallery
Publication: Sunday Telegraph Reviews 2004-2013
Subject: 20th Century

“Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography”, at the Hayward Gallery, serendipitously begins just where the Royal Academy’s current blockbuster, “From Russia”, comes to an end. The final galleries of the Academy’s exhibition are given over to the geometric constructions of Vladimir Tatlin and the Suprematist abstractions of Kazimir Malevich – hopeful symbols of how the Russian Revolution had ushered mankind towards a realm of limitless possibility. The Hayward’s show tells the less than perfectly happy story of what happened next, seen through the lens of one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant and original photographers.

Rodchenko met Malevich and Tatlin shortly after moving to Moscow in 1916. Shortly afterwards he began his military service and by the time of his discharge, in 1917, Russia was in the throes of the October Revolution. Together with other members of the artistic avant-garde, Rodchenko supported the Bolsheviks. He made it his mission to find or invent forms of visual art that might be as iconoclastic and egalitarian as the ideology of Communism in its first bright dawn.

The young Rodchenko was a whirlwind of revolutionary activity. He joined the Visual Arts Department of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment. He became head of the purchasing committee of the Museum of Pictorial Culture. He taught at the new Higher State Art-Technical Studios. He was a founder of Constructivism, a movement which overturned the prevailing notion of the avant-garde artist as a social outsider, working in the solitude of studio or garret. “Work in the midst of everyone, for everyone, and with everyone,” he urged his students. “Down with monasteries, institutes, workshops, studios, offices and islands. Consciousness, EXPERIMENT, goals, CONSTRUCTION, technology and mathematics – those are the BROTHERS of contemporary art.” Such was the churning restlessness of his thought that he could not even bear to follow the conventions of typography.

In 1921, he pronounced traditional painting dead and discredited. It was in that year that he exhibited a triptych of monochrome panels in red, yellow and blue, to which he gave the collective title The Last Painting. In painting, he declared, “everything is finished … We should no longer represent, only process and construct.” Acting on his own convictions, Rodchenko soon abandoned fine art altogether. He designed advertisments for state grocery shops and department stores, for which his friend, the poet Mayakovsky, wrote the blurb. With characteristic self-confidence, Rodchenko proclaimed that “We have completely conquered Moscow and … transformed the old Tsarist, bourgeois, Western style of advertising poster into a new Soviet one.”

He collaborated with Mayakovsky in other ways too, illustrating the poet’s autobiographical verse with psycho-sexually charged photomontages in which cut-out images of Mayakovsky overlap with those of his lover and muse, Lily Brik. In Rodchenko’s illustrations to Pro Eto (“About This”), of 1923, the pair inhabit a collaged world where beds piled with cushions abut telecoped cityscapes, while phallic telephones loom large. These are among the earliest images in the Hayward’s exhibition, accompanied by a display of posters and ads and a series of photomontage spreads that appeared in the magazine USSR Under Construction, mostly in the first half of the 1920s.

The techniques of collage and montage used to form these images are inherently violent, involving acts of cutting and rearrangement that appealed to Rodchenko as the equivalents, in art, to the revolutionary destruction and reordering of Tsarist Russia. They are methods mirrored in his subject matter itself, frequently dominated by glorified images of violence. A bombed city explodes, its buildings forced upwards in a jumble of cropped and sliced photographs resembling tectonic plates rising jaggedly from the earth. Bodies fly upwards in all directions from a thick column of smoke. A face is bisected by a knife. Military parachutes bloom in the sky, flowers of revolution. Men grapple with levers, wheels and optical apparatus. Everywhere there is a sense of the world being heaved and hefted into a new shape, one that will demand a new way of seeing.

There is violence in even the most innocent of these images, a famous poster of 1925 advertising the Leningrad department of the State Publishing House. Confined within a circle, like part of the pattern of a flag, Lily Brik’s face appears again, calling out the message “Knigi” – books – to the workers of the Soviet world. Here she plays the market girl, hair tied up in a scarf, crying out her wares. The word leaves her mouth in the shape of an expanding triangular wedge, like a diagram of the blast from a gun. The idea that mass indoctrination in the tenets of Soviet ideology might lead to something other than the Enlightenment of the People seems never to have occurred to Roschenko. The terrible naivete of these images is part of what makes them so compelling.

It was only in 1924, a year earlier, that Rodchenko had actually acquired his first camera and taken his own pictures for the first time. Pure photography soon displaced photomontage as his preferred medium. He saw photography as aesthetic Communism, a tool for the redistribution not of wealth, but of art, a way of making pictures available to all.

His earliest pictures are among his most powerful. They include a number of portraits of the formidable Mayakovsky, a shaven-headed firebrand with smouldering, deepset eyes. Rodchenko preferred the series to the single shot, arguing that “since photographic documentation became available there can be no question of any single, immutable portrait … a man or woman is not a single summation, but many, sometimes totally contradictory, sums.” This may have been his way of saying – quite plausibly – that the photographer could go one better than the Cubist painter in catching the many-angled flux of human experience. But his portraits of Mayakovsky actually contradict his own thesis. Mayakovsky is terrifying, in Rodchenko’s pictures of him, precisely because he always seems the same – an intimidatory rock of revolutionary intent, unyielding and immutable.

The obverse of Rodchenko’s Mayakovsky series is the brilliant close-up photograph of his mother’s face that he took in 1924. He pictures her with a blend of wonder and affection, almost like a naturalist observing a miracle of nature. She holds one lens of her curling, copper-framed spectacles to her eyes, accidentally tracing with the coil of wires a pattern just like the bold abrasive patterns of Soviet typology. Yet she herself remains myopic, a wizened ancient gazing into a future from which by implication she is excluded.

Rodchenko’s camera of choice was the new lightweight Leica. It enabled him to take pictures without having to use a tripod and without having to frame the image while looking down into a viewfinder at stomach level (the Leica, he said, put paid for good to “tummy-button composition”). He used the freedom it gave him to frame unfamiliar, vertiginous views – long looks up, dizzying looks down. Having an innately emblematic frame of mind he found symbols of the brave new world of Soviet Russia in his own new ways of seeing. Gazing up at the rungs of a fire escape from the bottom of an apartment building in Moscow, he sees a new Jacob’s ladder, a Soviet stairway to heaven which anyone can climb. Peering down from a balcony at workers gathering for a demonstration (in favour of the state), he enjoys the spectacle of massed humanity conforming itself to a grid.

Rodchenko spent much of his childhood in a theatre in St Petersburg, where his father worked as a props man. In his autobiography, he would remember his childhood as a sad and lonely period of his life, much of it spent aimlessly drifting around the empty auditorium: “There’s nothing to play with and it’s no fun on your own … All I can do is invent.” Perhaps it was because he had spent so much time alone as a child that he was so powerfully drawn to the collectivist ideology of Soviet Russia. In his photographs he pictured the world itself as a kind of theatrical spectacle, albeit one where there are no stars, and all are equal. Many of his most striking pictures are images of an idealised crowd that stands for an ideal society: athletes going through their exercises in serried ranks; massed groups of soldiers marching with their rifles; circus acrobats forming their bodies into pyramids or spinning wheels of humanity. The individual is lost, blissfully, in the experience of the many.

Even when Rodchenko documented one of the most brutal episodes of Stalin’s first Five-Year-Plan, the construction by forced labour of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, he seems to have remained all but blind to the scale of human misery around him. He photographed the workers like bees in a hive, busily productive. The paradox of his career is that having created such a brilliant photographic language for Soviet propaganda, he found himself repudiated. His work was deemed too “formalist” by the arbiters of Soviet state taste, which turned out, in the end, to be no less “bourgeois” than that of the tsarist period.


Despite that, Rodchenko seems on the evidence of his photographs to have remained unwavering in his support of the Soviet ideal. The gaily dressed peasants march happily through their new sports stadium, the acrobats leap and cavort in
Red Square, the soldiers march in tight formation. Only his last pictures, taken at the start of the Second World War, hint at discontent or disquiet. They are photographs of circus performers, blurred and taken at a distance. The lion tamer in his cage looks vulnerable, surrounded by beasts that look as though they could turn on him at any moment. The trapeze artist leaps, but it seems by no means sure that his partner will catch him. Here, at the very end of his photographic career, Rodchenko seems to outgrow his own innocence – and realise that, contrary to all his hopes, this is not the best of all possible worlds.
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