“Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography”, at the Hayward Gallery, serendipitously begins just where the
Rodchenko met Malevich and Tatlin shortly after moving to
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
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 In painting, he declared, “everything is finished … We should no longer represent, only process and construct.”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
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
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
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
Rodchenko spent much of his childhood in a theatre in
Even when Rodchenko documented one of the most brutal episodes of Stalin’s first Five-Year-Plan, the construction by forced labour of the
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