Alexander Rodchenko, Lili Brik. Portrait for the poster “Knigi”. 1924 Artist printPrivate collection. © DACS 2008. © Rodchenko archives
Review: Alexander Rodchenko - Revolution in Photography at the Hayward Gallery, London until April 27 2008
Even if you haven’t heard of Alexander Rodchenko, the chances are you have seen his work. The great Russian artist and photographer wrote the book on early Soviet avant-garde photomontage and influenced generations of photographers, whilst fans of Scottish indie band Franz Ferdinand will be familiar with his most famous propaganda poster.
The Hayward’s retrospective of Rodchenko’s first two decades as the Soviet regime’s favourite photomontage artist turned photographer features the original design for the poster, Books, copied by the Scottish popsters for the cover of their first album, together with stunning works ranging from giant humanist portraits and shots of Soviet life to heavily design-inspired pieces of abstract composition.
Rodchenko photographs have become famous for their extreme foreshortenings, diagonal shots and all manner of vertiginous angles – known to this day as ‘Rodchenko angles’. But the arc of Rodchenko’s career, like all Russian artists of the time, was guided by the times he lived in: revolution, counter-revolution, two world wars, several purges, repression and a cold war.
Rodchenko's first photographs were portraits of his circle – avant garde poets, writers, critics and other literary types. Photo: Richard Moss
He came to prominence in early revolutionary Russia as an accomplished painter, sculptor, set designer and graphic designer, but decided to abandon the fine arts for photography in the early 1920s.
For a time he was the perfect example of the committed, early Soviet era communist who believed passionately in the relevance of art to society. He embraced photography as the perfect vehicle for his staunch constructivist principles, which dictated that art should be used as an instrument for social purposes.
A slew of signature photomontages for books, magazines and posters – unequivocally designed to be dynamic constructions of the mind – open the exhibition. Looking at them now it is perhaps difficult to imagine these Dada and Soviet cinema-influenced collisions of design and photography as state-sponsored work, but most of them were indeed the result of commissions to create advertisements, like the Brik poster, for state-run organisations.
Rodchenko was working as a cog in the Soviet machine. Believing he could change society through art, he was committed to the nationalisation of earth and industry, and even the nationalisation of photography itself.
Alexander Rodchenko, Girl with a Leica. 1934 Artist print. Private collection. © DACS 2008. © Rodchenko archives
At this stage Rodchenko, together with his wife and inspiration, Varvara Stepanova, was primarily a photomontage artist – all of his early photographs throughout the 1920s were done specifically for photomontage and the Hayward seems to have collected many of the best examples.
Lili Brik, the model for his poster for the Board for the Leningrad branch of the State publishing house crops up again in Rodchenko’s series of illustrations for poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s book, About That, a poetic account of his two-month separation from Lili. Brik was his lover and muse (and married to his friend).
These original pasted together designs may now seem crude, but this work marks a fundamentally new stage in the history of photomontage, with its carefully choreographed collision of original photographs and cut-outs from American and European magazines.
Another wall features a dizzying example of 29 montages – many of them front covers of the famous leftist artist magazine LEF (later called Novi LEF), which was edited by Rodchenko’s colleague Osip Brik, the literary critic and husband of the vivacious and peripatetic Lili.
Here you can see how he built his montages for everything from LEF to a magazine photo essay about a light bulb factory for the magazine Daiosh.
A wall of 29 photomontage designs – many of them front covers of the famous leftist artist magazine LEF (later called Novi LEF). Photo Richard Moss
Many of the photographs encountered later in the exhibition are here, including the tender close-up portrait of his mother reading a newspaper, which was made into the cover of Soviet Photo No 10 by his collaborator and wife Stepanova; or the determined face of a young pioneer at a Moscow rally, utilised for the propaganda poster ‘Be prepared Be Alert’.
Not until his 1930s magazine designs for the Red Army do we see an emergence of anything resembling symmetry or order – marking the end of his constructivist experiments and the beginning of Socialist realism.
The first room also introduces Rodchenko’s photographs – with a portrait of Pushkin’s statue, photographed from behind at an oblique angle and the Moscow Monument of Freedom – destroyed a couple of months later by the Stalinist regime.
Both photographs act as handy markers of the Rodchenko style – to photograph objects from unexpected angles and perspectives. They also introduce the way he uses space – here the sky is an important element and Rodchenko seems to be flooding his photographs with cosmic energy.
It’s an energy that transfers to the dramatic portraits – even though they are dominated by tight close-ups (the fabled dramatic foreshortenings), and they make for an impactful introduction to an expansive room full of purely photographic work.
His first photographs were portraits of his circle – a procession of avant garde poets, writers, critics and other literary types as well as theatre and film directors. They are works of great urgency and power; full-face portraits offering a fascinating snapshot of Russian bohemia.
Alexander Rodchenko, Mosselprom Building, 1926 Artist print. Private Collection. © DACS 2008 © Rodchenko archives
A grim faced Mayakovsky (half length portrait in overcoat) is shown in 1924 whilst a caricature of the writer and critic Osip Brik, editor of LEF is depicted with a variant of his magazine’s cover design placed in the left lens of his glasses.
The ubiquitous Lili Brik appears again wearing a hat whilst Varvara Stepanova (the famous portrait) appears smiling with a cigarette in her mouth.
There are some fine examples of his reportage too. Briansk railway station, shots from his balcony, shots of Soviet Square with crowds and trams, people huddled against the cold. Tilted shots from above causing people to cast oblique shadows across the tarmac. At night he catches a statue of Lenin illuminated in a mystical glow.
A series of studies of machinery from the Amo Automobile Factory in 1929 sees studies of fenders, clutches, pinions and camshafts turned into fascinating abstract compositions whilst architectural studies benefit from the principles of Constructivism – as applied to photography.
In the late 1920s he applied his technique of foreshortening to photograph young Russian pioneers at a Moscow rally and the results are now acknowledged as classics of Russian photography. Strong determined faces of A Pioneer Girl, A Pioneer with Trumpet, A Pioneer Leader, are all captured in the raw.
However such was the climate of fear, intrigue and renunciation in Stalinist Russia that the photographs led to accusations in a Russian magazine of favouring form over substance, and pandering to western values – of formalism.
Alexander Rodchenko, Stairs. 1930 Artist print. Private collection. © DACS 2008© Rodchenko archives
The accusation of formalism was something that was to plague Rodchenko and many of his former circle for the rest of his career. He was expelled in 1931 from the October circle of artists, whilst his former Constructivist partner Osip Brik, was also persecuted. His friend, the poet Valadimir Mayakovsky, committed suicide in 1930.
Yet he continued to work, albeit on carefully controlled and restricted topics.
The later photographs of the official parades and May Day celebrations are impressive – as are the subjects with their stereotypically stern faces and taut muscles. The great master continues to make use of the unusual angles and dramatic shadows that were his signature, but there is a sense of his powers and his vision being constrained by the state and the restraining influence of socialist realism.
That said there are still moments of subversive brilliance, such as Girl with a Leica from 1934 in which Rodchenko casts a grid pattern of shadows across the subject like the bars of a prison, whilst Stairs, photographed in 1930, recalls the famous steps scene from Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Perhaps Rodchenko wished to remind those that criticised him of one of the key moments in Russian revolutionary history?
Rodchenko however, knew full well that he possessed a rare talent, one that would live on beyond his demise. One can’t help but imagine the old Soviet artist being pleased with this fine retrospective of his most productive years, and he would have loved the brutalist architecture of the South Bank Centre – a perfect foil for his foreshortenings and abstract angles.
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