After the Revolution
Aleksandr Rodchenko's campaign against mediocrity, timidity, and stasis.
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
June 25-Oct. 6, 1998
Click on any image to see an enlargement.
The career of the protean all-media artist Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) can be seen as a textbook example of the seduction and betrayal of the Russian Revolution. No, he wasn't sent to a gulag, and he wasn't shot. Rather, he lived on to see his ideals thoroughly rubbished and himself marginalized to the point of nonexistence. But his life and art appear inseparable from the trajectory of the Communist experiment. To view the large, multifaceted exhibit of his work at MoMA is at once exhilarating and poignant--exhilarating because of the nearly 20 years of unabating discovery, astounding energy, and constant renewal at its heart; poignant because the main inspiration for the work was a ladderlike series of delusions that inevitably toppled Rodchenko into the void.
Rodchenko was the epitome of Constructivism, which, of all the "isms" of early 20th century art, was the most concerned with practical matters of the workaday world. Not all Russian avant-gardists were Constructivists, and not all Constructivists were Russian or necessarily Communist. From our remove, there appear to be many similarities among Rodchenko's preoccupations and those of artists who stood on the other side of some ideological gulf. Kasimir Malevich, for example, was also concerned with geometry and with purifying art of baggage such as color, but his Suprematism had its origin in an ascetic spirituality. Many of the artists associated with Bauhaus were, like Rodchenko, out to remake the world beginning with the appearance of material objects, but unlike him they did not feel the burden of responsibility toward a society in progress.
R odchenko and his friends in the various groupings of the left wing of Soviet art in the 1920s saw themselves as embattled representatives of the true spirit of the Revolution, in the face of various currents of reaction, mediocrity, timidity, and stasis. Vladimir Mayakovsky was out to reinvent poetry, Vsevelod Meyerhold theater, Vladimir Tatlin the monument, Dziga Vertov cinema, Viktor Shklovsky and Sergei Tretiakov prose literature, while Rodchenko's domain comprised advertising, illustration, graphic design, stage design, photography, and a few other things besides. Theirs was a revolution of the imagination, and many of their works continue to present the vigor of that spirit even after three-quarters of a century of pastiches and secondhand derivations, but at the same time they present an unhappy example of wishful thinking. These artists believed that if they built their respective corners of the new world, the rest would fill itself in and the people would flock to inhabit it. Instead, few of them had much of a popular base, all their careers were squelched by Stalin, and most of them were killed.
All of them were radical Modernists well before 1917, and Rodchenko was no exception. The path of his early years is graphically shown on the walls of MoMA as a process of relentless stripping down, jettisoning first figuration, then ambiguity, then volume, and finally color. After his ritual immolation of the last--in 1921, at a show where he exhibited panels of pure red, yellow, and blue as a farewell gesture--he was finally ready to begin reconstruction from the bottom, initially by way of collage. The family resemblance among his collages and those being made concurrently by artists in Germany, France, and even the United States provides a bracing example of what is meant by a Zeitgeist--in a time of shaky and sluggish telecommunications, several dozen widely separated artists all hit at once on the idea of chopping up whatever printed ephemera lay at hand and reassembling the fragments into dynamic compositions that reassigned their meaning. It was a scavenger's revolution that held large promise for a time: finding potential in the most random litter, making a new world out of the debris of the old.
S oon Rodchenko had renounced any art divorced from practical application and was driving down every useful avenue, designing clothing (the factory uniform by way of Buck Rogers), printed fabrics, newspaper kiosks, logotypes, magazine covers and book jackets, and printed advertisements of all sorts. When Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy in 1921--which permitted a limited amount of capitalist competition in order to restore some of the country's cash flow--Rodchenko and Mayakovsky became the advertising agency for many of the state's manufacturing and retail operations, which, in a sense, let them have their cake and eat it, too. Rodchenko's designs--in red and black, crisply diagonal, filled with visual hooks and slams--are still being aped today, and some of them manage to look more modern than anything around now (Mayakovsky's apparently catchy rhymed slogans, unfortunately, do not translate well).
Mayakovsky's scowling, angular, shaven-headed poetic boxer's mug was a dramatic advertising image unto itself, and Rodchenko's six portraits of him made him an icon (to be recycled endlessly in Soviet propaganda after Mayakovsky's dubious 1930 suicide, an act which even if self-willed was certainly nudged along by the state). The portraits also launched Rodchenko's photographic career, which, with typical flair, fell effortlessly into the main currents of European Modernism. Despite strong competition from abroad, he virtually came to own the rakish angle on multistory architecture, and he shared with the German Umbo title to the perpendicular view of the street from above. The show includes some lesser known works as well, such as his serial shots of Moscow street peddlers, which with their static figures and shifting traffic backdrops are like little movies composed of stills.
His photography was the first thing that got him in trouble, too, as his wildly angled close-ups of the faces of the Young Pioneers were denounced as "grotesque" by members of conservative art factions. Rodchenko, who for a couple of years after the Revolution continued to ally himself with the soon-to-be-banned anarchists, now felt the shifting winds and bent himself to various acts of public self-criticism, but even so he found himself unable to obtain permits for street photography. He diligently applied himself to the kind of work allotted in the Stalinist era, documenting official marches and construction projects in the hinterlands. His private pictures from the time include some classics, but they are classics of despair. In his last 20 years, he was effectively dead.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts.