“We don’t see what we’re looking at,” Rodchenko wrote in 1928. “We don’t see marvellous perspectives – foreshortening and the positioning of objects. We, who have been taught to see the inculcated, must discover the world of the visible. We must revolutionise our visual thinking.”
While Rodchenko led a revolution in the art of photography, he also used photography to promote social revolution in Bolshevik Russia. And therein lies his trouble—he weathered the contradictions and conflicts of being an independent, visionary artist who, in the end, was forced to stick to the party line or suffer.
In the early twenties, as a leader of the Russian Avant-garde and Constructivist movements, Rodchenko created art that celebrated the ideals of the Russian Revolution—art that was, in Rodchenko’s words: “the inventing or perfecting of something, rather than a reflection or portrayal.” When the original visions of a better society collapsed into a nightmare under Stalin, Rodchenko’s work was criticized as “bourgeois” and his career was sabotaged.
It is impossible to entirely separate Rodchenko’s revolutionary photography from the revolutionary times in which he worked—the two fed each other. Considered the most famous of Russian photographers of the first half of the twentieth century, Rodchenko, broke the mold of what was thought possible in photography. Already famous as a painter and sculptor, he bid farewell to these mediums in 1924 in order to forge a new visual vocabulary through photography.
With his motto—“Our Duty is to Experiment!” he pioneered a language of bold and challenging camera angles; he was one of the first to widely use dramatic foreshortening and diagonal composition as well as unusual perspectives from above, beneath and behind the subject. “The most interesting visual angles today are from above down and from below up, and we should work at them,” he wrote, in 1928. “Who invented them—I don’t know. I would like to affirm these vantage points, expand them and get people used to them.”
From provincial Kazan, where he had attended art school from 1910 to 1914, Rodchenko moved to Moscow in 1915. He soon left his mark in the city’s artistic circle by showing his series of compass and ruler drawings at a small exhibition organised by the sculptor Vladimir Tatlin in 1916.
After the revolution, be became a leader of the incipient movement of Constructivism, a theory and practice that was derived largely from a series of debates amongst artists at the newly formed INKhUK (Institute of Artistic Culture) in Moscow, from 1920 to 1922. A founding member of The First Working Group of Constructivists, Rodchenko would help define Constructivism as the combination of faktura: the particular material properties of an object, and tektonika, its spatial presence. He developed a practice of exploring a single formal artistic premise through a series of permutations—it was a practice that characterised his work throughout his career. For example, as a painter, he would single out separate qualities of painting, such as the texture or density of colour, and analyse them through a successive series of works.
Motivated by the values of the new Communist society, Rodchenko wanted art to be for everyone—the proletariat and the farmer as well as the educated and urbane. A talented designer as well as photographer, he dedicated himself to the creation of propaganda posters, book design and advertisements that supported state-owned enterprises. Good art and design should be everywhere, not just in galleries and museums.
His design was simple, modern, streamlined. He wrote, “Through design one needs to unveil not the decorative and situational aspect of the thing, but its practical use, its utilitarian value, its unexpected clarity, the beauty of construction, its simplified (rational) production and practicality.” Ironically, the strong designs of his Communist advertisement—geometrical and typified by his bold blockish font—were soon emulated in capitalist advertising elsewhere. Communist propaganda inspired capitalist advertisements abroad.
As Stalin tightened his fist around Communist Russia, most of the truly innovative artists lost their freedom to create. In 1932, the communist party banned all artistic groups and created a single artists union under Party control. Two years later, the Party established Socialist Realism as the only officially sanctioned art style. Rodchenko lost his job at one of the disbanded art institutes and later was disallowed from photographing without a permit. He was only allowed to take documentary propaganda photos and a few personal ones of his wife, Varvara Stepanova and their daughter, Varvara Rodchenko.
As Rodchenko wrote in 1935, “My creative path has not been easy, but it is clear to me who I was and what I want. I am certain that in the future I will make genuine Soviet works.” The revolution that inspired Rodchenko to pioneer a limitless new world for photography in the twentieth century would eventually become the controlling machine that would take away his freedom.
But, all was not lost. Like the leading characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in the end, when the politics proved disillusioning, he delved deeper into his happy domestic life. As Olga Sviblova, the director of the Moscow House of Photography Museum writes, “Alexander Rodchenko was nevertheless a very fortunate man. He had a family: his friend and comrade-in-arms Varvara Stepanova, his daughter Varvara Rodchenko, her husband Nikolay Lavrentiev, his grandson Alexander Lavrentiev and his family, a small, but very close-knit clan charged with creative energy. If it had not been for this family, Russia’s first photographic museum, the Moscow House of Photography, might never have appeared. In Rodchenko’s house, together with the Rodchenko family, we have discovered and studied the history of Russian photography, which would be unthinkable without Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko.”
TEXT BY CLAYTON MAXWELL
© picture: Alexander Rodchenko’s Archive
Caricature Showing Osip Brik, variant of a cover for LEF Magazine, 1924, Gelatin-silver print, 24,2 x 17,9 cm
Private collection © Rodchenko’s Archive / 2011, ProLitteris, Zurich
Moscow House of Photography
Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow
Government of Moscow