ART MARKET / A Pioneering Image-Maker: Alexander Rodchenko was a hero of the Russian revolution but soon fell from grace. Now his star has risen so high that 30 prints could fetch a total of pounds 200,000 at auction

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The Independent Culture
IN THE 1960s, photographs by Alexander Rodchenko had no commercial value. Avant-garde Russian artists of the revolutionary era had been treated as an unfortunate aberration by the Soviet authorities since the 1930s; their work was not exhibited. And there was, as yet, no structured market for photographs in the West - no auctions, no dealers.

A young European photographer obtained a group of 30 prints from Rodchenko's daughter in about 1960, some as gifts and some in exchange for favours. Now they are to be auctioned by Christie's. The intervening years have sent the value of these photographs, dating from the 1920s and 1930s, into orbit: at the sale on 29 October they are expected to fetch about pounds 200,000, with the cheapest valued at pounds 1,000- pounds 2,000, the most expensive at pounds 15,000- pounds 20,000. Christie's are carefully protecting the anonymity of the seller and his Russian wife.

The cache of prints is movingly evocative of an era of titanic struggle - both in politics and the arts. Rodchenko created images that glorified the revolution, especially in his photographs of sport and big parades. The new, healthy, clean-living revolutionary youths are captured exercising in serried ranks in Red Square and elsewhere; the pictures become art through the brilliant tricks of perspective that Rodchenko invents. The resulting images are excellent illustrations of his famous statement: 'I prefer to see usual things unusually.'

There was a ferment of creative invention in Russia in the early years of this century. All the artists who pioneered geometric abstraction were there: Malevich, Tatlin, Rodchenko, Popova . . . Rodchenko himself arrived in Moscow in 1915 and contributed 10 works executed with ruler and compass to Tatlin's 'Shop' exhibition the following year. He painted a famous 'Black on Black' picture in 1918 and ended his painting career with three monochrome canvases in 1921.

His interest then turned to three-dimensional 'constructions', using planes to create form. He was deeply interested in design; as well as working on magazines and books, he dived into architecture by creating the interior of a 'workers' club', which was exhibited in the Soviet Pavilion of the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale. He took up photomontage in 1923 and photography itself in 1924.

In the years immediately following the revolution, Rodchenko was one of the country's leading art administrators and teachers. But he soon fell from grace. He was criticised for putting too much artistry into his photographs - it was called 'formalism' - and expelled from the important October group in 1931. He was briefly rehabilitated in 1935 and allowed to exhibit in the 'Masters of Soviet Photography' exhibition of that year, but for the rest of his life he struggled to find design work and only painted for pleasure. His achievements were little known in either Russia or the West when he died in 1956.

He became known in the West through Camilla Gray's book The Great Experiment; Russian Art 1863-1922 in 1962. Before then the significance of the Russian contribution to modernism had been largely overlooked. Her book had a cataclysmic effect on art history; textbooks have been rewritten and avant-garde Russian art has become a hot favourite with collectors - to such a degree that fakes are created in bulk.

The popularity of collecting photographs has developed almost in parallel. The pioneer collectors started to buy old photographic images for next to nothing in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s the first books on the history of photography began to roll off the presses and the first specialist dealers set up shop. Photographs came of age as collectable items in the 1980s, with high-profile auctions and soaring prices.

The recession has made the market more choosy. A lot of material has been left unsold at auctions, though the very best has risen in price. These Rodchenko photographs could well fall into that category.

There have been comparatively few Rodchenko images sold at auction, and most of them have been ordinary prints made for publication. These photographs appear to have been printed with exhibition in mind; most are signed on the back or on their paper mounts, and many have the artist's archive stamp on the back.

Rodchenko lived with, and eventually married, his fellow artist Varvara Stepanova. Their daughter, another Varvara, who became a book designer and married a photographer, still lives in the studio off Kirov Street which her father was given in 1922. He partitioned it to make a living area and a larger studio space incorporating a laboratory- cum-darkroom - where he presumably printed these images.

The family's artistic traditions continue. Varvara's son, Alexander Lavrentiev, is a designer and writer; he has written extensively about his grandfather's work. The family made a huge donation of paintings, drawings and photographs to the Pushkin Museum last year, but still possess all his photographic negatives.-

(Photographs omitted)