Drawing a blank: Russian constructivist makes late Tate debut

With this triptych, Alexander Rodchenko hailed 'the end of painting' – in 1921. Critics and public alike were outraged, but a new exhibition at Tate Modern highlights their influence on later generations

A series of "blank" canvases created by a group of Russian artists who proclaimed the "death of painting" and caused critical outrage when they were first unveiled in Moscow are to be hailed as great works of art in a new exhibition at Tate Modern.

The original exhibition, which was staged in September 1921 as a farewell by five Russian avant-garde artists to the bourgeois practice of painting, included a triptych of monochrome canvases by Alexander Rodchenko as well as a plywood work barely covered by paint by his comrade, Liubov Popova, to highlight the pointlessness of paintings.

It was directly after this show, which was called 5x5=25, that Popova and Rodchenko turned away from painting. Rodchenko turned to photographing the Soviet regime and designing posters, including an iconic image for the film Battleship Potemkin and a poster which has since been reproduced as an album cover by the band Franz Ferdinand.

The 1921 exhibition will be re-created at Tate Modern, with the monochrome canvases travelling to Britain for the first time in their history. Rodchenko's triptych, Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour and Pure Blue Colour, marked a crucial moment in the history of Russian art. The colours of the three works were completely neutral and not intended to represent anything whatsoever. "I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it's all over," he explained years later.

Having marked the death of painting, he and Popova – as well as the other three contributors to the show, Alexandra Exter, Rodchenko's wife, Varvara Stepanova, and Alexander Vesnin – embarked on a search for new forms of art that would be "useful" to everyday life such as graphic design, advertising and photography.

The renunciation of "high" art of this kind was a direct response to the Soviet revolution of 1917 and the socialist ideal of usefulness. When the show was unveiled in Moscow it caused critical outrage, with audiences laughing and ridiculing the works.

Margarita Tupitsyn, the curator of the Tate Modern show, said the 1921 exhibition led to an explosive response by the critics. "The artists were denying something by showing it. They showed the end of the painting. They weren't negating painting but saying their 'goodbye' to it, as if to say 'what we've done is good but this is a different era now'. Popova, for example, showed canvases which had so little involvement, they were almost bare. She was showing the thinness of painting. The response it got was a negative one. People were just laughing, or being very mocking and critical," she said. Modern critics have suggested that this flight from painting influenced the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt and that abstract expressionism may never have happened without these canvases.

Ms Tupitsyn added that the show was the result of a debate that had raged since the Russian revolution. "The debate was about creating things that had some purpose in society. By denying painting, it was their attempt to escape the idea of creating art as commodity," she said.

The Tate Modern's reconstruction of the 5x5=25 show – Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism – opens on 12 February.

*Independent readers are offered two tickets for the price of one (save £9.80) to Rodchenko and Popova. Call our special offers phone number 020 7887 8998 before 28 February, quoting "Independent Rodchenko and Popova Offer". £1.50 transaction fee per booking. Available over the phone only. Available on full price tickets only. Tickets must be booked before 18.00 on 28 February.

But is it art?

Yes: David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw

*After the last 15 years of unchallenging mediocrity in contemporary art, I'd willingly wade five miles through sludge to see the work of genuine anti-establishment pioneers like Rodchenko and Popova, for they represent the last truly vital avant garde. They were young believers in a new future and their ambition charged everything they touched, whether painting, sculpture or photograph. Their marshalled forms, even these serial monochromes, were a shocking and completely original assault upon conventions it was their responsibility to turn upside down. What a charming – though admittedly naive – idea it is for artists to think that they can create, just like that, the visual backdrop of a revolutionary social order. Unfortunately, Rodchenko's and Popova's heroic proletariat didn't get it. But then proles never do, do they? Instead of monochromes portentous with confrontation and symbolism they ended up with what they deserved – millions of comic book graphics of clockwork Stakhanovs and breeding wenches in dungarees.

No: Michael Glover, art critic

*In 1921, Rodchenko and others proclaimed the death of painting by covering canvases in single, tonally neutral colours. Henceforth, the world would belong to – and be represented by – the younger and more vibrantly engaged arts of photography and graphic design. When you look at these paintings today, you realise that in spite of the fact that the statement itself was an act of political expediency, Rodchenko was right. Painting of this kind is a sort of dead-endism. Of course, they have been enormously influential on generations of abstract painters. More's the pity. Their very chromatic aridity leads us nowhere. We think nothing about them. We feel nothing about them. We have nothing truthful to say about them because there is nothing to be said except perhaps for unconvincing verbal gesturings in the direction of such vapid terms as painterliness, spirituality, truth to material. Robbed of anything which gives us even the remotest link to the world, they are crude, sad, onanistic acts of pure narcissism.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?