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
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The Independent Culture

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.