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
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

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

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam