In 1921 the Russian Constructivist painter Alexander Rodchenko produced a suite of paintings in single, tonally neutral colours that were exhibited in a Moscow gallery. That revolutionary gesture, as he explained later, was tantamount to a declaration that painting was dead. The future lay with the newer arts of graphic design, cinema and photography. Painting reeked of nothing but stale antiquity.
This large and fascinating exhibition of black-and-white vintage prints in London, many acquired from the families of the photographers, and therefore unseen in public before, explores that aspirational afterlife of Rodchenko and other like-minded Soviet photographers. It shows us rallies, spanking new examples of workers' houses, the re-shaping of Moscow, and great dams under construction in far-flung Asiatic republics – look out, in particular, for a remarkable series of photographs from 1929 by Max Alpert of the building of the Great Fergana Canal in Uzbekistan by hundreds and hundreds of toiling men. The architectural lines of these new buildings are severe and uncompromising, like Constructivist art itself. Or see how skilfully Georgii Zelma has constructed his shot of bristling bayonets rising in front of radio masts. The atmosphere in the streets is feverish, and for the most part the general view of this brave new world of proletarian man seems to tow the party line – most faces are smiling, no matter how heavy the mattock across the shoulder.
Rodchenko's pithy, wake-up-call slogans spit at us from the beams, walls and staircases. Rodchenko did not die until 1956. He may have been a revolutionary, yet he was evidently a cunning one, who must have learnt to list with the wind in order to survive purges and disapproval.
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