Rodchenko's revolution: a socialist with true vision

He thrived under Lenin, was condemned by Stalin and championed by a Scottish rock band. Now, thanks to Roman Abramovich, his art is coming to Britain

Arifa Akbar
Wednesday 02 January 2008 01:00 GMT

Few artists embraced Bolshevism's clarion call "the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes" quite like Alexander Rodchenko.

Painter, photographer, filmmaker, set designer, teacher, metalworker, he revelled in the new freedoms thrown up by the Russian Revolution and was fiercely committed to liberating art for the masses.

Whether it was his blueprint for the ideal working man's club showcased at the Paris Exhibition of 1925, his illustrated covers for engineering manuals or his pioneering film poster for Sergei Eisenstein's classic Battleship Potemkin, Rodchenko's experimentation embodied the spirit of the early Soviet era.

But just as he thrived in the intellectual ferment of the Lenin years, like so many other artists-cum-revolutionaries of the period he was to fall foul of Stalin's increasingly paranoid and brutal regime.

Today his influence lives on, not only inspiring modern-day photographers like Martin Parr, but his designs are perhaps best known for the art school chic they afford to the covers of records by the Scottish indie band Franz Ferdinand.

Now, next month, lovers of modernism and students of constructivism alike will be offered the chance to evaluate his legacy in much more detail at the first full exhibition of the artist's work ever seen in Britain.

About 120 spectacular prints and photomontages will be on show at the Hayward Gallery alongside examples of his poster and magazine design work.

The exhibition, Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography, is backed by Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and owner of Chelsea FC.

Opening on 7 February, it offers a refreshing Anglo-Russian diversion after recently bumpy artistic relations which imperilled a blockbuster exhibition of works from the Hermitage at the Royal Academy.

The Hayward exhibition, part of its 40th birthday celebrations, will chart the development of the photographer's work over two decades from the early 1920s, a period during which he revolutionised the medium by taking shots from obscure camera angles or creating severe foreshortenings of perspective with dramatic close-ups of his "ordinary" subjects.

However, the idealism which effortlessly chimed with Lenin's view of art as a force of social change meant Rodchenko was an uneasy bedfellow of Socialist Realism an era which preferred its art to be straightforward, didactic and unchallenging. The final blow to his official reputation came with the disbanding of constructivism, a movement in which Rodchenko was at the vanguard. The end came on the personal order of Stalin who deemed constructivism to be "dangerously subversive".

By the time he died in 1956, despite having founded 22 provincial museums along with Vladimir Tatlin and acquiring major avant-garde collections for many of them, he had been largely written out of Soviet history by the Kremlin.

But his reputation has grown in recent years as a visionary forerunner of the modern age.

One of the highlights of the forthcoming exhibition is an advertising poster for the publishing house Gosizdat, created in 1924 and featuring a portrait of the actress Lilya Brik shouting out the word "books". To modern eyes, the picture is perhaps more familiar as the album cover of Franz Ferdinand's You Could Have It So Much Better.

Brik was something of a muse to the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century, most notably the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky a long time associate of Rodchenko with whom she conducted a high-profile and adulterous love affair.

The couple were the toast of Moscow's artistic circles and Mayakovsky dedicated many of his poems to her, most famously "The Backbone Flute" in 1916.

He killed himself soon after they finally broke up in 1930, the same year that she married the Soviet general Vitali Primakov, who was executed in 1937 following Trotskyist show trials.

Brik herself was said to have appeared on a list of Traitors of the Motherland and earmarked for death but was removed after Stalin's personal intervention. She committed suicide in 1978 following a life during which she had known artists including Eisenstein, Boris Pasternak and Picasso.

Rodchenko was at the height of his career when Brik modelled for him. Though he was classically trained as an artist, by the time of their collaboration Rodchenko had already taken the decision to shun painting and sculpture for photography, which he regarded as the perfect popular medium.

He tirelessly promoted photography as an art form and his influence quickly spread to the West. Today he is rated alongside Man Ray and Eugene Atget as one of the founding fathers of photography.

Ralph Rugoff, the Hayward's director, said that in spite of starting out as a leading artistic figure of the Soviet state, often commissioned to design propaganda posters, Rodchenko became so stylistically innovative that conservative Soviet artists came to distrust him, partly because he did not make his subject look "heroic" enough.

"He offered arresting pictures rather than heroic images that we associate with socialist regimes. As a result, he was chucked out of the Soviet artists group because they thought he was too experimental in his later career," Mr Rugoff added.

That said, Rodchenko was not averse to glorifying the achievements of the USSR while turning an apparent blind eye to the often terrible human cost.

His White Sea Canal, taken after he was relieved of official state duties in 1933, showcases the construction of the waterway as a triumph of Soviet engineering not the 140-mile long gulag which cost the lives of 200,000 political prisoners that it actually was.

Yet perhaps he will be best remembered for applying the principles of constructivism to photography an ideology which sought to harness the power of art to create socialism.

To this purpose his oblique angles and bird's eye points of view to make buildings, people and machines look like abstract compositions can be seen as offering both a challenging aesthetic and a political manifesto.

Despite these intentions, photographs such as Pioneer Girl, 1930, which was taken as a tight close-up of the girl's unsmiling face, or Girl with a Leica, shot from a diagonal viewpoint, ended up confusing the establishment of the day because his subjects were not visibly shining, happy examples of the "utopian" Soviet state but studies of genuine human emotion.

Justifying his technique, Rodchenko wrote: "One has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same key-hole again and again."

As well as creating portraits, he took pictures of modern architecture, industry and pictures of mass demonstrations to present a slice of Soviet life, and explored life on the streets of Moscow, sports parades and the Soviet obsession with healthy body culture and the spectacle of the circus. He also designed magazines, book covers and film posters, often created in collaboration with Mayakovsky.

The Rodchenko exhibition, which is part of the festival, Russia ACT, closes on 27 April 2008

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