Alexander Rodchenko

When The Museum of Modern Art’s first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., met Aleksandr Rodchenko on his trip to Moscow in 1927—one of the first times an Anglophone art historian had visited the Soviet Union in the years since the Russian Revolution—he wrote, “Rodchenko showed us an appalling variety of things—Suprematist paintings (preceded by the earliest geometrical things I’ve seen, 1915, done with compass)—woodcuts, linoleum cuts, posters, book designs, photographs, kino sets, etc…. [He] showed much satisfaction at having delivered the death blow to painting.”1 Rodchenko had declared the death of painting in 1921, with three monochrome paintings—Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, and Pure Blue Color—exhibited in the exhibition 5×5=25 alongside works by fellow Russian artists Varvara Stepanova, Alexandra Exter, Lyubov Popova, and Aleksandr Vesnin. In these works, Rodchenko emphasized the paintings’ material qualities, applying the three primary colors in a way that drew attention to their substance as matter. “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue, yellow,” he declared. “I affirmed: it’s all over. Basic colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no more representation.”2

After he jettisoned painting, Rodchenko turned his attention to merging art with life. He became a founding member of the Constructivist Working Group in 1921, which defined art making as a form of professional expertise and labor like any other, and not as a spiritual calling. Using the materials and tools of an architect or engineer—a compass, ruler, and plywood—he produced a series of spatial constructions in 1921, which were hung suspended from the ceiling. With these circular structures, he abandoned the premises of traditional sculpture—mass, pedestal, and precious materials—in favor of open volumes made from everyday materials like wire and plywood. His spatial constructions were included alongside works by leading Constructivist artists Karel Ioganson, Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, and Konstantin Medunetskii in an exhibition organized by OBMOKhU (Obschestvo molodykh khudozhnikov [Society of Young Artists]) in Moscow in May 1921. Between 1920 and 1930, Rodchenko taught construction and metalwork at VKhUTEMAS (Vysshie khudozhestvenno-tekhnicheskie masterskie [Higher state artistic and technical studios]), the Russian equivalent of the German Bauhaus.

In the mid-1920s Rodchenko turned to other mediums, including graphic design, book illustrations, and, most notably, photography. On a trip to Paris in 1925 he bought a handheld camera, which allowed him to easily experiment with the composition of images. He framed the world from new points of view—from above, below, and at other unexpected, sharp angles—encouraging the viewer to see familiar things in new ways. His photographs and photomontages were published widely in such avant-garde periodicals as LEF and Novyi LEF, and in such state-run publications as Sovetskoe Foto and USSR in Construction. In the early 1930s he embraced photography as a tool for social commentary, critically depicting the disparity between the idealized and lived Soviet experience. The images he made contrasted with Socialist Realism, which was declared the official style of art in the Soviet Union in 1934. Preferring the saccharine depictions of positive, heroic, and idealized subjects unencumbered by the trials and tribulations of everyday life, Soviet critics found Rodchenko’s photography too formalist at times. Nevertheless, he continued to find support abroad, exhibiting in Film und Foto: Internationale Ausstellung des Deutschen Werkbunds at the St?dtische Ausstellungshallen in Stuttgart, Fotomontage at the Staatliche Kunstbibliothek in Berlin, Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) and Abstract Painting: Shapes of Things (1941) at MoMA, and Mezin?rodn? V?stava Fotografie at the Manes Exhibition Hall in Prague. Rodchenko died on December 3, 1956, in Moscow.

Life and career

Rodchenko was born in St. Petersburg to a working-class family who moved to Kazan after the death of his father, in 1909.[1] He became an artist without having had any exposure to the art world, drawing much inspiration from art magazines. In 1910, Rodchenko began studies under Nicolai Fechin and Georgii Medvedev at the Kazan Art School, where he met Varvara Stepanova, whom he later married.

After 1914, he continued his artistic training at the Stroganov Institute in Moscow, where he created his first abstract drawings, influenced by the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, in 1915. The following year, he participated in “The Store” exhibition organized by Vladimir Tatlin, who was another formative influence.

Rodchenko’s work was heavily influenced by Cubism and Futurism, as well as by Malevich’s Suprematist compositions, which featured geometric forms deployed against a white background. While Rodchenko was a student of Tatlin’s he was also his assistant, and the interest in figuration that characterized Rodchenko’s early work disappeared as he experimented with the elements of design. He utilized a compass and ruler in creating his paintings, with the goal of eliminating expressive brushwork.[2]

Rodchenko worked in Narkompros and he was one of the organizers of RABIS. RABIS was formed in 1919–1920.[3]

Rodchenko was appointed Director of the Museum Bureau and Purchasing Fund by the Bolshevik Government in 1920, responsible for the reorganization of art schools and museums. He became secretary of the Moscow Artists’ Union and set up the Fine Arts Division of the People’s Commissariat for Education, and helped found the Institute for Artistic Culture.[4]

He taught from 1920 to 1930 at the Higher Technical-Artistic Studios (VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN), a Bauhaus organization with a “checkered career”. It was disbanded in 1930.[4]

In 1921 he became a member of the Productivist group, with Stepanova and Aleksei Gan, which advocated the incorporation of art into everyday life. He gave up painting in order to concentrate on graphic design for posters, books, and films. He was deeply influenced by the ideas and practice of the filmmaker Dziga Vertov, with whom he worked intensively in 1922.

Impressed by the photomontage of the German Dadaists, Rodchenko began his own experiments in the medium, first employing found images in 1923, and from 1924 on, shooting his own photographs as well.[5] His first published photomontage illustrated Mayakovsky’s poem, “About This”, in 1923. In 1924, Rodchenko produced what is likely his most famous poster, an advertisement for the Lengiz Publishing House sometimes titled “Books”, which features a young woman with a cupped hand shouting “êíèãè ïî âñåì îòðàñëÿì çíàíèÿ” (Books in all branches of knowledge), printed in modernist typography.[6][7]

From 1923 to 1928 Rodchenko collaborated closely with Mayakovsky (of whom he took several portraits) on the design and layout of LEF and Novy LEF, the publications of Constructivist artists. Many of his photographs appeared in or were used as covers for these and other journals. His images eliminated unnecessary detail, emphasized dynamic diagonal composition, and were concerned with the placement and movement of objects in space. During this period, he and Stepanova painted the well-known panels of the Mosselprom building in Moscow. Their daughter, Varvara Rodchenko, was born in 1925.

Throughout the 1920s, Rodchenko’s work was very abstract. Rodchenko joined the October Group of artists in 1928 but was expelled three years later, charged with “formalism”, an accusation first raised in the pages of Sovetskoe Foto in 1928.[8] In the 1930s, with the changing Party guidelines governing artistic practice in favour of Socialist Realism, he concentrated on sports photography and images of parades and other choreographed movements. He returned to painting in the late 1930s, stopped photographing in 1942, and produced abstract expressionist works in the 1940s. He continued to organize photography exhibitions for the government during these years. He died in Moscow in 1956.

Late Years and Death

By the middle of the 1930s, Rodchenko fell out of favor with the Communist Party. The regime’s visual ideology was completely transformed when Joseph Stalin came to power. The free-spirited avant-garde aesthetic was now actively suppressed by the state. Rodchenko and his wife were lucky not to perish in Stalin’s Great Purges that swept through the Soviet Union and exterminated many individuals who came to prominence at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. With Social Realism becoming the official art of the U.S.S.R., Rodchenko’s paintings and designs were openly condemned by the authorities for so-called “formalism.”
As such, Rodchenko turned to photojournalism. His photographic images epitomized the era of High Stalinism by depicting lavish parades, immense industrial undertakings, and the decisive transformation of agriculture. Naturally, Rodchenko was explicitly forbidden to capture the horrendous human toll of this sweeping modernization. In the 1940s, he returned to painting, executing a number of powerful abstract expressionist compositions. These works, however, were never to be seen by his contemporaries, for they openly contradicted the officially sanctioned aesthetics. He continued his work as a photographer throughout the Stalin years, until his death in 1956.
The Legacy of Alexander Rodchenko
As a key figure of the Russian modernist movement, the art of Alexander Rodchenko helped redefine three key visual genres of modernism: painting, photography, and graphic design. In his paintings, the artist further explored and expanded the essential vocabulary of an abstract composition. His series of purely abstract proto-monochrome paintings were influential to artists such as Ad Reinhardt and the Minimalists of the 1960s. In the field of photography, he established unprecedented compositional paradigms, which in many ways still define the entire notion of modern photographic art. Rodchenko’s involvement with the Bolshevik cause further propelled the appreciation of his art in the leftist circles of the American avant-garde.