Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) was perhaps one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and at any rate one of the most versatile. The government that gave him the opportunity to fully develop his talents also set out to destroy his character and artistic skill. He was 18 when the revolution broke out in Russia and fully supported the ideals of Soviet communism.
In addition to his work as a dental technician, he studied art in Moscow. As Vladimir Tatlin’s assistant he came into contact with the work of Malevitch, Kandinsky and other avant-gardists. He experimented widely and his artworks became increasingly abstract. When he was around 30 he became chairman of two powerful cultural institutes in the Soviet Union. Within these organisations he determined the course of cultural developments and the government’s acquisition policy.
During that period, the '20s, Rodchenko succeeded in creating an environment in which music, film, theatre, literature and the visual arts flourished. He was extremely productive, because besides his organisational duties, he taught and built up an oeuvre that was as impressive as it was diverse. He applied his creativity to furniture and interior design, graphic design, painting, sculpture and eventually to photography. Using collage and montage techniques he designed items including film posters, which represent prominent examples of that genre, for example his design of Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin by director Sergei Eisenstein from 1925).
Rodchenko’s photographic insights can rightly be called revolutionary. He made countless designs for books and magazines, often according to the most modern insights of the genre. He assembled collages from existing (photographic) images and geometric shapes. When the photos by others were no longer sufficient he started taking photographs himself. At the end of the '20s he bought a Leica, the first convenient 35mm camera, with which he made ‘photographic notes’.
Rodchenko said of the way he photographed: “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 keyhole again and again.”To surprise the viewer he used unusual standpoints and wide frames. He also had an eye for the graphic effect of shadows or made series in order to tell his story in a succession of images.
“Don’t try to capture a man in one synthaetic portrait, but rather in lots of snapshots taken at different times and in different circumstances“, Rodchenko said of taking portraits. It is a statement from his 1928 photographic manifesto Against the Synthaetic Portrait, For the Snapshot.
Market forces limit our perspective of the work of this great innovator, because in the current capitalist art trade there is little room for the artistic process; rather the focus is on a marketable product. This explains why we in the West usually encounter the semi-classical portraits that Rodchenko made of famous Russians, such as his favourite model, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Rodchenko and the Russian avant-garde attracted an international following. The Constructivism that they propagated struck a chord with influential artists including Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who maintained good contacts in Germany (the Bauhaus) and The Netherlands. Today, work by Rodchenko can be found in tens of museums around the world and there is an active trade in his paintings as well as his graphic and photographic work.
The morality of Rodchenko’s communist convictions is certainly not undisputed. In his vision, art was supposed to serve the people as well as the government that was placed over them. In particular, his propagandist work from the Stalin period has been internationally denounced. Disaster really struck when the government (read Stalin) turned against the all too modern nature of Rodchenko’s work and stripped him of his rights.
The last 20 years of his life must have been hell. Once the most powerful man in the Soviet Union’s cultural life, he lost his privileges. After Lenin’s death in 1924, a power struggle ensued between Stalin and Trotsky. The dictator and his followers regarded anyone with a certain amount of influence and their own ideas with growing suspicion. Rodchenko was accused of ‘bourgeois formalism’ and (like every alleged opponent of Stalin) of ‘Trotskyism’.
Rodchenko no longer received commissions, could no longer exhibit and was eventually prohibited from taking photographs. He gradually became completely isolated and lived in poverty. He suffered from depression and his physical health also deteriorated. After Stalin’s death he was rehabilitated and once again admitted to the Union of Soviet Artists. He died two years later in 1956.
The importance of his legacy is unmistakable. Each generation rediscovers his work, such as the British band Franz Ferdinand who used his photos as album covers. Ninety years ago Rodchenko already had a clear vision of the importance and future of photography: “Photography has all the rights, and all the merits, necessary for us to turn towards it as the art of our time.”