Revolutionary With a Camera

Westlicht showcases the pioneering work of Soviet photographer Alexander Rodchenko

Guard on the Schuchow-Tower shows a love of architechture | Photo: A. Rodchenko/Stepanova Archiv

Radio Listener (1929) is one depiction of a changing era | Photo: A. Rodchenko/Stepanova Archiv

Guard on the Schuchow-Tower shows a love of architechture | Photo: A. Rodchenko/Stepanova Archiv

Guard on the Schuchow-Tower shows a love of architechture | Photo: A. Rodchenko/Stepanova Archiv

Alexander Rodchenko may not be a name you know, but his influence is ubiquitous.

One of the leading figures of Russia’s cultural avant-garde on the eve of the Revolution and in the early Soviet era, Rodchenko was a trailblazer in photography and graphic design.

A devoted supporter of the Bolshevik regime, he put his creative energies to work promoting the glorious new future that the Communist Party was building in the Soviet Union.

Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photo-graphy, at the Westlicht center for photography through 25 August, showcases over 200 photographs, plus numerous examples of his work in photomontage and graphic design.

In his photography, Rodchenko chose unusual angles and pioneered diagonal composition, creating energetic images that still feel fresh today.

He was also an early practitioner of photojournalism, and his formal inventiveness transformed his photo-essays from documentation into art.

Rodchenko also used simple geometric shapes, blocks of colour and clean fonts that today are basic elements of graphic design. Many of his images have become iconic, perhaps none more so than the advertisement featuring the image of a young woman cupping her wide-open mouth, from which bursts the word “books”. You can practically see the sound of her shout.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1891, Rodchenko attended art school in Kazan, falling under the influence of Cubism and Futurism. In 1915, he moved to Moscow, where he quickly joined Russia’s cultural vanguard. After the 1917 Revolution, he was a leader of Constructivism, which combined modern style and materials and emphasised the social purpose of art.

Rodchenko wholeheartedly believed that communist revolution would transform the world, and that artists had an important role to play in that process. From 1918 to 1921, he put this revolutionary spirit to work for the Soviet Commissariat of Enlightenment, the government department responsible for education and the arts.

In 1921, Rodchenko rejected painting and turned his attention to graphic design to help integrate art into everyday life. He frequently collaborated with his wife, the artist Varvara Stepanova, as well as Vladimir Mayakovsky, the brilliant, charismatic avant-garde poet of the Russian Revolution.

Rodchenko and Mayakovsky worked together on several projects, including a book of Mayakovsky’s poetry illustrated with Rodchenko’s photomontages. A number of these fascinating illustrations, inspired by German Dadaism, are on display at Westlicht.

Rodchenko said that it was photomontage that led him to photography. In 1924, he started photographing his family and friends. The exhibition includes several compelling portraits of Mayakovsky, as well as a beautiful close-up of Rodchenko’s elderly mother’s creased and drooping visage. Already he was beginning to experiment with perspective, foreshortening and closely framed faces.

By the late 1920s, Rodchenko was turning his camera on architecture, capturing the abstract beauty of contemporary buildings from unexpected angles. “The modern city with its multi-storey houses, plants and factories, has necessarily changed the traditional psychology of perception,” he wrote. “It seems that only the camera can illustrate modern life.”

The New Soviet Man

Radio Listener (1929) is one depiction of a changing era

Radio Listener (1929) is one depiction of a changing era | Photo: A. Rodchenko/Stepanova Archiv

Rodchenko’s work celebrated all things new: construction projects, factories, mechanised farming, even people. The Revolution was creating a new breed of human being: the New Soviet Man.

Rodchenko’s photos of workers, young people, athletes and soldiers, often shot from below, portrayed them as heroic icons gazing fervently into the future, or happy enthusiasts working to build a new world.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Socialist Realism was taking hold in the Soviet art world and the winds were shifting away from modernist experimentation.

Rodchenko continued to document the transformation of his young country, but he was accused of formalism for focusing too much on style and composition in his photos.

Eventually he was sidelined by the regime, but unlike so many other artists of the Revolution, he survived Stalin’s reign of terror and died of natural causes in 1956.

Regrettably, the Westlicht exhibition could also be accused of formalism. Rodchenko was working in turbulent times, yet the show’s Russian curator has provided only minimal historical and no political context for his work. The Russian Revolution is not directly mentioned in the explanatory wall texts, nor is the brutal consolidation of Soviet power under Lenin and Stalin.

There is no acknowledgement that the great transformations of Soviet society that Rodchenko documented and glorified were often implemented by force. The viewer sees only Rodchenko’s veneration of these achievements. It’s as if an exhibition of Leni Riefenstahl’s work from the 1930s and 1940s neglected to mention Nazism or the Second World War.

This gap is greatest when it comes to Rodchenko’s 1933 photojournalism series on the construction of the White Sea Canal in Russia’s far north. One of Stalin’s notorious excesses, the 227-kilometre canal was built by forced labor in just 20 months. Over 100,000 convicts, many of them political prisoners, carried out the backbreaking work in severe conditions of bitter cold and deprivation. Thousands died.

Rodchenko’s photos celebrate the accomplishment without acknowledging the suffering. Only one photo, Guarding a Lock, hints at the reality: Is the armed guard watching over a canal lock, or is he actually monitoring the convict laborers?

Despite this lack of context, Rodchenko’s work can stand on its artistic merits, and there is much to appreciate in the Westlicht show. They photos remain exciting and vibrant, and his seminal influence on 20th-century photography and graphic design is abundantly clear.

Today, however, instead of promoting worldwide Revolution, his visual innovations serve the gods of global commerce.

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