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Aleksandr Rodchenko: Constructing the Future Opens at Caixa Catalunya in Barcelona
"Books" (1925), which forms part of the exhibition at Caixa Catalunya. Photo: EFE / Andreu Dalmau.

BARCELONA.- Aleksandr Rodchenko (St. Petersburg, 1891 – Moscow, 1956) was one of the most multitalented and complex artists of the Russian Avant-garde of the 20th century. An explorer of non-objective art in painting, a proponent of Constructivism in post-revolutionary Russia and a pioneer in Soviet photography, he soon came to reject ‘pure’ art—creating in its place a visual language at the service of society—and extended the boundaries of each of the fields in which he worked, his watchword being “It is our duty to experiment”.

This exhibition looks at each of the artist’s many facets and at every stage in his life and work. In studying Rodchenko’s thinking and his enormous output, including paintings and drawings, constructions, photomontages, photographs and design, the exhibition also prompts us to reflect on the paradoxes and difficult relationships between the authorities, the commitment of the artist and his sense of social responsibility, and political propaganda.

Following a period between 1912 and 1914 during which he was drawn to the modern style and Fauvism, Rodchenko began to evolve quickly as an artist and in 1915 moved through Cubo-Futurism before making the leap, without any form of transition, into non-objective Cubo-Futurism in the form of drawings done in India ink using a ruler and compass. He showed work in this style at the “Store” exhibition organised by Vladimir Tatlin in Moscow in 1916. The artist continued to employ this geometrical abstraction in 1917-1918 in his designs for wall lamps for the Café Pittoresque, which was a focus of cultural agitation in the Russian capital.

After the Revolution in 1917, Rodchenko joined the group of left-wing, in other words, avant-garde, artists. In this circle, he was influenced by Malevich’s Suprematism and Tatlin’s culture of materials. In 1918, he produced non-objective canvases, chromatic combinations of three- and four-sided planes, curves and circles. Behind the pictorial syntax of these works, Rodchenko was exploring the relationship between the surface and the plane.

The break with Malevich came with Rodchenko’s “Black on Black” series, with which he countered the “White on White” of the founder of Suprematism. Of his series, Rodchenko wrote, quoting the poet Aleksei Kruchonykh, “The colours disappear; everything blends into black”.

“Lineism”. Towards the close of the 1910s, Rodchenko produced a series of nonobjective canvases and linocuts in which he constructed the space using a combination of lines. With this ‘lineism’, the artist rejected the thinking of Kandinsky, who, in his essay entitled “On Line”, written in 1919, had seen the line as “a highly revelatory material for primitive graphic expression”. Rodchenko saw the meaning and role of the line in the work of art in a new way: in his view, the line is the element par excellence of the vision of the world thanks to which new rational structures can be constructed, rather than portraying life.

Zhivskulptarkh. In 1919-1920, Rodchenko was an active member of the experimental group Zhivskulptarkh, which sought to combine the achievements of avant-garde painting and sculpture in architectural projects. In his constructions –architectural designs, newsstands or pure ‘fantasies’– Rodchenko went beyond the possibilities of synthesis introduced by Tatlin in 1914-1916 in his counter-reliefs.

In the 19th National Exhibition, held in the autumn of 1920 in Moscow, Rodchenko showed around 20 non-objective sketches, paintings and drawings consisting of assemblages of rectangular, diagonal and spiralling forms in a seemingly unstable relationship.

The term ‘Constructivism’ was coined in Moscow in 1921 in the context of the collective projects, debates and exhibitions organised by the INKhUK (Institute of Artistic Culture), which drew to it painters, sculptors, architects and art critics and theorists. The INKhUK fostered a new way of seeing art: ‘construction’ (in three dimensions) was expected to replace ‘composition’ (in two dimensions), in other words, easel painting.

Rodchenko had enthusiastically embraced this new idea when he became one of the organisers of the INKhUK’s Working Group of Constructivists in Moscow. From then on, he relegated his purely artistic explorations to the role of ‘laboratory work’ and extended his experiments in manipulating three-dimensional forms into the real environment by contributing to the industrial production of everyday objects.

Obmokhu. The exhibition of the Society of Young Artists held in May 1921 in Moscow brought together for the first time objects that were new to art: frames constructed from rods resting on the ground, the work of the brothers Georgy and Vladimir Stenberg and Karl Ioganson; and assembled geometrical forms suspended from the ceiling, made by Rodchenko.

By moving into sculpture, Rodchenko shifted away from his two-dimensional experiments and began to work with three-dimensionality. With his second series of “Spatial Constructions”, he broke with centuries of sculpture created on the basis of mass and the block by eliminating the classic pedestal and instead suspending the work from the ceiling, making it surge into the space and cast a shadow that is even more complex than the sculpture itself.

“5x5=25” exhibition. In the autumn of 1921, the “5x5=25” exhibition in Moscow showed five works by five Constructivist artists, Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Vesnin, Lyubov Popova, Rodchenko and Aleksandra Ekster. These pieces were dominated by the simple line and were unconcerned with psychological expression.

In this exhibition, Rodchenko accomplished a feat that proved to be one of the crucial moments in the history of art. With his three canvases of ‘pure’ colour yellow, red and blue– his formal Constructivist research came to an end. The colours of the three works were completely neutral and were not intended to represent or manifest anything whatsoever. Having proclaimed the death of easel painting, Rodchenko embarked on a search for new forms that would exert an influence on every aspect of everyday life.

Work with Mayakovsky. In the 1920s, Rodchenko worked closely with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. During the years that they collaborated, Rodchenko designed and illustrated a large number of Mayakovsky’s books. The most important of them, and the one that marked a turning point in the history of the Constructivist book, was the first edition of Mayakovsky’s poem About This in 1923. The book contains eight photomontages that include photographs of the protagonists of the poem, Mayakovsky and his lover, Lilya Brik. The illustrations, produced using the then novel method of photocollage, do not illustrate the poem textually or literally, but contain the same level of tension and drama.

LEF. Mayakovsky was also one of the main writers on the Constructivist journal LEF (Left Front of the Arts; 1923-1925), later published as Novyi LEF (New Left Front of the Arts; 1927-1928). Rodchenko contributed to every issue of the journal. The covers he produced for it are models of Constructivist composition: “Minimum expenditure, maximum rationality, that is the basic principle”. In all of these pieces, the artist used drawn letters with sharp outlines and a reduced range of colours (red, black and white), and in some of them he included a photocollage.

The advertising-constructors. In 1922-1923, Constructivist principles were applied to ‘production’ and Rodchenko made forays into the theatre, film and above all printed material. In the realm of graphic design, his works with Mayakovsky included a large number of posters, packaging and wrappers, colour advertisements, advertising columns and illustrations in newspapers and magazines. Mayakovsky wrote catchy, pithy lines full of wit for commercial publicity illustrated by Rodchenko for various state-run companies to advertise clocks, cigarettes, biscuits, light bulbs, books, etc. The two friends were termed ‘Mayakovsky-Rodchenko: Advertising Constructors’.

Bedbug.A Fantastical Comedy in Nine Scenes was Mayakovsky’s penultimate play. It was performed for the first time in early 1929 at the Meyerhold Theatre, accompanied by music by the then young Dmitry Shostakovich.

The sets and costumes for scenes one to four were the work of the Kukryniksys–three artists who specialised in folk art– and represent the situation in the Soviet Union during the time of the New Economic Policy (NEP), when a ‘red’ petty bourgeoisie flourished. Rodchenko designed the sets and costumes for scenes five to nine, which are set 50 years later, by which time Communism was fully established in Soviet Russia. For these scenes, Rodchenko reduced the sets to frames made of geometrical pieces that formed a skeleton; his costume designs were inspired by the famous Constructivist prozodezhda, the ‘production suit’, a baggy item of clothing intended to be both comfortable and practical.

With this parable, Mayakovsky attacked the fallacious nature of the Marxist-Leninist utopia in vogue in the second half of the 1920s.

Constructivist industrial design. Rodchenko also made a crucial contribution to the formulation of a method of Constructivist design and helped to spread Constructivist ideas among the students at the VKhUTEMAS (Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops), which were organised in the late 1920s with the intention of training “highly skilled master artists for industry”. The workshop programme proclaimed a new partnership between art and industry. The new generation of artists were trained as ‘constructor engineers’ or ‘constructor artists’ who would have a high level of artistic talent combined with specialist knowledge of technology.

The Workers’ Club. In 1925, Rodchenko designed the Workers’ Club for the Soviet pavilion at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. He was awarded four silver medals for his designs shown at the event.

The items that Rodchenko designed were intended to meet every aspect of the club’s needs and included chairs, reading tables, display cases for books and magazines, places where current literature could be stored, displays for posters, maps and newspapers, and a ‘Lenin Corner’. Every object had been radically rethought. His geometrical designs are extremely rational and economical and embodied the Revolutionary ideal: rather than an individual pastime, workers’ leisure was posited as an active and collective pursuit.

In 1922, Rodchenko produced his first photomontages, a new artistic genre in which he was to produce the most iconic works. Photomontage was quickly taken up by the leading Soviet state publishing houses and companies, becoming one of the most popular illustration techniques for book covers and posters.

Towards the close of 1925, Rodchenko took his first outdoor series of photographs, which he shot using a camera that he had purchased in Paris. He did not take images of this nature again until 1927. Even so, these initial works became the cornerstone of his photograph aesthetic of his maturity, an extension of the diagonal dynamic of his early paintings. Rodchenko’s body of photographic work is characterised by his use of daring perspectives that were unusual for his day, featuring numerous dizzying plunging and ascending views, compositions on the diagonal and pronounced foreshortening, and in which he employs the line as a compositional element.

In 1928, this famous style of oblique angles characteristic of Rodchenko was dubbed Western. The artist defended himself against the attacks and began to devote more and more energy to photojournalism.

USSR under Construction. From the mid-1930s, the Soviet Union suffered a period of not only political but also intellectual and artistic repression. Following the abolition of every artistic group by the Communist Party in 1932, Rodchenko found himself forced to sign a contract to supply photographs to Izogiz, the State Publishing House for the Figurative Arts. Thenceforth, his work was limited to propaganda reports and a few personal photographs.

His photographic reports for the magazine USSR under Construction feature compositionally very beautiful images that do not reflect the harsh reality of the times, as demonstrated by the series of photographs he took of the construction of the Belomorkanal, the canal that links the White Sea and the Baltic, published in 1933.

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