Chronicler of Russian life

Submitted by Matthew on 30 March, 2011 - 11:51

Alexander Rodchenko, having achieved international acclaim as an avant-garde painter, sculptor and graphic designer, took up the cause of photography in 1924 with novel and thrilling results.

His trademark shot was taken from high above or “bottom-up”, the lens tilted to create an angular, jarring effect. Whether focusing on the anonymous individual, the Soviet masses at work, or at play, or radical new forms of architecture, Rodchenko was able to reflect back his images in bold, memorable and often unusual, geometric perspectives. In a post-Tsarist society in which over 70% of the population were illiterate, the medium of photography was as democratic, relevant and accessible an art form as any other at that point in time.

“Rodchenko and his Circle” is an exhibition grouped around the key themes of: Lenin, Stalin, architecture, the organised masses, industrialisation, the photographers (“his circle”), the central Asian republics, and the Pioneers (Leninist youth corps). It is a compact yet potent collection of more than 600 images — 200 are on display for the first time — drawn from his family’s personal archive as well as a variety of other institutional sources.

The walls of the gallery have been graffitied with Constructivist slogans, of which my favourite is: “Down with art as a stone amid the dirty, dark life of the poor man.”

Striking images from the turbulent, experimental days of the revolutionary 1920s jostle for position with more “conservative” works from the culturally stultified era of the 1930s, a period in which Socialist Realism had become the official, state-sanctioned art doctrine.

Stand-out stills from this grouping of photographic innovators include: Zelima’s portrait of a Stalin who leans forward into the camera’s range (notable for the etched-out faces of the three figures sat behind him!); the ethnographic studies of Uzbek citizens whose village lifestyles are about to disappear forever before the sweep of collectivisation and industrialisation; and the radical new architectural forms, as evidenced in Rodchenko’s images of the Soviet Pavilion, Paris, 1925, and “The School of Communism”.

The most vibrant and dynamic examples of Rodchenko’s art are to be found in the photographs of the bustling, hectic activity of the Moscow streets. Whether the photographer is perched perilously atop some apartment block to record the movement of the individual or the mass, or adopting a more static, street-level position to document the mercantile activities of “Street Vendors, 1929” — “liberated” by Lenin’s NEP to stimulate the small market — his art serves to both engage and enthral the spectator.

The most unsettling images of the exhibition are to be found in Rodchenko’s visual records of the construction of the White Sea Canal (1933). Two hundred thousand criminal (dissident!) slave labourers would be worked to death in the service of “the Revolution” on this one “project” alone. The photographer, almost unemployable at this point after having been denounced for bourgeois formalism, captures the endeavour in a flat, lifeless photo-journalistic style. This stands in sharp contrast to his pioneering, free-wheeling camera work from earlier and more revolutionary times.

Unlike many of his comrades, who were to face prison, show-trials and execution, Rodchenko was not devoured by the Revolution. Instead, in later years he was to lay aside his Leica and return to the medium of painting. Needless to say, the results could not match the adventurous, photographic handiwork, many examples of which are contained within the space of this exhibition.

“Rodchenko and his circle: constructing the future through photography” has been extended until April 16. It is a free exhibition and is at Art: Sensus, 7 Howick Place, SW1P 1BB.

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