The Hayward Gallery in London has an exhibition of the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko. I wasn’t aware of seeing his work before, though looking at his pictures created a strong feeling of familiarity.
Born in 1891, he was practicing as an artist at the time of the Russian revolution, and he felt his art needed to make a strong revolutionary statement. He worked in photomontage, creating new images by combining others’ photographs, and that got him interested in taking his own pictures.
His images are full of angles and abstraction – lots of strong lines, rarely vertical or horizontal; I couldn’t help wondering the extent to which these were created in the darkroom rather than the camera – it is a lot easier to move a piece of photographic paper to set up diagonals than to hold a camera at an angle to take a picture.
Rodchenko was very much part of an artists’ circle, and he took many photographs of the poet Mayakovsky and his lover, Lilya Brik, as well as Rodchenko’s partner Varvara Stepanova with whom he collaborated in many media. They look an intense crowd – the men grim-faced, never smiling. (Mayakovsky committed suicide.)
The exhibition blurb told how Rodchenko had strived to create revolutionary art, and much of the photomontage (often created with Stepanova) has the feeling of propaganda. The style is familiar – there were images in the exhibition which could have graced posters of the 1990s Red Wedge, and a poster based on a picture of Lilya Bric was borrowed by Franz Ferdinand for the cover of the CD You Could Have It So Much Better.
I found much of the montage disturbing: overtly political, created to have a particular emotional effect, and this seemed to go against what the exhibition said Rodchenko was a trying to create – a new art, where the truth was prime, and life was the art. By working as a propagandist – or appearing to, in my eyes – he was corrupting his art; but of course in the spirit of the times, it was important for artists to be involved in the politics of the day.
It didn’t seem to help him: he was “criticised for the crime of formalism”, and he wasn’t able to function as an artist in the way he wanted. Instead, he had to work as a photojournalist – at one point, documenting the construction of the White Sea-Baltic canal, which used forced labour as Stalin perpetrated his purges.
Looking at the photographs, it was had to separate the politics from the images Rodchenko created; he was a working within the situation of his time, at the forefront of revolutionary art to start with, and then, after he had been denounced, caught in the tight control of the state.
There were some startling images: a woman carrying a child up some steps; a series of very beautiful geometric patterns taken in a car factory; and the language of photography which Rodchenko developed is clearly resonant in a lot of modern photographs.
It was a really interesting, compelling exhibition; I spent a lot of time looking at the pictures. But I couldn’t separate the pictures from the man and his times.