Rodchenko exhibition fails to cover all the angles
Rodchenko, Russian master of photography, is not served well by this show at the Hayward, says Ed Frith
An angled line combined with the face of constructivist muse Lilya Brik blasts across London’s South Bank. Alexander Rodchenko, the Russian master of photomontage and photography has a show at The Hayward.
This comrade of the revolution has been brought to the land of the bourgeoisie by new Russian money: the exhibition is sponsored by Roman Abramovich. Perhaps a redesign of the Chelsea FC strip is imminent — a photomontaged Chelsea lion trying to leap over an Arsenal cannon?
One of Rodchenko’s 1930s collages, Political Football, for the satirical magazine Abroad, features policemen suppressing proletarian football players. How times change. Rodchenko himself was a political football, in favour with the party machine and then out, accused of “bourgeois formalism” during the Stalin regime as the Soviet art world adjusted its position from avant garde to social realist.
Rodchenko met Varvara Stepanova, his fellow artist and manager, at Kazan Art School in 1915. They moved to Moscow and became embroiled in tumultuous events, painting, and designing in the maelstrom of the revolution. In this ferment, they created art exhibitions, installations — and prize-winning designs for newspaper kiosks.
Rodchenko and Stepanova also formed organisations such as the Association of Extreme Innovators (in opposition to Malevich and the suprematists) and the radical art and design school, Vkhutemas, an inspiration for the Bauhaus.
He was appointed its dean of metalwork, and designed a school tea service and a school production suit. (The RIBA should put those on their list of architecture school requirements.)
Soon after this, in the 1920s, he moved on to photography and photomontage as his main mediums, and became interested in revealing the “everyday as no one was accustomed to seeing it”.
This show concentrates on the paper and print works he produced for a vast range of magazines, posters and books. Some of the earliest are the strident and radical photomontages illustrating the work of the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Rodchenko started with the mad love poem, About That, written by Mayakovsky about his affair with Lilya Brik, wife of his publisher, Osip Brik. These delicate assemblages, juxtaposing body, machine and building, are surreal.
Rodchenko and his group of artist friends were part of the Left Front of the Arts. He produced all the covers, as well as articles and pictures, for its influential magazine, LEF. But it is the photographs that are the boiler room of Rodchenko’s work and of this exhibition. His daughter talks about her father revolving, moving and photographing without the subject realising a photograph was being taken.
The delicate assemblages, juxtaposing body, machine and building, are surreal
There are the famous images of the girl pioneer, the steps with woman and child, Moscow’s Shukhov Tower — all involve the angle and the search for the new view. There is also photo reportage of the White Sea Baltic Canal, plus buildings such as Moisei Ginzburg’s “social condenser” apartment block in Moscow, where a tree crosses the diagonally placed lines of the flats.
The design of the exhibition for these marvellous photomontages and photographs is disappointing. The challenge in presenting this work is to provide a vibrant installation so that it shouts out — just as Lilya Brik does from her poster.
An argument exists that the next generation should make their own view and concentrate on the pictures, but the exhibition seems too safe and restrained. The works feel as if they are for sale: one expects to see a red dot here or there. The collages and photographs, now of great monetary value, are presented with polite modernism rather than with a raw, brutalist approach. The show is crying out for some bright red backgrounds and bold lettering, and a taste of Rodchenko’s 3D work.
Considering all those who have been influenced by Rodchenko’s work — the collages of David Wild, the graphics of Neville Brody and the architecture of the “decon” bunch — it seems a shame that this has not been pursued.
Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography
The Hayward, South Bank Centre, London
Until April 27