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“Do not lie! Photograph and be photographed! Crystallize man not by the ‘synthetic’ portrait, but by many snapshots taken at different times and in different conditions. Value all that is real and contemporary. And we shall be real, not playing human beings.”
Regard this man who does not shrink or pose self-consciously before the camera’s lens, but faces it with an unflinching gaze. With similar certitude, the man behind the camera, Aleksandr Rodchenko, commandeered photography in 1920s Moscow in pursuit of radical new ideas about art. Rodchenko was a painter, sculptor, graphic artist, designer, and photographer, and his subject, Vladimir Mayakovsky, a poet, performer, and satirical graphic artist. They were artistic collaborators during the optimistic, heady period following the 1917 Russian Revolution that ended Tsarist rule and ushered in the era of Communism and the Soviet Union. At the heart of a circle of Constructivist artists, as they called themselves, they aspired to create art not for museums and galleries, but in service to building a new socialist society. Their “art-work” would be utilitarian and utopian.
For Rodchenko, portrait painting was false, “synthetic,” a product of leisure created by and for a select, wealthy few. Photography, an art form made for a new machine age, would supplant the old forms with its adaptability to mass media such as newspapers and journals, and its potential to record an unvarnished reality. Furthermore, truths would be known not through one unchanging, iconic image, but an array of them, contributing to a greater understanding of a subject or person. Images would take on a dynamic quality, reflecting the forward motion of society.
In the photograph, Mayakovsky’s intense stare suggests he has turned his attention to something or someone worthy of his scrutiny, or possibly, contempt. Seen in three-quarter profile, with a cigarette gripped tensely between his teeth and a furrow at his brow, the poet seems almost to snarl, a disposition perhaps fitting of a man who once called his avant-garde performances a “slap in the face of public taste.” The photograph was one of a series of six poses that Rodchenko made of his friend and is among the artist’s first experiments with photography. The Mayakovsky photographs were not intended to be stand-alone art objects. Rodchenko planned to use them in book covers and as illustrations for Mayakovsky’s poetry and other publications. The closely cropped Mayakovsky portrait lacks clues about setting, context, the subject’s profession or social status, rendering the picture generic in the manner of an identity photograph, an unusual tactic at the time. The approach relates to his collage work where isolated pictures float against empty backgrounds in juxtaposition to texts and other graphic elements. The picture’s sparseness also could relate to the fact that he anticipated cutting the image out for this very purpose. Rodchenko later created photographs of many members of his socialist-artist circle, not for collage, but as independent works of art through which he sought to defamiliarize conventions of seeing through the photo-artist’s choice of angles, pose, props, and cropping. Many of the portraits feature his partner Varvara Stepanova as well as friends and comrades in their homes and studios.
The Mayakovsky photographs were later adapted to another purpose. The poet committed suicide in 1930 over his failures in love and in despair over Stalin’s increasingly oppressive policies toward art. In one of the many ironies experienced by Rodchenko in his lifetime, Stalin rehabilitated Mayakovsky’s memory in 1936, declaring the poet a hero of the revolution and issuing dictates that his memory be publicly honored. Rodchenko’s 1924 photographs came to be used in commemorative propaganda to fulfill this purpose. The National Gallery photograph is a print made around that time, 1938, its gelatin silver tones taking on a soft, almost drawn quality. In death, the poet assumed mythic stature among Soviets.
About the Artist
Aleksandr Rodchenko experienced the cataclysmic birth of the Soviet Union as well as the devastating consequences of its ideological implosion. He dedicated his life to transforming art into a tool for building a new society, but saw his efforts twisted by the Stalinist regime, which persecuted him and curtailed his artistic freedom.
Rodchenko was born in St. Petersburg, not far from the Finnish border. His family was of modest means, his father a theater props manager and his mother a laundress. His father’s occupation immersed Aleksandr in the aesthetics of performance and theatrical space, and from a young age, he drew set designs. Rodchenko briefly trained in dentistry, but by 1910 was enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in Kazan, a city east of Moscow on the Volga River.
By reading European art magazines Rodchenko learned about current trends in modern art: Matisse, Gauguin, art nouveau, cubism, and symbolism particularly interested him. It was not long, however, before he became immersed in a specifically Russian avant-garde—an artistic culture in the process of distancing itself from Europe. Economic unrest caused by the declining fortunes of the tsarist monarchy and the devastation of World War I made it more urgent to find new forms to represent a fresh concept of the future. In Kazan, Rodchenko encountered the work of Russian futurist artists, among them Vladimir Mayakovsky, who stopped there to lecture and perform. The futurists espoused an art that reflected the speed and dynamism of new technology and a machine-driven society. In Kazan Rodchenko met Varvara Stepanova, a fellow artist and student who became his lifelong partner and collaborator.
By 1915 Rodchenko was in Moscow. There, he associated with a broader circle of politicized artists such as Vladimir Tatlin, Kasimir Malevich, and Lyubov Popova, and continued his association and friendship with Mayakovsky, whom he referred to affectionately as “Volodya” in his writing. In Moscow, Rodchenko began exhibiting abstract geometric drawings, paintings, and sculptures as a statement against regressive representational art. With the rise to power of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, Rodchenko organized artist groups and declared the advent of a new art, Constructivism, which rejected illusionism in painting and fine arts in favor of an expanded definition of art that included abstraction, three-dimensional assemblage, theatrical productions, and work within the applied arts: textiles, furniture, and utilitarian objects. Such an art would be accessible and of use to the new proletariat.
By 1921 Rodchenko rejected painting altogether. His last canvases were Colour Pure Red, Colour Pure Yellow, Colour Pure Blue (all 1921), of which he stated, “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases, red, blue, yellow. I affirmed: It’s all over. Basic colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no more representation.”
Rodchenko began working in earnest as a graphic designer, shedding himself of the “pretensions” of an individual artistic voice. With Mayakovsky as a partner, they founded a journal, LEF, or Left Front for the Arts, in 1923, for which they served as literary and art director respectively and drew contributions from their circle of intelligentsia. Rodchenko designed its distinctive photo-collaged covers that established the visual idiom of Soviet propaganda. Under the rubric “Mayakovsky-Rodchenko Advertising-Constructor” the two friends also produced visual communications promoting the state airline, grocery store, trade unions, and films, among other concerns. Posters, wrappers, and packaging featured their distinctive combination of typography, geometrical elements, color, and photographic reproductions.
Rodchenko’s photography gradually became his primary medium rather than an ingredient in his design. He photographed members of the LEF circle, and experimented with foreshortening and cropping to jolt the viewer’s perception, capturing urban scenes, workers, athletes, demonstrations, and circus events. He did not consider photography at odds with his rejection of representational art, commenting in the 1930s, “photomontage propelled me to photography. In my first photos—a return to abstraction. The photos were almost non-objective. Compositional problems were at the fore.”
Despite his declared political ambitions for Soviet art, Rodchenko’s work was not always in sync with the party line. Eventually, he fell afoul of Stalin’s policies, which increasingly cast artistic endeavors as elitist dabblings incomprehensible to the masses. Rodchenko came to be accused of formalism, or of focusing on photography’s aesthetic rather than its functional properties. He was forced to an apology for his misdeeds that was published in a Soviet photography magazine. To prove his ideological conformity, he accepted state commissions to document massive engineering projects initiated under Stalin’s notorious Five-Year Plans—essentially conscripted work camps where thousands died. He continued to accept state photography assignments until the end of his life and also returned to painting, privately working on circus-themed canvases. One of his last projects was an homage to his old friend Volodya, an illustrated volume of Mayakovsky’s poetry. Rodchenko died in Moscow in December 1956, the same year Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s dictatorship.