Alexander Rodchenko

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words Alan Powers

When the Hayward Gallery hosted the exhibition Art in Revolution in the Spring of 1971, a reviewer questioned whether the presentation of revolutionary art under museum conditions, “for the partial attention of polite schoolchildren and gin-drinking critics”, was not proof of its failure.

The exhibition caused a stir because it was one of the first in London to extract these long-suppressed items from the then frosty Soviet Ministry of Culture. How much more ironic, then, that the Rodchanko exhibition in the same space, 37 years later, should be sponsored by a post-Soviet billionaire, Roman Abramovich, whose generosity no one would question any more than they are asking what has happened, either in art or politics, to the revolutionary principles of Rodchenko himself.

The exhibition itself gives few clues about the reactions it expects. Because it sticks strictly to its photographic theme, there is nothing to represent Rodchenko’s first career as a painter and educator, and we plunge into the 1920s when, arguably, the most creative and artistically revolutionary phase was already over.

The presence of original photographic prints, magazine pages and montages gives a unique authenticity to the images though, a few of which are classics of modern photography, and we become aware, from the text panels and a short film, of the significance of the first Leica cameras, and the scarcity of basic materials to make the work. The Leica helped a whole generation of photographers to capture the fleeting moments of real life, and thus their works show unmistakeable affinities, spurred on by the feeling that they might change society’s view of itself by their new vision.

If there are few revolutionary communists around in 2008, there are still fewer overt Stalinists, so it is safe to regret the curtailment of Rodchenko’s artistic freedom in the 1930s when, accused of “formalism”, he was censored and abandoned by former associates. In 1933, he went to record the construction of the White Sea Canal, built by Gulag slaves. It all ends rather quietly and sadly.

For architect visitors, there is much to enjoy in images of buildings, where Rodchenko enjoyed the versatility of his Leica, leaning over balconies to look up or down, and producing pictures so abstracted that one of them is hung upside down. Although he covered the Narkomfin flats by Ginzburg, he seems not to have deliberately tried to document the major buildings of the time, but happily transformed buildings of varying design quality into formal compositions, with much tilting to a diagonal. More literally, although the exhibition does not show it, Rodchenko occasionally covered buildings in advertising super-graphics, with that strange love of publicity that affected a country where goods were always scarce. To understand Rodchenko’s contribution to architecture properly, however, would require going back further in time to unravel the mysteries of the Vkhutemas school and its revolutionary pedagogy.

It is sadly a frequent occurrence that one leaves an exhibition in London with an appetitite whetted but unsatisfied. Maybe the catalogue will fill the gap, one thinks, but in this case the hardback offering adds little in the way of text, and a rival attraction from MoMA at half the price seems a better option. There is a curatorial presumption that exhibition visitors must not and should not read too much on the wall. This may be true in general terms, but it is better, surely, to risk too much rather than too little. At least half the “reviews” of exhibitions are written before there is anything to see on the walls, since the show is no longer news once it has opened, which does not help to develop a critical climate over issues of presentation itself. Comrade curators, address the people!

Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography, the Hayward Gallery, London, 7 Feburary – 27 April

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