Tate Modern’s Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism looks at art in Russia c.1917-25 through the work of two of the country’s leading artists. The exhibition brings together over 350 works, many of which have never been seen in the West before, hailing from obscure museums in deepest Russia.
After the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 Russia’s artists, writers and musicians were swept into the task of transforming their society into the first Communist State. Amongst others, Rodchenko and Popova pioneered a new art for this revolution. As part of the Constructivist movement they rejected ideas of illusory representation, believing instead that only the universal language of abstract form could truly put art at the service of the people. Further, for the first time a new sexual equality was born; men and women played an equal role in society and the simple pairing by the Tate of works by a man and a woman (who weren’t lovers) eloquently displays how the quality and themes of the two artists’ works were indistinguishable. This exhibition also demonstrates the way these two artists were ultimately lead away from fine art into design and from there to architecture, film, print, propaganda and advertising posters, clothing and theatre design. Among the convictions of the Constructivists was equality in all of its manifestations.
The first rooms of the exhibition focus on the paintings and graphic works of the artists from 1917-18. Both artists were already looking towards architecture for inspiration and the paintings and drawings convey a sense of dynamism and energy that goes beyond the frame.
Popova’s works consist often of flat, geometric compositions of trapezoids of different colours overlaid on each other. Working directly on plywood, she painted semi-circles and diagonal lines with black and white triangles, adding sawdust and metal dust to her paint to give her forms added weight and texture.
In Rodchenko’s works, meanwhile, red and yellow lines take decisive turns against black backgrounds. There are flat, eclipsed discs with penumbras of light. Rodchenko’s investigations place particular importance on the line as the sole element in a work of art. Colour, tone, texture and surface, he argued, could all be eliminated as mere decoration. Rodchenko was also producing “spatial constructions” — sculptures of geometric forms. Initially these were set upon table tops or rested on the floor, but in an attempt to give them even greater autonomy, in 1920-1, he created the series “Hanging Spatial Constructions.” Hanging from the ceiling by a single thread, these complex three-dimensional forms were created by assembling a series of two-dimensional shapes of different sizes – squares or ellipses – at different angles. They can be viewed from any angle and the shadows of the forms create almost a second work – a shadow painting. They are fabulous at once in their simplicity, in their complicated construction and in their literalisation of an idea of equality of form. The fervour and excitement with which Rodchenko and Popova worked remains palpable and is apparent in the sheer quantity of work that they produced.
Beginning their inexorable shift away from painting, the artists were working on these explorations of formal questions, but also beginning to make more production-based work; the understanding being that their ‘laboratory’ work (i.e. painting and sculpture) would become the basis for useful tasks in the future. To illustrate this tactic, the Tate has amassed an impressive collection of line drawings in which we can plot the abandonment of the hand-drawn towards the use of rollers, rulers, compasses and other mechanical drawing devices. Thus, the role of the artist changes from being a renderer of expression or skill to simply being one who determines the ways in which objects are arranged on a canvas or page. While works such as Rodchenko’s ‘Construction No. 104’ (1920) and Popova’s ‘Space-Force Construction No. 80’ (1921) give a sense of the artist’s enthusiasm and absolute belief in the idea that art could and would play a central role in the shaping of a new society, in fact the works themselves belie these intentions – they remain highly idiosyncratic and artistic works; beautiful in their precision and high abstraction.
In 1921, the Constructivists announced the end of painting. To mark its passing they held the exhibition ‘5 x 5 = 25’ and declared that they would now only make art for everyday life; Productivism. The Tate has devoted a room to this last exhibition of painting, the highlight of which has to be Rodchenko’s ‘Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour’ (1921). Three simple canvases of equal size, each one entirely and uniformly painted with one of the three colours, Rodchenko described the work as reducing painting to its logical conclusion: “I affirmed: it’s over. Basic colours. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation.” What is most incredible about this dominating triptych, cracked and faded as it is, is the combination of its very painterliness (remember too that nothing like it would be seen in painting for thirty years) with its complete sense of finality; “Enough of painting… it is as useless as a church… it is time to build.”
This mantra of “Art into Life” drives the second half of the exhibition; it is filled with commercial design — their attempt to “constructivise” the urban environment. While both artists claimed to abandon their previous practice, it is easy to see where their inspiration for clothes, theatre design, advertising etc. came from — the use of line and shape remains clear. In political posters with slogans such as “Keep Up the Revolutionary Pace” signs like directional arrows and punctuation marks are used as graphic elements and are arranged with the same symmetry and diagonal juxtapositions as the paintings.
It is in these rooms, however, that the exhibition beings to lose some of its pace and excitement. The sheer quantity of the work is impressive, as is the scope of the work produced but it is an increasingly dry display. It is a shame that there are not more maquettes or models instead of so many drawings and sketches; there is a feeling that one is experiencing a desiccated version of events. Whereas earlier in the exhibition the work felt fresh and alive, now the graphics, design and clothing take on a decidedly historical feel. Perhaps though, this is also a result of the work itself, for while the sense of purpose is no less in the earlier work, there was a feeling that these artists were working in tandem with one another, side by side, but here the energy began to diversify and split. As Rodchenko experimented with photography and film, book design and advertising, Popova concentrated on clothing design and theatre. More, in 1921, faced with food shortages and famine, Lenin announced the New Economic Policy which allowed private enterprise to operate on a limit scale. This policy signalled the first in a series of disillusioning compromises for the cause. The display of the work becomes less penetrable as the work itself become diffused and less sure if its own purpose.
The final room of the exhibition is a recreation of a display produced at Paris’s invitation to the Soviet government to showcase its cultural achievements—the 1925 ‘International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry.’ The room is at first glance a simple reading room. It includes Popova’s textile designs and, wonderfully, there is the opportunity to sit on reproductions of some Rodchenko chairs which replace bourgeois comfort with geometric functionalism (absurdly uncomfortable, especially given that — displayed alongside bookcases and a chess table — they were designed to encourage the proletariat to spend their time more productively). It is, however, an abrupt and bathetic end to the exhibition, an underwhelming room, neither as visually exciting nor as effervescent in its presentation as other parts of the exhibition.
The ending in real life was also unpropitious. In 1924, Popova was to die from scarlet fever, and while Rodchenko lived on until 1956, continued economic shortages were forcing Rodchenko and others to seriously compromise their ideals by the mid-1920’s. By the end of the decade, Stalin would have taken over and put an unequivocal end to their mission. Socialist Realism replaced Constructivism quickly and the era of optimism was over.
Nonetheless the legacy of Constructivism clearly strikes a chord with today’s economic, political and aesthetic climates. Oft reproduced and copied, the typographies and designs of the Constructivists are easily recognisable in their direct and clean approach. And, while this exhibition is somewhat dry in places, and it is a shame that more of the artists designs and sketches were not made up into the sculptural objects that they were intended to be, viewing this work today, especially in the current economic climate (which the curators could not have foreseen when they began planning it) one is ultimately reminded just how fresh, how edgy and above all relevant the aesthetics and message of these artists remain.