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Monday, December 05, 2016
An artist of many mediums, Alexander Rodchenko – born December 5, 1891 – was a leader in demonstrating the socially and artistically innovative potential of photography in the 1920s and 1930s. His constructivist designs remain iconic today, and his contributions to painting, sculpture demonstrate not only his versatility, but also his lifelong urge to integrate art into daily life for all.
“We had visions of a new world, industry, technology and science. We simultaneously invented and changed the world around us. We authored new notions of beauty and redefined art itself."
In honor of his 125th birthday, here’s a sampling of his works from a variety of mediums and motivations.
Rodchenko created works that promoted Soviet ideology, but his works can’t be reduced to simple propaganda. His iconic poster for the Leningrad Publishing House is widely recognized, having been co-opted by many movements of lesser political intent; in the early 1920s, it was a powerful juxtaposition of visual elements and a call for literacy.
Also involved in advertising, Rodchenko created works that were visually striking regardless of what they were trying to sell (which, in the below cases, were galoshes and the film Battleship Potyomkin, respectively).
From works showing the glories of Soviet construction to his portraits of individual citizens, Rodchenko’s unusual approach to angle and perspective create a visual stimulus for the viewer that can be intimate, jarring, poignant, or create any number of other impressions – sometimes all at once.
Rodchenko was influenced by – and participated in – artistic movements as diverse as constructivism, futurism, suprematism, and productivism. Without going into all those “isms,” it’s worth mentioning the array of Rodchenko’s influences because they can be found in his innovative posters (as seen above) and in his work on avant garde publications during the 1920s. In particular, he collaborated with Vladimir Mayakovsky on LEF and Novy LEF, publications focusing on Constructivist art.
He also wasn’t above parodying some artists’ enthusiasm for such movements.
Just as he united different mediums and themes in his art, Rodchenko was also committed to applying aesthetic ideals to mundane materials. Along with Mayakovsky, Tatlin, and others, he hoped that this dynamic, aesthetic utilitarianism would contribute to a new language and way of thinking for the young Soviet Union.
Perhaps in the throes of the futuristic promise of the avant garde, Rodchenko declared "The End of Painting" in 1921. He struck the mortal blow with three solid monochromatic canvases in red, yellow, and blue. He wrote:
"I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it's all over. Basic Colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation."
Though this triptych – an ironic choice in format, since three juxtaposed canvases were historically reserved for religious scenes – was the symbolic “end” for Rodchenko, he had begun his career as a painter, and produced many great works using geometric patterns, primary colors, and the abstract.
Despite disavowing painting after his groundbreaking triptych, Rodchenko returned to the medium in the late 1930s. As the Soviet Union grew increasingly strict about artistic production and new leaders – Stalin, in particular – instituted socialist realism and cracked down on the avant garde, Rodchenko found himself ostracized. He continued to photograph sports and celebrations that would allow him to adhere to the party line during the 1930s and produced a number of expressionist works in the 1940s.
An artist dedicated to political revolution, inspired by the avant garde, and skilled in multiple genres of design, Rodchenko at times struggled with the tensions between innovative art and radical politics. But until his death in 1956, he believed that art could bring new vitality and perspective to everyday life – and vice versa.
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