Alexander Rodchenko

Alexander Rodchenko

Alexander Rodchenko was a prominent Russian photographer, painter, sculptor and graphic artist of the Avant-garde epoch, one of the main representatives of Constructivism.

Childhood and education

Alexander Rodchenko was born December 5, 1891, in a family of a theater artist (Mikhail Rodchenko) and a laundress (Olga Rodchenko). His father didn’t want the boy to inherit his profession and did his best to give the son a “real” profession. In his memoirs, Rodchenko remembered: “In Kazan, when I was 14, I sheltered under the roof in summer and wrote a diary there in small books, full of sadness because of my uncertain situation; I wanted to learn drawing, but had to study for dental technician…”
He even worked a dental laboratory in the Kazan school of stomatology of doctor Natanson, but gave up medicine at the age of 20 and enrolled the local art school, where trained under the guidance of Nicolay Feshin. There he met his future wife Varvara Stepanova. In 1916 they moved together to Moscow,where Rodchenko started exhibiting as a painter, taking part in such important shows of Russian avant-garde, like “The Store”, organized by Vladimir Tatlin. Unfortunately, the World War I interrupted his activity for a year, as he was called up to the army in 1916, where served as an intendant of the hospital train of Moscow Zemstvo.

Early abstract works

After the February Revolution Alexander became one of the co-founders of the Moscow Artists’ Union in 1917. He was appointed the secretary of its Youths Division and was preoccupied with providing working and living conditions for young artists. At the same time together with Georgi Yakulov, Vladimir Tatlin and some other masters, Rodchenko works over decorations in the “Pittoresque” café. Between 1918 and 1921 the artist was the Director of the Museum Bureau and Purchasing Fund. In parallel he created serieses of abstract-geometrical minimalistic compositions in graphical and painting techniques.

Alexander Rodchenko declared his creative credo in manifestos “Everything is experiment” and line. He treated art as the way of producing new forms and new possibilities, considering his legacy to be a grandiose experiment with minimalistic language in painting, focused on the material quality of painting. As the result, he presented the non-objective series of 8 canvases “Black on black” in 1918: the author widely used flat forms and expressive potential of texture in them. During 1919-1920 Rodchenko introduced dots and lines into his compositions as self-sufficient painting shapes, approaching to extreme lucidity and laconism (“Non-objective painting”, 1919). In 1921 the artist displayed a triptych of three monochromely-colored pieces (yellow, red and blue) at the exhibition “5 x 5 = 25” in Moscow.
Apart from painting and graphical art, the master created spatial constructions. The first cycle was “Folding and disassembling ones” (1918), made from flat cardboard elements, whilst the second series – “Surfaces that reflect light” (1920 – 1921) – of veneer concentric forms (circle, square, ellipse, triangle and sexangle), which were hanging freely; the third series “According to the principle of similar forms” included spatial compositions of standard wooden bars, compounded according to the combinatorial principle.

Distancing from painting

In 1921 Alexander Rodchenko summed up his achievements in painting and announced shifting to “industrial art”. Not in the last turn that step was prompted by the artist’s participation in “Jivsculptarch” (acronym of the Commission on problems of painting-sculptural-architectural synthesis) and “Rabis” (acronym of “Workers of Art”). In 1920 – 1930 he was the professor at the metal- and wood-working departments of VKHUTEMAS. Rodchenko taught his students to project multifunctional living goods, achieving refinement of forms not with embellishment, but with constructive side of objects. For three years he was the head of the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKHUKI), where replaced Wassiliy Kandinsky.

In 1925 Alexander Rodchenko was sent to Paris to present his project of club entrance and announcement panels for the USSR Workers Club in the soviet pavilion of the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, designed by Konstantin Melnikov. His advertising posters were awarded with silver medals.
The master tried his hand in monumental art and theatrical decoration. The authorship of murals on the façade of the Mosselprom building belongs to Rodchenko. In 1929 he designed scene decorations for the play “Inga” by Anatoliy Glebov and “The bug” by Vladimir Mayakovsky. He tried himself in cinema-production, being an art director of such films as “Moscow in October” (1927). “Journalist” (1927 – 1928), “The doll with millions” (1928) and “Albidum” (1928).

Early experiments in photography

His first steps in the field of photography Alexander Rodchenko made at the beginning of 1920s, when he, as a designer and theater artist faced the necessity of capturing his works. Discovering the new art for himself, Rodchenko was completely fascinated. In photography, as well as in painting, he was interested the problem of “pure composition”, investigating the influence of objects, situated on one surface. It’s worth mentioning, that Rodchenko-photographer was luckier than Rodchenko-painter, since the first one got the recognition faster.

The young master quickly gained reputation of the innovator after showing some collages and assemblages from his own photos and clippings from newspapers. Mayakovsky asked him to illustrate his books. Rodchenko’s photo-assemblages, created for Mayakovsky’s poem “About This” (1923) initiated a new trend in book design.
Since 1924 the artist referred more often to classical genres of photography – portrait and reportage, but even there the tireless innovator didn’t allow stereotypic conventions to take over his art. The photographer created his own canons, which ensured a significant place in history of culture to his pieces, like series of Mayakovsky’s portraits, in which Alexander ignored all traditions of staged photography, or “Portrait of mother” (1924), which is considered the classic of close-up shots.

Rodchenko contributed in development of documentary genre – it was him, who used the method of photo-set of a scene in action that allowed to get a better notion about the object. His reportages were published in a number of important magazines and newspapers, like “Noviy LEF” (New LEF ‑ Left front of Arts), “Daesh” (Russian for “you give”), “Pioner” (Russian for “Pioneer”), “Ogonek” (Russian for “Small Light”) and “Radioslushatel” (Russian for “Radio listener”).

Alexander Rodchenko’s true visiting card were angle-shots, made from such points f view, which could deform and change common things. So it comes as no surprise, that his extremely dynamic photos from the roofs were published in “Sovetskoye Kino” (Russian for “Soviet Cinema”) magazine (series “House on Myasnitskaya”, 1925 and “House of Mosselprom”). Around that time the artist also debuted as theoretician of photography: since 1927 he started publishing his articles on photographic problems (“About photo in that issue”, “Perspectives of contemporary photography” and others).

Rodchenko’s photography of 1930s

In 1930 Alexander Rodchenko was among founders of “October” photogroup. In 1931 he exhibited some controversial low-angle shots – “Pioneer girl”, “Pioneer with trumpet” (both 1930) and “The Vakhtan lumber mill” (1931) – at the group’s show in the House of Publishing. That gave an occasion to the artist’s harsh criticism in formalism and digression from the general vector of the development of the “proletarian photography” (some even ironically commented his “Pioneer with the trumpet” looked like a “well-fed bourgeois”).

In 1932 Alexander broke up with “October” group and worked as a photographer for the Izogiz publishing house. Yet, some of his experiments were too audacious for the beginning of 1930s. Besides, participation in the documentation of the White Sea–Baltic Canal’s building prompted the master to overthink the correlation between art and reality, which occurred less inspiring. Hence, the subject of grandiose socialistic buildings and new soviet actuality was ousted by the special world of sport and magic reality of circus. The latter was depicted in a number of the photographer’s serieses, which were supposed to be included into the “USSR in Construction”. Unfortunately, the edition was sent for the press only five days before the intervention of German troops to the USSR and was never published.

Last decades

In the post-war years Alexander Rodchenko was actively engaged in design projects and returned to painting, though kept on occasionally making documental photography. His “non-standard” pieces raised certain doubts among the officials. The faction between the artist and those in power finished in 1951 after this exclusion from the Association of Artists in 1951. Anyway, he was reinstated again in three years.

Alexander Rodchenko died on October 3, 1956 after the stroke.