Communist and Constructivist: A Perspective Look At The Work Of Alexander Rodchenko

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Art in the 21st century has generally taught us that anyone can be an artist and anything can be a movement. Today it is even harder to find a particular artist that can be described as the initiator or the “father” of any modern movement. In the early 20th century however, there began a movement that brought together functionality and design in a way that would inspire future artists in Modernism, Cubism, Futurism, and Minimalism for decades to come. The movement was called Constructivism and the father of this movement? Alexander Rodchenko.

Communist and Constructivist: A Perspective Look At The Work Of Alexander Rodchenko

 

Art in the 21st century has generally taught us that anyone can be an artist and anything can be a movement. Today it is even harder to find a particular artist that can be described as the initiator or the “father” of any modern movement. In the early 20th century however, there began a movement that brought together functionality and design in a way that would inspire future artists in Modernism, Cubism, Futurism, and Minimalism for decades to come. The movement was called Constructivism and the father of this movement? Alexander Rodchenko. *(Sometimes spelt Aleksandr)

Alexander Rodchenko emerged from humble beginnings in St. Petersburg, Russia where he was born in 1891. When Rodchenko was 18 years old, his father died, which could have inspired Rodchenko to start his artistic journey because in 1910, Alexander Rodchenko enrolled at the Kazan Art School where he began his training under renowned Russian-American painter, Nicholai Fechin. Four years later, he decided to continue his education in Moscow at another art institute where he would dabble in art abstraction under the influence of Kasimir Malevich who had been teaching his Suprematist style compositions at the art school in Vitebsk, Russia, in 1919. Two years previous, in 1917, Russia saw an outbreak of revolutions, which toppled the Tsarist Autocratic Empire and transformed the new Russian provisional government into Communist Government.

In the following years, a deadly civil war occurred between the Bolshevik’s and the Anti-Bolshevik’s commonly referred to as the Reds and the Whites. This revolution spurned a sense of national pride similar to the Industrial Revolution in America. Suddenly, the entire country was geared towards mechanization, industry, a promising future, and a general discarding of anything that does not serve a specific purpose, in this case that meant the arts. The revolution set in motion the establishment of the USSR in 1922. This ideal would go on to inspire countless works of art ranging from Suprematism to Constructivism, De Stijl, Futurism and also directly influence El Lissitzky’s famous poster, “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” in 1919.

Alexander Rodchenko was also deeply affected by this new world order that his country had established through social conflict & triumph and helped him find his artistic voice. Rodchenko believed that art should have a purely practical, socially useful role as an extension of industrial mass-production. These years and the ones that followed would prove to be the most important of Alexander Rodchenko’s life, shaping his ideology into a constructivist powerhouse of nationalistic reform. Constructivism was a philosophy rejected the idea of art’s function existing solely for the sake of art, commonly referred to as Art For Art’s Sake. Rodchenko was openly quoted about this, saying that "In order to educate man to a new longing, everyday familiar objects must be shown to him with totally unexpected perspectives and in unexpected situations. New objects should be depicted from different sides in order to provide a complete impression of the object."

The movement ultimately promoted art as a catalyst for social reform. This experiment into pictorial and conceptual art produced completely abstract artworks that separate geometric line, shape, color, negative & positive space, balance, and texture into a specific concept or ideal that the overall composition would communicate.

 

Constructivism introduced a new focus on the material elements of art, and its experimental zeitgeist was supported by a philosophy that art had to reiterate the revolutionary renovations occurring in Russian society & politics at the time. In fact, the term “Construction Art” was coined by Kasimir Malevich in reference to describing a particular work of art Rodchenko had done as a way of mocking his style.

In 1921 Alexander Rodchenko renounced fine art saying, "I am convinced that representation would never be back the way it was and that non-representation will die out in its own turn, paving the way for something entirely new, the beginning of which I am feeling right now." He especially condemned painting with an easel, which was popular for post-expressionist artists, and he became a central component of Productivism in various genres, including poster design and photography. Alexander Rodchenko’s work was characterized by the way he portrayed the rejection of conventional roles of self-expression. His Nihilist mentality and denouncement of aesthetic art make it difficult to refer to him as an artist, however Rodchenko is possibly the most important artist who threw his hat into the ring of political servitude.

He first exhibited his artworks as an ordinary painter, but his affiliation with Russian Suprematists and Futurists, influenced Rodchenko to develop his political ideals as a founder of the Russian Constructivist movement. Furthermore, his involvement with the Russian Revolution of 1917 inspired him to leave painting and fine art altogether to focus on Graphic Design. Rodchenko decided his skills could be better utilized designing everything from posters and advertisements to movies, and even book covers evidenced by his life’s work, which ceaselessly experimented with a vast array of genres including: painting, sculpture, graphic design, and photography. 

The early 1920’s were the pinnacle of Constructivism popularity and Alexander Rodchenko presented many of his works around this time. One of his most famous posters, the Plakat, Literacy Poster of 1924 (see Figure 1), which he designed for The Board for The Leningrad Branch of the State Publishing House called Gosizdat, exhibited several characteristics of the Constructivist style and his stylistic inclination became glaringly apparent. In Plakat, Rodchenko used a photograph he exhibited in an art show called Lily Brik, in 1924. Lilya Brik was a Russian socialite of the avant-garde who was known at the time for being a Muse to many different artists and most famously influenced the work of Vladimir Mayakovski, a famous Russian artist and actor, who she had a love affair with and who had collaborated with Rodchenko on the Rezinotrest company poster, in 1923, his first published photo-montage symbolizing Mayakovski’s poem, “About This.” The poster features Lilya with a hand held up to her wide-open mouth shouting, “BOOKS!” in Russian. The poster promoted literacy in the new soviet republic, and the graphical elements set a mood that was relevant to post-revolutionary Russian ideals.

In Plakat, the viewer is instantly captivated by dynamic sizes of bold, easily legible yet stylized typography and typographic style. The piece then directs the viewer’s attention around the composition with geometric precision. This very functional and geometric composition incorporated the Bauhaus style using the dramatic angles of shape and lines of type to create a sense of intensity and urgency. Many Constructivists used a limited color palette consisting of intense bold colors with a base hue. Red and black on top of a white background was indicative and almost a staple requirement of early constructivist work. The intense colors were usually matched with unexpected composition cropping, and intense contrast between the light and dark aspects of the artwork.

Much of Alexander Rodchenko’s work retained it’s clear, precise, and political awareness from his use of typography and excerpts taken from other photographs, staying in a 2-dimensional compositional area, with a contrasting, limited color palette of reds, blacks, and white shades of color. His posters, paintings, and photos generally eradicated redundant details and emphasized dynamic diagonal composition. He was also concerned with the placement and movement of objects in space.

Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko started the Productivist movement in 1921, which pushed for the introduction of art into every day life serving the new communist society, and was quoted as saying that, "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;" A concept that in many respects illustrates the foundation for graphic design in modern times.

In 1921, Alexander Rodchenko participated in an exhibition in Moscow, in which he revealed possibly the first monochromatic compositions in history (*See Figure 2). Three true, solid color canvases: one in a perfect base red hue, and the others in yellow and blue hues. Rodchenko declared The End of Painting saying that, "I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue, and yellow. I affirmed: it's all over." Believing that he broke painting down to its logical end and that there was no reason to ever use that medium again, this marked the beginning for a new way of looking at art that the likes of Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp would one day become famous for.

In conclusion, Alexander Rodchenko's many designs and artworks has had such a profound influence on designers of the 1900’s that it is simply unrealistic to document the astronomical number of imitators and enthusiasts that he helped inspire. Constructivism started as a response to World War I and more specifically the 1917 Russian Revolution, but although it was born of violent progress and industrialization constructivism sowed the seeds of hope in an otherwise bleak and dreary time in history. Alexander Rodchenko played a major role in typographic integrity and will forever go down in history and the face and voice of constructivism.

 

*Figure 1.) Alexander Rodchenko, Plakat, Literacy Poster, 1924

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*Figure 2.) Alexander Rodchenko, Red, Blue, & Yellow, 1921 

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Alexander Rodchenko. Non-objective composition, 1919

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Alexander Rodchenko. “Rechevik” Book Cover. 1929

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Alexander Rodchenko, Composition, 1918

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Alexander Rodchenko, Suprematist Composition, 1918

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Works Cited

  • John E. Bowlt, "Aleksandr Rodchenko Experiments for the Future: Diaries, Essays, Letters, and Other Writings," Museum of Modern Art New York, 2005, Page 31.

 

  • "Alexander Rodchenko: The Simple and the Commonplace," Hugh Adams. Artforum, Summer 1979. Page 28.

 

  • Mrazkova, Daniela and Remes, Vladimir "Early Soviet Photographers." Museum of Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, 1982, ISBN 0-905836-27-8

 

  • Philip B. Meggs, Alston W. Purvis, “Meggs’ History of Graphic Design” Hoboken, NJ - J. Wiley & Sons, ISBN: 0470168730

 

  • Orlando Figes, “A Peoples Tragedy”, Page 370.

 

  • Alistair Rider, Professor of Art History/University of St. Andrews “Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko” TheArtStory.Org, 2010


Submitted: December 15, 2014

© Copyright 2021 John Moore. All rights reserved.

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