Saturday, December 3, 2016

Photos to surprise and amaze

‘I want to make photos such as I’ve never made before, ones that are life itself and the most genuine life, photos that are simple and complex at the same time, that will surprise and amaze . . .’ This is the Russian artist and Constructivist pioneer, Aleksander Mikhailovich Rodchenko who died 60 years ago today. Having turned from art to photography in his 20s, he was only a few years away from switching back to painting, though he would never enjoy the success of his early years again. According to the Museum of Modern Art, which put on the first major retrospective of his work in 1998, Rodchenko remained steadfastly committed to the ideals of the Revolution. However, his diaries - English translations of which MoMA has published - suggest he never understood the forces that eventually drove him from prominence.

Rodchenko was born in St Petersburg in 1891. On the death of his father, in 1907, his working class family moved to Kazan. His interest in art seems to have come about through magazines rather than any contact with the art world. He enrolled at the Kazan School of Fine Arts in 1910, where he met Varvara Stepanova, whom he later married. They had one child together, also Varvara, born in 1925. Rodchenko moved to Moscow to continue his art studies at the Stroganov Institute. He was much influenced by Kazimir Malevich, the pioneer of geometric abstract art and the originator of the avant-garde Suprematist movement. In 1915, Rodchenko participated in The Store exhibition organised by Vladimir Tatlin, a painter and architect, who was also an important influence on the young Rodchenko - especially towards Constructivism and the use of art for social purposes.

Rodchenko clearly thrived in the conditions following the Bolshevik Revolution. He worked at the People’s Commissariat for Education (or Narkompros), being appointed director of the Museum Bureau and Purchasing Fund in 1920, responsible for the reorganisation of art schools and museums. He was one of the organisers of RABIS (the trade union of art workers). He taught at the Higher Technical-Artistic Studios from 1920 to 1930, and he also helped found the Institute for Artistic Culture.

Culture Trip’s biography says this: ‘Featuring bright primary colors, aggressive geometric shapes and repeated bold lettering, Rodchenko successfully underpinned the stark dynamism of the Soviet regime. In rejecting passivity, the aim was to transform the submissive viewer into an active observer. With this in mind, he often worked with his wife Varvara Stepanova, providing graphic design for advertisements ranging from children’s dummies and cooking oil to beer and pharmaceuticals. In the 1920s, the regime had fully adopted Rodchenko as one of its tools for shaping the face of Soviet advertising.’ Indeed, together with the poet and playwright, Vladimir Mayakovsy, Rodchenko viewed himself as a crucial figure in the artistic representation of the regime. One of his best known images is the film poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin.

Increasingly, Rodchenko turned to photography, and impressed by the kind of photomontage being produced by the German Dadaists, he turned his own artistic endeavours to photomontage often incorporating text. In the 1930s, with the changing guidelines governing artistic practice, he concentrated on sports photography and images of parades and other choreographed movements. He had joined the October Group of artists in 1928 but was expelled after three years, charged with “formalism”. By the 1940s, he had returned to painting, producing abstract expressionist works, though he continued to organise photography exhibitions for the government. He died on 3 December 1956.

Culture Trip’s biography concludes with this assessment: ‘Rodchenko was both an upholder and a transgressor of the Communist regime. Throughout his life, he was a passionate believer in the new future of the Soviet Union, yet ultimately, his work failed to comply with the political and social values of Russia at the time. Nonetheless, his legacy continues to define modernist art, especially in the mediums of painting, graphic design and photography. The latter has, in many ways, contributed to the entire notion of modern European camerawork.’ Further information is available from Wikipedia, The Creators Project, The Culture Trip or an article in The Telegraph.

Rodchenko was an interesting diarist, intermittently documenting his professional and private thoughts alongside more philosophical musings. When MoMA put on a major retrospective of Rodchenko’s work in 1998, it also produced a major book on Rodchenko, which drew, to some extent, on his diaries. Aleksandr Rodchenko by Magdalena Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman and Peter Galassi, with essays by Aleksandr Lavrentiev and Varvara Rodchenko, is freely available as a pdf on the MoMA website.

Here is one paragraph from the introduction: ‘Rodchenko was an original theorist of art, but he was not a political thinker. He remained steadfastly committed to the ideals of the Revolution, and his diaries suggest that he never understood the forces that drove him from the prominence he had enjoyed in the decade after 1917, and eventually rendered him, as he put it, “an invisible man.” In the mid-1930s the artist who had boldly renounced painting in 1921 again began to paint - not abstract works but imaginary circus scenes. These paintings signal his alienation from the thrilling collective enterprise to which he had dedicated his life and from which he had drawn much of his unflagging inventiveness. In the 1940s he also painted abstract works of somewhat greater interest, but these too are omitted from the present exhibition. For as his diaries express, they are not products of a sustained creativity but of a painful and bewildering isolation, suffered by an artist whose work had been deeply rooted in collective goals. By the late 1930s Rodchenko and Stepanova were largely excluded from official culture, despite the design commissions they continued to receive from time to time. Like most Russians they suffered miserably during World War II, from which Rodchenko never fully recovered.’

And elsewhere in the book, there is a little more, including a diary extract, about this latter period in Rodchenko’s life: ‘Rodchenko’s diaries from the mid-1930s until his death in 1956 are saturated with suffering, especially during World War II, when like millions of other Russians he and Stepanova spent much of their time and energy simply on finding enough to eat. The entry for August 11, 1943, reads in part:

‘Can it be that someday a middle-aged Mulia [Rodchenko’s nickname for his only child, i.e. Varvara] and her children will sit here, and that she’ll look at my things and think: what a pity my father didn’t live to see this, he’s been recognized at last and there’s a demand for his things. . . . People are buying them. . . . They’re hanging in the museum. … [. . .] My future Mulia, your late father can honestly tell you: and what he can tell you is that he wasn’t certain, and even that he was totally uncertain, and that the uncertainty was like a disease. He didn’t know why he kept working. And that there were times like now when he thought all his work would be destroyed, thrown out and not a single piece would be left anywhere. [ ... ] Dear Mulia! Maybe you will be poisoned by all of this. . . . But I wish you no harm. Better to throw all of this away and live simply “like everybody else.” But I did have fame and a European reputation, I was known in France, Germany, America. And now I have nothing.’ ’

Several contributors to this book reference an English translation by James West, commissioned by MoMA, of a 1996 compilation of Rodchenko’s writings published in Russia. However, for whatever reason, West’s translation itself was never published, and it was not until 2005 that MoMA published an English version of the Russian book,
 as translated by Jamey Gambrell, with the title: Experiments for the Future: Diaries, Essays, Letters, and Other Writings. This book contains four sets of diary extracts - from 1911-1915; from 1934, 1936-1940; from 1941-1944; and from 1944-1954 - amounting to around 100 pages, a quarter of the total. Here are several of those extracts.

18 August 1912
‘In the evening Mam and I like to sit and talk over tea. I love it when she tells stories. The lamp. . . A little samovar . . . Her father was a sailor, served twenty-five years. He was a small, nimble man with a pointed beard and gray eyes. He married a girl from a rich peasant home. And left for the Turkish campaign . . . Their ship was destroyed, and he floated on the wreckage with other sailors, there were fifteen of them. They floated for a long time, three days, hungry and cold. They were taken on board a ship and brought home. Her papa was sick for a long time . . . He was given a job at a gunpowder factory, where he worked stuffing the cartridges with gunpowder. But he soon died . . . They had to go to Petersburg, where my Mama’s mama took up a position. Mama was given away for one chervonets, she was seven years old. . . She babysat the kids. And that’s how her life began . . .’

4 February 1934
‘How many interesting things have been missed that you can’t depict with either a Leica or a drawing. So I begin to write. . .
A certain loneliness from my private life being not quite in order forces me to write . . .
You don’t know what’s interesting: private life together with work, or just work alone.
Probably one should write what one lives and breathes by. And as to who will find it interesting, it doesn’t matter. Moreover, one has to write every day. It disciplines.
Twenty years ago I wrote a diary, and it seems to me that what I wrote had no meaning, either then or now . . .
A page is begun . . . My private life is over, my work isn’t moving.
Philosophy of diary writing: I read Varvara’s diary and I see that there are few concrete facts, it’s a lot of philosophy in general, probably one should write quite simply, like a log one keeps on a ship.
I’m drawing a caricature of Freberg and the publishing section of Politizdat. I want to do caricatures [. . .], and put together an evening exhibition in the studio - but why? I don’t know. A diary is a strange thing; everything looks dumb, somehow. It’s possible that when a person is completely opened up, the emptiness and silliness is terribly embarrassing.
I’m beginning to understand that one needs to record and not philosophize . . .
For example, in the Mostorg store, the price of electric plugs - one ruble - is twice what is in the VEO [Electrical Society] store on Miasnitskaia - fifty kopecks. True, this isn’t particularly interesting, but it’s a fact.
I’m writing like you take an exam, and this is my own exam, it’s stricter that way. Have to write to that, it will be interesting for me to read. Don’t feel like writing about love, you can’t exactly write the same way as writing letters to her . . .’

18 February 1934
‘Today I began to paint the circus tor myself, and thought: What if I painted the first painting, the circus, in black and pink, huge and complicated, 200 x 120cm, and then the Dinamo stadium: gray and green.
Zhenia called, wants me to come shoot something tomorrow. I feel like going off somewhere tomorrow. 
Alone. Neither with her nor without her. . .
I want to print all the “Leftorvo,” “Dinamo,” “Park of Culture and Leisure” [photos}. I’m forty-two, and it’s terrible . . .
I’m reading about Courbet, he worked like an ox.’

20 February 1934
‘Yesterday I was at the Press House with Zhenia . . .
The question is coming up bluntly, either live with her once and for all or say good-bye, PART. She’ll want to go visiting, to go to parties for the evening, and I need to work seriously; 26-43, it’s mathematics. Its reality.’

21 February 1934
‘I wrote a farewell letter to Zh. Drew a little. The feeling is like I just got home alter the hospital, and I’m not myself. I keep rifling around the shelves looking for something . . . And I’m looking for my certainty and calm . . . I look at magazines, read about painting  . . . I want to start everything from the beginning. . .’

14 March 1934
‘There’s a proposal to go to Kramatorka, to photograph the finished workshops of the factory and make ten albums for a report and for showing the government.
I’ve begun packing, I’m even taking the enlarger with me, and I decided to try to keep a diary of the trip. I’m leaving on March 17th. Tomorrow I go to the Trust to arrange the tickets. . . I don’t know what the weather will be like, recently it has been cold, snowing. I also have to fix the Leica tomorrow, to try out the film . . . I want to photograph not just the workshop and factory but make new photographs of everyday life and types, too. . .
I want to make photos such as I’ve never made before, ones that are life itself and the most genuine life, photos that are simple and complex at the same time, that will surprise and amaze . . .
Otherwise there’s nothing to do in photography, then it’s worth working and fighting for photography as art.’

25 August 1936
‘The most interesting books are those written not by writers but by people who have experienced and seen a great deal and who feel acutely. Moreover, they love, hate, and want a lot. . . Everyone who feels he thinks differently should definitely write. Write everything down and you will be better than the aristocrats of the spirit, who invent things in studies.
History will ask what you, “the non-honored” did and thought.
We don’t agree with the depicters, those like Gladkov, et al. Maybe it was all invented, spiced up with other people’s accomplishments from books, newspapers, and magazines.’

27 December 1944
‘I’m not working. We’re living bunched into one room, three or even four, also Mulia’s Kolya. It’s plus five degrees in the studio.
It’s cold. The gas isn’t on. Kerosene is 30 rub. a liter.
Electricity from six in the evening until six in the morning, that’s until January 1st. From January they’ll turn off the allocation on household necessities. I’m working as head artist in the House of Technology, I get 3,000 rub. a month. My student, Volodya Meshcherin, set it up, he’s a head engineer now, and a professor.
We wash ourselves now in parts in a cold kitchen.
I do my own laundry.
The war still isn’t over. . . There’s still another year left of it.
We are gallivanting across Europe with cannons. We’re taking Budapest. But there’s still no end.
And we ourselves don’t have firewood or fuel in Moscow.
We’re wearing rags, the bathhouses aren’t working. . .’

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