A review of “Rodchenko and Popova; Defining Constructivism” at the Tate Modern.
Standing in front of one of Liubov Popova’s astonishing works in her 1918 painterly architectonics series, you get the impression that you are witnessing before your eyes the formation of a brand new aesthetic. The smashed shards of the old order are being thrust together at impossible angles to form exhilarating new structures, and before the dust settles are torn apart and reconfigured in the next startling painting. Such is the urgency and bristling energy displayed in the first part of the Tate Modern’s new exhibition “Rodchenko and Popova; Defining Constructivism.”
In these early paintings, the emergence of non-objectivism can be seen with all its radical new imagery and heady ambition. These works capture the spirit of revolution perfectly. Not intended as an end in itself, the new aesthetic represents a noisy, cluttered and complex transition from old to new. In this thrilling phase, using the materials available, art must take on a new precedence in society, and these two artists seem up to the task. While Popova constructs futuristic visions on plywood, with metal dust mixed into the paint, Rodchenko experiments with texture, form and line in pieces that seem as shockingly modern and bold now as they no doubt must have done to his contemporaries.
Both artists betray an ambition way beyond the two dimensional surface, and as the exhibition progresses the two rapidly advance into new territory and continue to explore new roles for art. Popova shows a great talent for set design, textiles and linocut prints which displays a desire to disseminate her work more effectively. Meanwhile, Rodchenko applies the abstract geometric principles of non-objective art to lamp shades, sculpture, furnishings, newspaper stands and an aircraft storehouse.
In a later part of the exhibition, the new guiding principle in artistic pursuit becomes organisation. Rodchenko, who is perhaps better known for his later photographic work, shows an incredible flair for graphic design and propaganda, and as the new economic policy comes into effect produces a truly dizzying volume of work. Advertisements for rubber shoes and red october biscuits are perhaps a misuse of his talents but as the Soviet Union moves into the difficulties of the 1920s the Bolsheviks recognised a need for bold images to both educate and propagandise.
Rodchenko and Popova both produce amazing work in this area, from abstract Trade Union posters to the development of a new montage style to depict historical material. In a series of posters, Rodchenko illustrates the history of the Bolshevik party with newspaper excerpts, archival images and striking design. Other highlights in this flurry of material include Popova’s slogan posters for Earth in Turmoil, a theatrical project with Meirkhol’d and Rodchenko’s title designs for Dziga Vertov’s cutting edge newsreel series Kino-Pravda (Cine-Truth). These films documenting an idealised image of everyday life in Soviet Russia were intended to be projected in workplaces and on the streets, to become fully integrated into the surroundings.
It is at this point in the exhibition that it becomes clear that the Constructivist’s vision for art’s new role in society has become warped and distorted. Instead of providing inspiration and delight, Rodchenko and Popova’s powerful visual material is used to obscure and repackage the hard truths of Soviet life. Where this exhibition really succeeds is in recreating the energy and overwhelming upheaval of the emerging Soviet Union with a giddying amount of works and points of interest, while still retaining a logical progression to allow the artist’s development to emerge. The historic context isn’t imposed upon the work, but rather emanates from it, allowing the art to stand in it’s own right.
There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to learn from this exhibition. It runs from the experiments in non-objectivism at the dawn of the Revolution right up to Popova’s tragically early death in 1924 and Rodchenko’s homage to her in the form of a posthumous display of her work. At the mid point is a showcase within a showcase; a recreation of the 5X5=25 exhibition where Rodchenko displays his farewell to painting in the form of a triptych in the three primary colours. In 1927 he wrote of his paintings “...They are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose whatsoever.” He was wrong of course, but this is a bold statement of artistic intent. In the last room of the exhibition, spectators are able to enjoy his design for a Workers Club, a collective leisure space including a surprisingly comfortable set of chairs with integrated chess board. The Constructivist’s artistic vision of transforming everyday life may have been obscured, but it was never forgotten.
Defining Constructivism is now open at the Tate Modern and runs until May 17th.