Alexander Rodchenko - Biography and Legacy
Russian Designer, Painter, Photographer, and Sculptor
St. Petersburg, Russia
Biography of Alexander Rodchenko
Alexander Rodchenko was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to a working class family. His father, Mikhail Rodchenko, was a theater props manager and his mother, Olga, a washerwoman. The family's social status did not provide much opportunity for the artistic education of talented Alexander. It is still unclear what training (if any) Rodchenko might have acquired as a child. The family moved to the city of Kazan in 1905. Two years later, Mikhail passed away, but they were able to allocate some of the family's scarce funds for Alexander's education.
Rodchenko enrolled in the Kazan School of Art, where he studied from 1910 to 1914 under Nikolai Feshin and Georgii Medvedev. The young artist quickly absorbed the basic principles of the academic training, earning high praise from his instructors. In 1914, he met Varvara Stepanova, a fellow student. They became life-long partners and artistic collaborators.
Kazan proved to be too small and stifling for Rodchenko's emerging vision. He and Stepanova journeyed to Moscow in 1915 to acquire more meaningful exposure to the nascent Russian modernism, permanently settling there in 1916. Rodchenko attended the Stroganov Institute, where he studied drawing, painting, and art history.
In Moscow, Rodchenko was influenced by the key figures of the Russian avant-garde movement, namely Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich. He executed his first abstract drawing, reminiscent of Malevich's Suprematist compositions, in 1915. But it was not only the avant-garde artistic milieu that influenced him. Through his acquaintances with liberal thinkers such as the Futurists David Burliuk and Vasily Kamensky, Rodchenko found himself in the heart of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
Rodchenko's involvement with the Bolshevik cause was both ideological and aesthetic. As a working class young man, he witnessed firsthand the social injustice of Tsarist Russia. Rodchenko deeply believed in the power of art as a driving force of social transformation, as is detailed in many of his letters and diaries, which were only recently translated into English. Rodchenko embraced the emerging aesthetics of Russian Constructivism, becoming a leading member of the group.
Rodchenko's early years demonstrated his artistic talent and quest for innovation. From 1917 to 1918, he was mainly experimenting with flat geometric compositions. Then, in 1919, he created an entirely abstract series of Black on Black paintings, which might be read as a response to the spiritualism of Malevich's Black Square (1915). While Malevich's work seemed to herald the end of painting, it also touted a spiritualism that Rodchenko rejected. The Black on Black paintings, similarly reductive, though not as extreme as the Black Square, emphasized instead the material qualities of picture-making.
In the early years of the Soviet Republic, Rodchenko, alongside his friend and colleague Wassily Kandinsky, was actively engaged in the government reform of art collections and education. In 1917, he became secretary of the Professional Union of Artist-Painters, joining the Izo (Otdel Izobrazitel'nykh Iskusstv or the Section of Visual Arts), as one of the presiding officials the following year.
In 1920, he was appointed the Director of the Museum Bureau and Purchasing Fund, a newly created agency in charge of the immense art collections transferred by the Bolsheviks from the palaces of the rich into the public domain. During his tenure, Rodchenko acquired 1,926 works of modern and contemporary art by 415 artists and established 30 public museums in Russian provinces.
While organizing the provincial museums, Rodchenko trained artists to serve the Communist state at the Higher Technical Artistic Studios. He taught the same principles that shaped his own artistic discourse; he rejected illusory representation as an outdated form hindered by the capitalist visual agenda, denounced painting as a domineering visual genre, preferring design, which challenged the notion of a work of art as a unique commodity, and, even more radically, promoted the idea of an artist as an engineer, a key creative force at the service of the masses.
In 1921, Rodchenko joined the Productivist movement, a group of artists devoted to the idea of incorporating artistic forms into the daily lives of common people. As a member of the group, Rodchenko designed notable utilitarian objects, including furniture, various household items, and textile patterns. More importantly, he became involved in bringing Constructivist forms into the mass visual propaganda of the Bolsheviks. His posters, such as Books (1924), became an icon of the early Soviet state and its artistic fervor. These works are still considered a pinnacle of modern graphic design today.
The ideas of Wassily Kandinsky may have been an important influence on Rodchenko in the early Soviet years, since the two were closely associated. But while Kandinsky was interested in the expressive possibilities of art, Rodchenko was increasingly interested in its potential as a laboratory for design and construction. This difference is reflected in his interest in line as an elemental component of painting. However, his final statements in painting returned to the issue of color; in 1921, he exhibited the groundbreaking triptych Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color (1921) comprised of purely monochrome panels of those colors.
In 1921, Rodchenko took a decisive, although temporary, break from painting. Instead, he concentrated on creating three-dimensional models of design objects, architectural sketches, and photography. He also created sets for film and theatre and designed furniture and clothes. From 1923 to 1925, he collaborated with the great avant-garde poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, illustrating some of his books and magazines for progressive Soviet writers such as LEF and NOVYI LEF.
It was through photography that Rodchenko enjoyed the most success in the 1920s. Employed as a correspondent for a number of Soviet newspapers and magazines, his photographs were exhibited all over the world. He was universally praised for his avant-garde compositions and experimental approach to focus and contrast in his photographs.
Late Years and Death
By the middle of the 1930s, Rodchenko fell out of favor with the Communist Party. The regime's visual ideology was completely transformed when Joseph Stalin came to power. The free-spirited avant-garde aesthetic was now actively suppressed by the state. Rodchenko and his wife were lucky not to perish in Stalin's Great Purges that swept through the Soviet Union and exterminated many individuals who came to prominence at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. With Social Realism becoming the official art of the U.S.S.R., Rodchenko's paintings and designs were openly condemned by the authorities for so-called "formalism."
As such, Rodchenko turned to photojournalism. His photographic images epitomized the era of High Stalinism by depicting lavish parades, immense industrial undertakings, and the decisive transformation of agriculture. Naturally, Rodchenko was explicitly forbidden to capture the horrendous human toll of this sweeping modernization. In the 1940s, he returned to painting, executing a number of powerful abstract expressionist compositions. These works, however, were never to be seen by his contemporaries, for they openly contradicted the officially sanctioned aesthetics. He continued his work as a photographer throughout the Stalin years, until his death in 1956.
The Legacy of Alexander Rodchenko
As a key figure of the Russian modernist movement, the art of Alexander Rodchenko helped redefine three key visual genres of modernism: painting, photography, and graphic design. In his paintings, the artist further explored and expanded the essential vocabulary of an abstract composition. His series of purely abstract proto-monochrome paintings were influential to artists such as Ad Reinhardt and the Minimalists of the 1960s. In the field of photography, he established unprecedented compositional paradigms, which in many ways still define the entire notion of modern photographic art. Rodchenko's involvement with the Bolshevik cause further propelled the appreciation of his art in the leftist circles of the American avant-garde.