Alexander Rodchenko

Magdalena Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman, and Peter Galassi. Aleksandr Rodchenko. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998. 

This exhibition catalogue, published in conjunction with the first major American retrospective of Aleksandr Rodchenko at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, is a significant contribution to the fairly limited literature on this artist currently available in English. Scholarly essays by exhibition organizers Magdelana Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman, and Peter Galassi are supplemented by texts contributed by Varvara Rodchenko and Aleksandr Lavrent’ev, the artist’s daughter and grandson (custodians of the Rodchenko-Stepanova Family Archive, a major source of materials for the exhibition).

The numerous high quality reproductions, including many of works held in private collections or by museums in remote regions of Russia, are of great value to both the general reader and the specialist. As a whole, the catalogue provides a solid introduction to the work and career of this important Soviet artist. Yet for the more specialized reader, careful scrutiny of the catalogue raises a variety of methodological problems and ethical issues. Rodchenko was an unconventional artist whose large, diverse body of work encompasses many unusual types of artistic production that severely challenge customary modernist scholarship and museum practice. This brief essay will employ the exhibition catalogue as an opportunity to consider a few of these methodological challenges.

At the very outset of this publication, an anonymous foreward links Rodchenko to the prehistory of the Museum of Modern Art via Alfred Barr’s contact with the artist during his trip to Moscow in 1927-1928. Rodchenko is presented as a great modern artist, part of a heroic tradition that the Museum of Modern Art has cultivated and institutionally maintained since its inception in 1929. Next, an anonymous introduction outlines the social, political and historical context of Rodchenko’s life and work, sketching a modernist image of a diverse innovator and great artist.

The catalogue presents a remarkably consistent artist, whose work across diverse media and several decades is dominated by bold geometric patterning, linear forms, and a solid sense of design. But this clarity of presentation was achieved in part by careful editing of Rodchenko’s career. Early and late figurative paintings were largely excluded from consideration, his late graphic and book designs for prominent Soviet publications and patrons are given cursory treatment, and his theater and film designs were entirely omitted.

While the alleged paucity of surviving material was offered as the reason for exclusion of the latter, it seems more likely that this omission is rather a reflection of the legacy of American formalist art criticism and its rejection of the “theatrical” (a key component of this criticism emphasizes the formal purity of distinct disciplines of art; “theatricality” is shunned for its intersection and blending of forms).

The imposition of a rigorous modernist logic upon Rodchenko’s career is particularly evident in Dabrowski’s essay. In her discussion of Rodchenko’s works from the late teens and early 1920s, Dabrowski outlines a logical, linear development. While providing numerous valuable insights on Rodchenko’s early work and theory, Dabrowski fails to adequately account for the multiplicity of his practice and its illogical superabundance. Drawing primarily upon the artist’s own claims, Dabrowski’s text exaggerates the “ingeniousness” and “newness” of Rodchenko’s work in contrast to that of his contemporaries. Staking his black paintings against Kazimir Malevich’s white paintings and his spatial constructions against Vladimir Tatlin’s reliefs and counter-reliefs, Dabrowski argues for the supremacy of Rodchenko, for his eclipse of this slightly earlier generation of artists. Such concepts as “avant-garde”, “innovation” and “originality” permeate this text and are deployed to bolster Rodchenko’s reputation as a great artist.

However, in the wake of the Russian Revolution the very concept “avant-garde” — and related terms — became problematic with the alignment of artists with the Soviet state. Since the avant-garde is usually defined as either an oppositional culture or in terms of its positioning in relation to the status quo, the changed circumstances of cultural production after the Bolshevik Revolution, when artists like Tatlin and Rodchenko took up positions within the Soviet cultural bureaucracy,necessitate a reassessment of these concepts and their applicability in the Soviet context.

While excluding set designs, the catalogue includes an extensive selection of Rodchenko’s non-theatrical design work. In her essay for the catalogue, Leah Dickerman insightfully presents this body of work as a central part of his creative practice, yet she neglects the broader context of the production of these designs. Dickerman’s treatment of this aspect of Rodchenko’s work reveals significant limitations of the monographic approach to the study of such an individual as Rodchenko, who was engaged with numerous creative groups, collaborated frequently with other artists and writers, and worked extensively in graphic design and photojournalism — work that obligated coordination with editors, art directors, other photographers, and Soviet bureaucrats.

Consideration of the broader context of production behind the publication of posters, books, magazines and newspapers presents numerous questions concerning collaboration, authorship, and identity. Dickerman’s essay largely neglects the working process behind Rodchenko’s design. By failing to address context, Dickerman’s readings of such works as a series of posters designed for the Museum of the Revolution and the Communist Academy gives far too much volition to the individual artist. The similarity of these posters to a related series designed by El Lissitzky suggests that many decisions regarding both the content and format of the posters were probably beyond the artists’ control.(See David Elliott et al, Photography in Russia 1840-1940 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 202.) Similarly, Dickerman asserts in relation to the White Sea Canal issue of SSSR na stroike that “it bears his imprint entirely.” Does it? What about the contributions of the writer Lev Slavin, the managing editor Petr Krasnov, or the heavy-hitting editorial board of Soviet industrial managers?

Again, the image of the modernist master overshadows the collaborative publication process. In a related vein, photographs by Rodchenko that were published in the mass media are considered largely in isolation. In an otherwise convincing analysis of Rodchenko’s photographs of the AMO automobile factory that were published in the magazine Daesh, Dickerman does not even mention the extensive accompanying texts. Who were the authors? What is the relation of image to text? Were the photographs and text conceived and produced as a united whole? Or was the text primary to the photographs? Or vice versa? While these are important questions to consider in exploring the publication of visual representations in the mass media, the catalogue’s narrow monographic presentation of Rodchenko as a genius modern master led to a much impoverished discussion of this aspect of his work.

In the essay “Rodchenko and Photography’s Revolution”, Peter Galassi attempts to compensate for his admitted ignorance of the Russian language by considering Rodchenko’s work through the prism of German modernist photography. This approach is somewhat problematic in that Modernity in Soviet Russia took a very different form than that in more industrially developed countries of Western Europe and the United States. The paucity of serious scholarship on Soviet photography also hinders this attempt to explore Rodchenko’s work through German modernist photography.

While Galassi asserts at the start of his essay that “it is possible to map Rodchenko’s immediate cultural environment in considerable detail”, no such map presently exists for Soviet photography — except in a very schematic and lopsided form that favors a few modernist photographers and photomonteurs. Galassi follows other authors in reducing the history of Soviet photography before World War Two to the work of Rodchenko. Aside from the documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov, virtually no other possible Soviet influences or related currents are explored in his essay. Other than a minor footnote reference to Boris Ignatovich, Eliazar Langman, and Arkadii Shaikhet, there is no mention of other significant Soviet photographers. Here the imposition of a totalizing vision is not enacted by the Soviet state — but by an American curator.

Despite his claimed tactic of considering Rodchenko’s work through the prism of German modernist photography, Galassi outlines a history and renders judgments on Soviet photography that go beyond the limits of his expertise. For this reviewer, his highly erroneous characterization of the magazine Sovetskoe foto as earnestly promoting a “retardataire Pictorialist aesthetic” signaled a profound misreading of Soviet photography of the 1920s and 1930s. Unable to directly access such invaluable sources as the debates carried out within Sovetskoe foto, Galassi misreads numerous incidents, documents and images and is unable to adequately situate Rodchenko’s work within the chaotic cultural shifts of this period.

For instance, in his discussion of attacks on Rodchenko during the Class War in the early 1930s, Galassi refers to the alleged denunciation of Rodchenko’s Pioneer.(Galassi cites the source of this information as Margarita Tupitsyn, The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).) This example is entirely misleading, and the denunciation is presented very much out of context. This comment was initially published in Sovetskoe foto in 1936 and was purportedly made by a critic at one of the debates that took place in conjunction with the exhibition Masters of Soviet Photographic Art in 1935.(Lev Mezhericher, “O trekh opasnostiakh,” Sovetskoe foto, 1936, no. 5-6: 38.)

In the wake of this exhibition, where he exhibited Pioneer alongside photographs of the White Sea Canal and leading secret police officials, Rodchenko rose to the great eminence in the Soviet photography establishment. This rise also coincided with Stalin’s promotion of Vladimir Mayakovsky as “the best Soviet poet” in 1935, an event that increased Rodchenko’s stature in Soviet culture due to his celebrated portrait photographs of his dead poet friend. The denunciation of Pioneer was published not as an attack on Rodchenko, but as an example of idiotic criticism and, indeed, it may have functioned as an attack on a relatively obscure critic who dared defame Rodchenko.

Despite assertions to the contrary, Rodchenko was far from a marginal figure in Soviet culture of the 1930s. Admittedly, the quantity of his production decreased after 1933, and the artist resumed painting for his personal enjoyment. However, these changes in his work cannot be solely attributed to the repressive cultural policies of Stalin’s regime. Other factors, such as psychological depression, may have been at work. Recently published excerpts from Rodchenko’s diary suggest that the artist had several tragic extramarital affairs during the 1930s.(Aleksandr Rodchenko, Opyty dlia budushchego (Moscow: Grant’, 1996), 292-369.) Diary entries from 1934 indicate that Rodchenko was romantically involved with Evgeniia Lemberg, another photographer who is often euphemistically–and chauvinistically–referred to as his “student.”

In that same year, Lemberg died in a fatal accident during a train journey that Rodchenko was supposed to accompany her upon. At the last minute, Rodchenko delayed his own travel by one day. This postponement may well have saved his life, but it also appears to have caused him great grief. In 1938, Evgeniia’s sister Regina Lemberg died of gangrene. A diary entry after her cremation ceremony suggests that Rodchenko had an affair with Regina after Evgeniia’s death.

Subsequent diary entries suggest that Rodchenko continued to dream about and mourn the loss of Evgeniia for years after her death. Indeed, Rodchenko may well have been very much like other melancholic modern artists whose self-doubt and psychological dispositions severely affected their productive careers. However, the specter of Stalinism has retarded any search for other possible causes for Rodchenko’s decline other than political repression.

While Rodchenko’s late work was largely excluded from the parameters of the exhibition, the artist’s later career and works hang like a fog over this volume. Unavoidable, the later trajectory of Rodchenko and his career is repeatedly referenced in passing, but without careful interrogation or investigation. The catalogue largely excludes the later Stalinist period, but continuously returns to it in a traumatic manner. In Benjaminian terms, the exclusion of these works from the exhibition and serious scholarly attention in the catalogue heightened their cult value and auratic quality.

The sacral nature of these images was increased by their not being on display, by their inaccessibility. And what cult does the exclusion of these images promote? That of the mythic heroic Soviet avant-garde and its purported martyrs, including Rodchenko. The catalogue pays lip service to Boris Grois, without fully comprehending how Grois’ argument should have impacted the Museum of Modern Art’s presentation of Rodchenko’s work. By avoiding a careful presentation and analysis of this later body of work, the exhibition organizers missed a significant opportunity for the reappraisal of Soviet art and visual culture.

An ancient monastery on Solovetskii Island in the middle of the White Sea in Northern Russia is the site of the first Soviet political prison, the first island of the Gulag Archipelago. An installation by Aleksandr Bazhenov at the museum housed in the former prison presents photographs and brief biographies of individuals who were imprisoned or perished on the island — intellectuals, politicians, religious figures, art historians, students, even children — against a backdrop of Soviet mass media images of the 1930s. Among these joyous propaganda images celebrating the Soviet regime are several photographs by Rodchenko.

While perpetuating an image of the artist as a victim of the Soviet regime, the Museum of Modern Art catalogue failed to fully interrogate Rodchenko’s commitment to working for the state. This is perhaps most clearly exemplified by Galassi’s description of Rodchenko and Vertov as pursuing political aims with “childlike abandon”; their political agendas and aspirations are dismissed as irrational juvenile enthusiasm. If artists are no more than children, then how can they be morally accountable for their actions?

How is it that Rodchenko not held responsible for his work at the White Sea Canal or his solicitation of the patronage of such individuals as Semen Firin and Lazar Kaganovich? What about the millions of people who lost their lives to this regime? While these are unpleasant questions that clearly challenge a discipline more attuned to aesthetic issues, ethics demands that they be asked and that answers be attempted.