Wednesday, 6 May 2009
art and revolution
It has been a fortunate couple of years for those interested in early twentieth-century Russian art. In March last year I went to two shows dealing with this period. Yesterday I caught the Tate Modern’s display of the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova, now into its last weeks. The beauty of this exhibition lies in the work both artists did over the period 1917-1921 or so. While the later work is available to us through multiple editions and through photographic documentation, these idealistic abstractions have come together from a number of collections spread across the former Soviet Union as well as the USA and an especially well endowed public collection (the State Museum of Contemporary Art) in Thessaloniki, Greece. These works still seem revolutionary now suggesting speed without recourse to illustration. A turning point in the careers of both artists was documented by the two-part exhibition held in Moscow over September and October 1921 and entitled 5 X 5 = 25 (the two rooms featuring this event also include work by Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Vesnin and Aleksandra Exter). It was a crucial moment because from this point the artists had to justify their practice through proving that art could play a role ‘in the real world’. Rodchenko and Popova were able to develop the practice of photomontage and, as my earlier piece notes, find a place for photographic modernism in the depiction of sport and other dynamic subjects. The stage designs from the early twenties are still startlingly fresh and Popova’s fabric designs (like the one shown on the gallery booklet cover) would look good even now. In the service of the Revolution however they began to produce advertisements for goods made available through Lenin’s New Economic Policy. It is a sad thing to witness a utopian art reduced to advertising biscuits as Rodchenko’s did. The later ‘pop’ artists of the West kept a kind of ironic distance between their principles and the items of consumer culture dominating their work and one can certainly imagine the indignation if a well-known American or British painter were actually asked to advertise soap (though I can also imagine that some of the YBAs brought to our notice by Saachi & Saachi would happily do it). In Rodchenko’s case there is no such framing distance (it reminds me of the story retailed by Arthur Danto: that the Brillo boxes appropriated by Andy Warhol were actually designed by a failed Abstract Expressionist). Rodchenko lived on until 1956 often in penury. Popova was spared the excesses of ‘socialist realism’. She spent her last years in poor health, dying, with her son, of scarlet fever in 1924.