NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 27


Alexander Rodchenko "The future is our one and only goal"

Olga Severina

The name Alexander Rodchenko is one of the most influential names in Soviet constructivism. He was born in 1891, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, in the city of St. Petersburg.
As a young boy, Rodchenko had a modest upbringing – his father worked as a prop maker and his mother was a common washerwoman. When he was 11 years old, the family moved to the city of Kazan.
Later, out of respect for his father, who wished for his son to have a prestigious profession, Alexander begins studying to become a dental technician, but all he really wanted to do was paint. Following his childhood dreams, at the age of twenty Rodchenko gives up his career in medicine and begins painting. At the same time he enrolls in the Art School of Kazan, registering for the art class taught by the famous Nicolai Feshin, whose influence became a turning point in the life of young Alexander, largely sealing his fate as an artist. It is in this school that Rodchenko had his first artistic endeavors, and it is here that he was introduced to Varvara Stepanova, who became his one true love, his greatest friend and his unfailing assistant for the rest of his life.
Two years after they met, Varvara, who later became a famous artist in her own right, without graduating, runs away with her beloved Alexander to settle in Moscow. In these early years a young family was struggling, often hungry, but always full of hope and eager to create. Rodchenko attempts to enroll in a Moscow Academy of Fine Arts, but is rejected by the brilliant Konstantin Korovin, who, instantly recognizing a talent of the young man, explains, «Rodchenko is already an accomplished artist; there is nothing more we can teach him». As if to validate these words, at 25 Rodchenko, lacking any formal education, becomes a professor of arts at the famous VKHUTEMAS Workshops (Higher Art and Technical Studios, a prototype of Bauhaus). However, without a diploma, he gets called to military service, where up until the early 1917 he serves as a superintendent for one of the ambulance trains in the Moscow district. Then came October and with it the Russian Revolution. Those were turbulent times – it was an era of the great transformation where the very core of the social fabric was being assembled anew. The old world was collapsing – giving way to a new state that was sprouting from the dust on the crumbled ruins. Inspired by the Revolution, everything was being renewed – the entire dominion bore an unmistakable stamp of novelty. The new era was greeted with great enthusiasm by the creative community. Inspired by this ever-changing world, Russian suprematists declared obsolete any materiality of the conventional art forms. True «proletarians of the brush», artists of the Russian avant-garde moved away from the classical traditions towards complex three-dimensional frames made from different materials. They experiment with color, composition and shape, giving birth to a movement known today as a non-figurative art. So begun the Age of Great Artistic Exploration of the Soviet Russia.
All-reaching faith in Communism, which filled the air, and a remarkable feeling of once unattainable freedom brought by the Revolution, made these Rodchenko’s most prominent years. Constantly looking for new ways of expression, he undertakes painting and illustration, experiments with graphic and stage design, explores architecture and advertising industry. During this period, Rodchenko works on non-figurative paintings, develops a series of vivid geometric graphics in a style of an abstract minimalism, creates technical models called «spatial structures» and makes his first sketches and models for the new, progressive building designs.
Soon came his first exhibitions. One of the founders of the Russian constructivism, Rodchenko believes that his art is designed for everyday life, rather than for palaces, temples and museums. He dreams to create for the future! He is fortunate to be realizing his dreams in tandem with such giants of avant-garde as Tatlin and Kandinsky, Malevich and Lissitzky, Popova, and Mayakovsky. Working together, they forged the atmosphere of the capital during this revolutionary period, and invented the latest of the latest in avant-garde – they created the abstract art. This new trend later moved to Paris and settled in Montparnasse, but then, in a destitute, starved, besieged by overwhelming counter-revolutionary forces Russia this young, ultra-revolutionary movement had impetuously flourished. Always the innovator, by 1921, Rodchenko ceases his pursuit of conventional painting and announces a transition into an «industrial art». The ultimate goal of his artistic expression becomes construction of real, tangible things: fabrication of stage props and equipment, building of architectural scale models, and assembly of exhibition stands.

It is this striving to create real things that «introduced» Rodchenko to the common goods and made him one of the pioneers of Soviet promotional design. By making art of the household items, he was creating «design for the life itself». Rodchenko wanted his art to integrate with modern architecture, incorporate into interior design, and be consistent with contemporary clothing. This creative technique proved to be extremely successful. So much so that Rodchenko’s distinctive constructivist style of design left its mark on practically the entire Russian essential goods industry of the 1920s.
Indeed, at the time, the popularity of his new, socialist ads has been truly enormous. «We’ve conquered Moscow! We’ve shifted, or rather transformed the old western-imperial-bourgeois merchant flyers into a new, Soviet advertisement» – proudly recalled Rodchenko later in life.
Arguably his greatest success came a few years later. In 1925, as one of the participants in the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts that took place in Paris, Rodchenko was awarded silver medals in four of the categories. It is this exhibition that brought new Soviet art to the international stage, and it is there that, for the first time, it received worldwide recognition.
Next came experiments with photography, and it is his images that gave Rodchenko his greatest public recognition. His photomontages, chronicling everyday life of Soviet utopia became instant classics, and are now considered a quintessence of the late avant-garde movement. Trams, airplanes, factory ladders, industrial equipment, sport parades, laying of the asphalt on the street – you could sense dynamics of his work, hear the poetry of the awaken city. A true adept of the abstract, Rodchenko once said that «…a painting is a street, a town square, a city and the entire world…» For him photography became a tool that made it possible for an observer to «see world in a full, 360-degree view».
The magic of his photographs is in its emotional confrontation. Darkness and light, circle and line, slope and plane, all is based on a unity of contrast – that is the power of each of his frames. Rodchenko asserted that photography can, and therefore must be the only true art that accurately reflects life in every moment; he believed a camera to be an item that is absolutely essential for any modern artist.
This became a peak of his incredible career. After decreeing socialist realism to be the only method of expression, Rodchenko’s art is increasingly subjected to defamation. In a heartless system of repression and control created by Stalin in the 1930’s there was no place for unrestrained creativity; jail did not need avant-garde art. Unable to work under tyranny the artist in him was slowly fading away.
As time passed, most of Rodchenko’s art, aside from his incredible photographs, became largely forgotten. Now being rediscovered, they tell a story of a man whose ideas were almost as if from the future – from our present, where artists are an integral part of everyday life – marketing, politics, and the Internet. Rodchenko, a true scientist and inventor, viewed his work as a great experiment, where all that research was focused on the future, a future so much awaited and beloved.

Olga Severina

A Ukrainian graphic designer, Olga Severina obtained her Ph.D. in Visual Arts in 2010. Olga is an author, whose articles on the history and contemporary trends in graphic design are published in magazines around the world. Over the years her works were featured in a variety of design competitions and campaigns: Biennale Golden Bee (Russia), Warsaw Poster Biennale (Poland), International Poster Biennale (Mexico) and Mayakovsky 120 poster campaign are to name a few.  Olga Severina was always an active participant in the design community. In 2006 she became involved with an International Eco-Poster Exhibition The 4th Block (Ukraine), where she currently serves as the exhibition curator.  In her more recent ventures Olga focuses on art shows that celebrate design and promote balance between nature and men in the United States.

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