THE PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
SOVIET PHOTOGRAPHY (1925-1965)
Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko (1891-1956)
As painter, graphic artist, photographer, sculptor, theorist and teacher, Rodchenko was a key figure in the artistic growth of post-Revolutionary Russia. In the late 1910s he was a leading member of the Russian Constructivist movement alongside Kazemir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin, producing purely abstract, dynamic works concerned with geometry and space and increasingly with materials and technique.
In 1921, Rodchenko was one of the founders of the 'First Working Group of Constructivists' established for the promotion of a new relationship between art and industry. The group members rejected fine art, and devoted themselves to the design of items suitable for mass production.
Acutely aware of the potential role of the artist in disseminating the new ideology to the masses and creating the new society, Rodchenko became more involved in the graphic arts, and by 1923, was designing books, posters, advertisements and layouts for the journal Lef [Left Front of the Arts]. For many of these works he combined strong modern typography and angular geometry with complex photomontages using found photographs. In 1924, he took his first photographs: portraits of his mother, his friends and studies of the interior of his workshop.
Rodchenko's photography was arguably the most innovative in post-Revolutionary Russia. He saw the camera as the perfect tool for the communication of ideas and for documenting the events and rapid changes of modern Soviet life. His aim was not to emulate the pictorial or abstract qualities of painting, but to use the unique power of photography to capture reality. In 1928 he wrote It seems to me that only the camera is able to reflect contemporary life. 1
The photographs in this unique collection span the period from 1925 to 1938 when Rodchenko was most actively working with the medium. Those from the 1920s and early 30s clearly show his use of the angled viewpoint, close crop, unconventional lighting and perspective: qualities which he felt were of the particular language of photography. By using such techniques he sought to confront the viewer and thereby promote a new visual understanding in a mass audience.
This work was not without its critics, and in 1931, Rodchenko was expelled from the Oktiabr group on grounds of formalism, which was considered anti-Soviet. The later photographs, reflecting a gradual change in his approach, tend to use less dramatic viewpoints, while continuing to employ, especially in the Red Square athletic parade series, the perspective-flattening effects of selected lenses.
These photographs were given to the present owner in the 1960s by Varvara Rodchenko, the artist's daughter, and formed part of a larger collection of Soviet Photography dating from the 1920s-1960s. They were previously in the collection of Alexander Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova, and many have the archive stamp on the back. Several are signed on the original mounts, the majority are signed and titled on the back of the prints. Occasionally titles or a written credit appear to be in a different hand, thought to be that of Varvara Rodchenko. Each has pencil reference or file numbers on the back of the print, some in a later hand. Unless otherwise stated, the prints are on a heavy matt paper with a smooth surface. The majority have some contemporary corrective retouching, only specified in the description where it has been applied either over a large area or to change the emphasis of detail in the subject. Where names and titles are given in transliteration the standard Library of Congress system has been used.
1. Alexander Rodchenko, Trends in Contemporary Photography, 1928, quoted in Carrell, Young et al, The Rodchenko Family Workshop, p. 62
Garrubba et al, Alexandr Rodcenko, p. 26 (illus.)