Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography
Hayward Gallery, until 27 April
There’s a whole separate exhibition in the downstairs galleries of the Hayward. It’s called Laughing in a Foreign Language and is supposed to explore the role of laughter and humour in contemporary art through the work of 30 so-called international artists. As an exhibition, it’s a total failure. It’s not just that humour doesn’t easily translate, even in this ghastly era of globalisation, when we seem to want to reduce everyone to the same set of responses and desires. It’s also that so many of the exhibits are striving to be knowing and clever. Laughter is a sacred gift, the most wonderful release and celebration, and it’s always evident when it’s forced. Walking around this show, the spontaneous outbursts of merriment were conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps people take their art so seriously, it would be like laughing in church? Or is it simply that the exhibition is so dreary they found nothing to laugh at? Certainly, none of it brought so much as a wintry smile to my face, except Kutlug Ataman’s video ‘Turkish Delight’. In this, the male artist displays his own gifts as a belly dancer in a wonderfully deadpan performance. The age of satire is not entirely departed. As Swift wrote: ‘Humour is odd, grotesque, and wild,/ Only by affectation spoil’d;/’Tis never by invention got,/Men have it when they know it not.’ There’s altogether too much affectation here, that and trying too hard. Rather wearisome, to put it mildly.
Upstairs, the exhibition of Rodchenko’s photographs is a delight in comparison, though it scarcely justifies the houseroom. Although photography shows are very popular with museums because they’re cheap and easy to put on, and because the public seems to like them (after all, they don’t ask very much of the viewer: no thought or concentrated looking), they should be a bit more exciting than this one. I have rarely seen such an unimaginative exhibition design. I recognise the argument that Rodchenko’s photos are so good they should be seen unadorned, without the distraction of twiddly display features and too many information panels. That’s all right and correct — when you’ve got a decent or even a beautiful gallery to show the work in. But at the Hayward, any exhibition is competing with the bunker which is the building. It is not a pleasure to walk round, and I think visitors need a little more nourishing diversion than is currently on offer. Photography shows can usually be viewed more comfortably at home from the depths of an armchair with a copy of the catalogue (if it’s a good one); this is no exception. The handsome hardback catalogue (price £35) could save you a trip to the Southbank.
Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) is one of the great names of the Russian avant-garde, a painter, draughtsman and designer, who took on photography as the best way of reaching a mass audience. He was convinced it was the artistic language of the period, and he devoted much of his energy after 1924 to its exploration. He came to photography through painting and graphics, and particularly through a series of photomontages he made for the poet Mayakovsky. He wanted to teach people to see life from different perspectives, and to further this end he frequently employed angled viewpoints, a strategy which became central to establishing an independent graphic language for photography. In the brave new Soviet Russia he was commissioned to design advertisements (using photography and typography) for state-run publishing organisations, but inevitably he fell foul of the authorities. He was too inventive, too free a spirit to suit a repressive regime, and he was repeatedly accused of the arch crime of ‘formalism’.
For instance, there’s a photo here of a young trumpeter taken interestingly from below; at once there was a fearful outcry at this ‘ugly’ distortion of a faithful comrade serving his country. The best of these ‘vertical perspective’ shots are beautiful — such as those of an electricity pylon, a fire escape or pine trees at Pushkino (1927). The problem with the use of any device as noticeable as this or angled shots is that it can so easily become a mannerism. I’m afraid I got a bit fed up with the diagonals and tilted shots: the surprise wore out, the strategy no longer effective to destabilise the image or the viewers. The best photos here include the famous one of Rodchenko’s mother and some of his wife, the portraits of Mayakovsky, details from an automobile factory (the poetry of camshafts and bevel pinions), and most particularly two images hung together: ‘Girl with a Leica’ and ‘Steps’, marvels of pattern and texture.
Rodchenko was driven to conform, particularly when a law was passed in 1933 which stated that anyone taking photos openly in Moscow required a permit. He was restricted to snapping official events, and, though he often made something memorable of the dullest subject, it was a sad comedown for such a radical. In 1937 Rodchenko wrote from the depths of disenchantment, and ‘in response to the advance of fascism toadies and bureaucrats’, that ‘man is very alone now, everyone has completely forgotten about him’. It’s a message with a terrible relevance in today’s climate of standardisation, and makes this work all the more poignant.
If you’re thirsting for a bit of painting after all those photos, try seeking out Gallery 32 at 32 Green Street, W1, near Marble Arch. It’s run under the auspices of the Embassy of Brazil, and is currently showing paintings by Mariannita Luzzati (born 1963 in Sao Paolo). She’s a fine painter of landscape and mood, making big abstracted images of subtle colour packed with essence and atmosphere. Telegraph poles orchestrate the space in a group of fiery red–orange canvases, while the largest painting here features a long pier joining an island to the shore and employs a beautiful and strangely lyrical vertical shuttering effect. The most striking picture is of a line of hills and dark structures like pylons against a rippled blue, grey and pink ground, moving rhythmically and gently (as if breathing) through horizontal as well as vertical pulses. Recommended.