Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism
Tate Modern, until 17 May
Art is always at its most dangerous — but perhaps also its most endearing — when it approaches the idealistic. In the wake of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the group of artists who called themselves Constructivists came to believe that abstraction could transform everyday life. But, unlike many theorists, they weren’t content simply with the idea of art’s revolutionary potential, they longed to put it into practice, and this they proceeded to do. Abstraction is a great tool in applied art, and the Constructivists used it to good effect in posters, books, textiles and furniture. For once, art had a use. It became an instrument of social change, and utilitarian Constructivism for a time led the way in Revolutionary Russia. But only for a time. Pretty soon, its perceived lack of humanity told against it.
This exhibition is dedicated to two of the leading protagonists of 1920s Russian Constructivism, a movement that grew out of the construction of abstract reliefs from found objects, inaugurated by Vladimir Tatlin. Tatlin is famous for his projected Tower, a vast monument to the Revolution which was both sculpture and building and would outshine even Eiffel’s effort. Alas, it was never realised. This did not check the Constructivists’ ardour, and they maintained that all artists must participate in the new industrial culture and ‘take the shortest road leading to the factory’. Although the Soviet government continued to nourish industry, its view of art was ironically somewhat less progressive. By the 1930s, Socialist Realism had entirely displaced Constructivism as the official mode.
But if the idealistic Constructivist dawn never progressed to the grim light of day in Russia, its influence certainly spread into Western Europe through such radical art movements as De Stijl and the Bauhaus. The Russian ex-patriate sculptor Naum Gabo (1890–1977) was the greatest disseminator of the Constructivist creed, bringing it to England when he visited (1935–46), before settling in America. Constructivist art lives on strongly, both here and abroad, though today without its commitment to social change. So it’s appropriate now that we should look at a couple of its founding members, alive once more in the purity of their beliefs.
There are more than 350 works in this exhibition and many of them come from Russian collections, and will thus be unfamiliar. But the show, at 12 rooms, is too big, and requires the viewer to make an independent — and more manageable — selection of works on which to concentrate. To start with: on the left in the first room there are a couple of stunning Rodchenkos, ‘Non-Objective Painting 1917’ and ‘Composition No 53’. The latter simply consists of a couple of vertical interpenetrating rectangles in brown and green, yet it is beautiful. This is geometric abstraction at its most inventive: allusive, expressive, aerial — at the forefront of experiment before the necessity of applying it to living took over. Opposite is a series of Popova’s ‘Painterly Architectonic’ pictures. One painting, called ‘Composition No 50’, is simply a green square angled over an Indian red beam, and is particularly fine. Also remark the wonderful lucidity of Rodchenko’s ‘Composition No 60’ and the radical ‘Black on Black’.
Room 2 contains graphic works from 1917–19, and demonstrates the move into design. Here are drawings by Rodchenko for a café lamp and an aircraft hangar. Also embroidery designs and linocuts by Popova (the idea being to get her work seen by many rather than just a few in the know), showing her inventiveness with triangles flowing from and to the midpoint of her compositions. Rooms 3 and 4 offer a mix of paintings and graphic works, with line coming strongly to the fore, for instance in a majestic blue crayon drawing by Rodchenko from 1921. Geometry has become more extreme and architectonic, and Popova moves into her ‘Space-Force’ constructions. We see both artists improvising brilliantly with the circle and the grid. This work is of extremely high quality. From here the exhibition moves inexorably into design: from sculpture to architecture to set designs and posters. There’s even jewellery and cigarette packets and a film. Almost too much to take in.
We know relatively little about Liubov Popova (1889–1924), who died tragically young, but the life and career of Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956) is altogether better documented. Should you wish to know more, there’s a well-illustrated catalogue (£24.99 in paperback), if you’re not put off by its awful cover. The show tours to the Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessalonica (June to September) and then to the Reina Sofia, Madrid (October 2009 to January 2010). I was fascinated by it, but only last spring the Hayward mounted an exhibition of Rodchenko’s photographs. How many Rodchenko shows do we need in a decade? And why do our public galleries compete with one another? Isn’t it about time they worked together?