Stroll through a gallery of Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs, encounter all that geometric urgency and those proletarians poised for revolution, and you may find yourself wanting to grab a hammer and sickle and go out looking for a Winter Palace to storm, or at least quietly murmuring, “Workers of the world, unite!”
Such is the exhortatory power of Rodchenko’s art, which took in graphic design, painting, filmmaking, and even fashion design, in addition to photography. It stirs us even as we recall his uncritical devotion to the Russian Revolution — and to the later brutality of Stalinism — and in spite of the creaky early-20th-century “isms” the artist and his idealistic colleagues embraced: Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Productivism. The names have an ironic, spoiled-utopian ring to them, yesterday’s avant-garde. And yet Rodchenko’s images somehow cross that distance in one stride and plant their boot on our toes. They still have immediacy.
Take the famous 1924 shot of Lily Brik, Rodchenko’s art-prole girlfriend, with her hand to her mouth joyously shouting out the news, originally an advertisement for books. Or Guard, Shukov (Radio) Tower, a 1929 example of Rodchenko’s fascination with odd angles and radical points of view. He was probably the quintessential 20th-century ad man, selling an idealized future the same way he sold the watches and department stores his photos promoted. “Rodchenko perfected the visual language of advertising, the beginning of graphic design for mass audiences,” agrees Alla Efimova, the Berkeley Art Museum’s in-house curator for its new Rodchenko show. “Of course, he was backing up a state enterprise, but there was this image of the new consumer, as opposed to the old idea of bourgeois comfort. He even referred to himself as an ‘advertising constructor.'”
The revolution Rodchenko sold unfortunately had a hidden price. Early Soviet euphoria eventually gave way to the gulag and worse. Rodchenko’s avant-garde enthusiasm was replaced by the officially approved monotony of socialist realism. “There’s been a romanticization of Russian history, especially compared to German,” says Efimova, a native of St. Petersburg. “It’s still underappreciated how violent the Soviet regime was. But now there’s a lot of writing about that period and it’s being discussed.” Rodchenko managed to avoid Stalin’s purges, but by the time he died in 1956 his groundbreaking body of work had become a museum piece. It must have galled him. “He was almost obsessed with the future, ” Efimova says. “He wanted to see it. Rodchenko was a very innovative artist and designer, and even if he had wanted to join in the spirit of the 1930s, he could not completely get rid of his avant-garde outlook. That was his dilemma.” And, in this exhibition, our delight.
“Alexander Rodchenko: Modern Photography, Photomontage, and Film,” runs August 14 through October 13 at the Berkeley Art Museum. Ancillary events include a panel, gallery talk, poetry reading, and film programs at the Pacific Film Archive. Visit www.bampfa.berkeley.edu