Man Versus Machine

Alexander Rodchenko: Modern Photography, Photomontage And Film At The Unm Art Museum

Steven Robert Allen
4 min read
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Hopping from Vancouver to California to New York to Spain, a major traveling exhibit of work by the legendary Russian avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko has finally made its way to Albuquerque. The exhibit offers viewers a rare opportunity to consider the profound contributions Rodchenko made to 20th century modernist art while working within the restrictive confines of an authoritarian state.

Born in 1891, Rodchenko studied painting and sculpture in art school. A collaborator with such early Russian modernist artists as Tatlin and Kandinsky, Rodchenko did much to position artists at the forefront of the communist movement during the early years of the Soviet Union. In the early '20s, he helped found a new native Russian art movement called Constructivism. The movement emphasized the role of technology in the revolution, and Constructivists, among other things, advocated the use of industrial materials and concepts to create art that would aid the socialist cause.

In 1923, Rodchenko invented the photomontage, first using them to illustrate poems by his friend, the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” one of the most famous pieces in the history of photomontage, is included in this exhibit. In it, a black brontosaurus lumbers near the top of the image next to a seated man. A tilted cityscape surrounded by wires and bits of random machinery gives the piece a diagonal structure. Stamped diagonal serial numbers also emphasize the industrial flavor of the image.

By 1924, Rodchenko began taking pictures himself. A trip to Paris a year later exposed him to work by the leading Western European modernists. It also gave him an opportunity to purchase new, light, mobile, small-format cameras that opened up dramatic new artistic possibilities to him. In subsequent years, he was integral in transforming photography from a utilitarian documentary tool into a fine art form.

Throughout his career, Rodchenko remained a radical innovator, often collaborating with many of the leading Russian artists of the day. He was deeply influenced by filmmakers, working with such Russian cinematic giants as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. One of the most fascinating elements in this exhibit is the inclusion of excerpts from Vertov's films “Kino Pravda” and “The Man with a Movie Camera,” which Rodchenko helped create. These films are so utterly abstract and experimental it will be difficult for modern viewers to believe they were produced by Soviet artists.

Likewise, Rodchenko's graphic designs for everything from avant-garde publications to dime-store mystery novels continued to provide evidence of his experimental brilliance. In photographs like “Girl with Leica” from 1934, Rodchenko's imagery is so geometric it verges on the nonfigurative. In that photograph, a lady in a white dress sits on a bench holding a camera, but the unifying visual element in the composition comes from alternating patches of shadow and light created by a gridded lattice located somewhere above her head.

The woman's face is so emotionless, and her figure so embedded in shadow, that she seems like an architectural fixture, no more animate than the bench on which she sits. Capturing the woman from above, the camera tilted at a queasy angle, this image also provides an excellent example of Rodchenko's groundbreaking innovations with perspective.

When Joseph Stalin rose to power in the Soviet Union, many of the freedoms artists enjoyed in the early years of the revolution began to vanish. Big Joe didn't appreciate avant-garde art, believing it showed excessive contaminated influence from foofy bourgeois artists living in capitalist countries. Starting in the late '20s, he began demanding bland socialist realism from his Soviet artists.

Luckily, Rodchenko had become too influential by that point to be persecuted in the manner endured by so many lesser artists under Stalin's brutal regime. Still, although his artistic instincts were clearly radical, Rodchenko often created the kind of conventional social realist portraiture expected of him. Several of these images, often depicting athletes or communist parades, are included in this show.

The exhibit offers viewers an intriguing glimpse into life in the early Soviet Union as well as a look at the stunning accomplishments of a man who somehow managed to create radical art in the bowels of a deeply conservative authoritarian state.

Alexander Rodchenko: Modern Photography, Photomontage and Film runs through May 16 at the UNM Art Museum. 277-7312.

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