The Russian Revolution of October 1917 represented such a fundamental transformation of society that no part of the old world would be left untouched.
New movements in art that celebrated the possibilities brought about by October flourished everywhere as the old boundaries between art, politics and the lives of ordinary people were brought down.
Alexander Rodchenko was one of those at the head of a generation of writers, filmmakers, photographers, designers, painters and architects who put their work in the service of the revolution – and created what has become known as Constructivism, or more broadly, the Russian avant-garde.
In 1924 Rodchenko, who was known as a master painter, declared that painting was dead and that photography was the truly revolutionary medium for artists.
He and many of his companions in the Lef group (which stood for “Left front in the arts”) argued that photography, like film, was one of the few means to communicate complex ideas in a country where illiteracy was rife.
Using montage techniques, he combined his photos to convey an array of political and artistic arguments, while working prolifically on the production of posters, magazines and book covers.
Describing the impulse, he wrote, “I want to make completely believable photos, the kind that never existed before, pictures that are so true to life that they are life itself. I want my photographs to be at once simple and complex, so that they will shock and astound people.”
And so he did. It is his body of work as a photographer that forms the basis for this outstanding exhibition.
Rodchenko sought out angles that would allow people to see even everyday objects in a new light. This often has the effect of making the viewer feel unbalanced, dizzy even.
The photos taken from his balcony over many years invite us to view the world as a series of changing patterns, while his portrait work abandoned planned compositions in favour of capturing the essence of his subjects in “natural” settings.
During the first ten years after the revolution Rodchenko was the toast of Russia. His work – which often featured the introduction of new technologies like electricity into “backward” Russia – celebrated the achievements of society against privations. It reflected the hopes of millions.
But while the avant-garde’s architecture, signs, billboards and posters had transformed the look of the cities of Moscow and Petrograd, the revolution was nonetheless on the retreat.
The end of the 1920s saw Russia exhausted by years of war and civil war. The working class that had taken power in 1917 was now decimated, and a growing number of state functionaries were all that remained of October.
In 1930 Rodchenko started to apply his extremely vertical perspective to his portraits of people. Visiting a “young pioneers” youth camp, he sought to capture the spirit of the future generation. The result was a series of pictures that were seen around the world and almost instantly regarded as masterpieces.
The photographs also drew criticism. One critic asked, “Why does Rodchenko force our children to look to the sky, as if their dreams are yet to be realised? Surely they should be looking forward into the glorious future.”
Thoroughly dejected and hounded by critics, in 1933 Rodchenko persuaded the magazine USSR In Construction to allow him to document the building of the 141-mile long White Sea Canal, which was to be completed in a remarkable 500 days.
The resulting photographs and montages are very painful for a socialist to view.
The canal was being built by the forced labour of prisoners, and armed guards surrounded the entire area. In one of the pictures we see hundreds of prisoners digging the huge trench while way up above them on a platform an exhausted military band lies on the floor.
One of the montages shows an impressive graph of the progress being made on the canal, while above it we see the desolate and very young faces of those who have been forced to dig on pain of death.
It was this immeasurable human suffering that lay behind Russia’s attempt to “catch up” with the West.
For Rodchenko, the images were a great commercial success, but the experience of shooting the canal had seen his ideals destroyed. His dream of a brilliant new society had crashed into the reality of Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship.
Rodchenko’s hopes, reflected in his early work, glorified technology and progress because they offered the possibility of liberation. Now those hopes died as it became clear that “progress” under Stalinism meant slavery for the workers.
During his remaining years Rodchenko concentrated on photographing sport, and later the circus. He could continue to work – just so long as he stuck to images of finely toned, perfect bodies that served to emphasise Russia’s greatness.
His work was never given a full solo exhibition in Russia while Rodchenko was alive, despite him being one of the world’s greatest photographic artists – the commissars knew that the spirit of the revolution shone too brightly in his early work, and they feared the consequences.
They were right to be scared.
Alexander Rodchenko – revolution in photography is on at The Hayward, Southbank Centre, London until 27 April. For more details go to » www.southbankcentre.co.uk/rodchenko