At the centre of the Tate Modern’s new exhibition is a reconstruction of 5x5=25, a 1921 show by the Russian artist Alexander Rodchenko.
Rodchenko displayed three panels of evenly applied oil paint, in red, yellow and blue. Flatly monochrome, they were meant to signal the endpoint of painting – nothing but plane and colour, painting’s basic elements forced to an ultimate conclusion.
The exhibition is peppered by such endpoints and new beginnings. It focuses on Rodchenko and his fellow artist Lyubov Popova who worked in the context of the 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath.
The revolution unleashed a wide questioning of all aspects of society, from modes of democracy to the purpose of art, from family relationships to the placement of bus stops.
Rodchenko and Popova were pioneers of the art movement known as Constructivism. They considered themselves “engineers” rather than artists in the traditional sense, and aimed to contribute to the redesign of everyday life.
Constructivist art abandoned the galleries for the streets. Artists directed their energies at crockery and textiles, propaganda and cinema posters, book jackets and newspaper kiosks.
This shift from two dimensional paintings to three dimensional sculptures went hand in hand with the entry of art into everyday life.
Constructivist artists sought to leave behind flat picture planes and static images in order to access a mobile and multi-faceted world inspired by films, carnival floats, clothing and badges.
The Tate exhibition covers 12 rooms, yet it focuses on a short period in the two artists’ lives, 1917 to 1925.
The choice of artists is also unusual. Rodchenko has often been paired with his wife Varvara Stepanova. But here the curators couple him with Popova to emphasise how female artists were being taken as seriously as male ones for the first time.
The parallel investigations of Popova and Rodchenko underline the extent to which Constructivism shook off the notion of a unique “genius” artist in favour of collaborative working.
The exhibition’s wealth of material clarifies how the turbulent social context came up with new uses for the experimental forms that artists worked on in their studios.
For example, early abstract paintings that feature solid colours, lines and angles translate into the vibrant geometrical design elements for all manner of objects – cigarette packets, poetry books, clothes, even adverts for biscuits and rubber boots.
Except so much of this brilliant production remains only potential. There are far more models than there are buildings. Rodchenko’s wonderful Workers’ Club is only realised as a temporary structure for an exhibition in Paris.
Popova died of scarlet fever in 1924 aged just 35. The exhibition uses her death as a stopping point. There is but brief mention of the fact that the revolution goes disastrously wrong soon after.
The dictator Joseph Stalin came to power in 1928 and reversed the gains of the revolution, instituting rollbacks and repression across politics and culture.
By stopping just when Rodchenko, Popova and their colleagues were firing on all cylinders, the viewer leaves the show enlivened by the spirit of experimentation that took hold in an environment of expanded social and political possibilities.
You are left with the feeling that, even if so much of this work was ultimately unable to translate into the social world, it might do so in the future.
Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism is on at the Tate Modern, London, until 17 May. Tickets cost £9.80. Esther Leslie teaches political aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London.