In the winter of 1921 the Russian socialist leader Lenin made a trip to a new art school. The art school had a progressive and experimental curriculum, where questions of art and design were annexed to the needs of the Soviet state. A student told Lenin that they were trying to figure out how art and politics could be linked.
One of the teachers at the school was Aleksander Rodchenko. As part of his commitment to revolution, Rodchenko abandoned painting and began teaching to prepare art students for design and industry.
Discussions over the relationship between art and politics were plentiful in the Soviet Union in the years after the 1917 revolution.
People wrestled with issues of whether agitational art had anything in common with “bourgeois art” and how a new art could further the revolution. The Soviet avant-garde experimented with photography, photomontage, film, architecture and design for everyday living. Rodchenko embraced photography and photomontage. The path taken by him is an example of the creative and intellectual energy first released by the revolution, as well as the distorting and destructive influence of Stalinist policy.
Rodchenko, born in St Petersburg in 1891, became an artist at a time when many previous assumptions about art were being challenged. Some artists were dissatisfied with conventional and exhausted art forms. These people, called formalists, argued for innovations, in order to equip art for new expressive tasks in an industrial era.
The theorist Victor Shklovksy argued that the art object, the poetic word - or even daily actions - needed to be released from the dullness of habit and made unfamiliar, as a first stage to questioning convention.
The use of the concepts “defamiliarisation” and “prolonging the art of perception” compelled the audience to question what it saw. They had to treat the artwork as a puzzle that conveyed knowledge, rather than an apparently transparent window on the world - which it is not. This theory intersected with political ideas once the revolution was under way.
The revolution demanded the breaking of old habits, the questioning of old ways of life and the dislodging of art from its traditional role as a luxury commodity for the rich.
Rodchenko translated the formalist language into his photographic work of the 1920s. He used sloping camera angles and photo-sequences so that each photo became slightly detached from the thing represented. This challenged the viewer to see the streets of Moscow and the workers from uncommon perspectives, just as these sites and agents of the new Soviet reality had been conceived anew in the revolutionary period.
Rodchenko hoped that everyday life could be seen again and revalued as democratic spaces. Rodchenko’s book jackets and advertising posters used photomontage to express simultaneity of actions and surprising links. He hoped to emulate the dynamic speed of change and the new honesty about relationships. In the process Rodchenko reinvented the language of graphic design, deploying bold, politically loaded red and black tones, and using letters and words as graphic elements.
By the 1930s, under the influence of Stalinism, artistic debates were stifled and the school curriculum was changed. Some artists fell victim to the new mood. Others accommodated to it. Rodchenko was accused of formalism in 1932, expelled from the October circle of artists and refused permits for street photography.
His photos adapted to the new situation. He provided positive images of state achievements in the Soviet Union, such as the building of the 1933 White Sea-Baltic Canal.
Rodchenko adopted the line that photography should present itself as a straightforward reflection of the world. Ironically enough what he reflected in his camera lens was the ultimate in lies. The photos of the canal construction register no trace of the deaths of 200,000 forced workers.
Rodchenko had to blot out the faces of purged Soviet bureaucrats from his own copy of Ten Years in Uzbekistan, an album of his photographs of party leaders, taken in 1934. Rodchenko spent the last 20 years of his life on small pro-Stalin commissions. He died, marginalised, in 1956.