Popova and Rodchenko – self-destructive Constructivism

Space Force Construction by Liubov Popova

Space Force Construction by Liubov Popova

I’ve been at the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at Tate Modern – best I’ve been to in a good while.

Constructivism was the avant-garde art of the Soviet Revolution and the years that followed. It was preceded in Russia by (among other movements) Expressionism and a fusion of Cubism and Futurism, and utlimately overtaken by socialist heroic realism glorifying the proletariat. Because I found the artworks alienating, I would unsympathetically summarise Constructivism as a self-instrumentalising form which, in contrast to contemporaries like Kandinsky, aimed to eradicate all personal expression from the work. As Artist-Constructors, its practitioners viewed themselves as engineers. They yearned to free Constructivist art from their own bourgeois easels and realise it for wider consumption in dimensions largely denied to them by the subsequent decades of failed Soviet ideology which they themselves had helped to shape.

This piece was supposed to be about Liubov Popova, but you’ll have to clamber over Rodchenko, Mayakovsky, and the Tate Modern shop to get to her. Typical woman.

I’d like to forget about Rodchenko as soon as possible because I found him infuriating. Rodchenko investigated the line. He proceeded to eliminate tone, texture and surface as imitative or decorative, and he abandoned free hand drawing as  redunded by the compass, ruler and revolution. During his domination of the interdisciplinary research institute INKhUK, he debated against composition and in favour of the impersonality of Construction. He turned Constructivism in the direction of the end of painting. Constructivists duly began to refer to their paintings as ‘laboratory work’.

Rodchenko struck me as a herald of Stalinism – from his early attempts to eliminate the human from the artwork to his late Workers’ Club designs for the productive (and never solitary) recreation of the proletariat. At the same time as he was eradicating humanity from his art, he was simultaneously celebrating his own break-throughs in jarringly self-congratulatory terms in his writings.

In 1918 he had responded to Malevich’s industrial monochrome black square with his own piece, Black on Black. Preceding Rothko’s experiments with black, he had demonstrated how black can both radiate and kill light. But by 1921, with three monochrome panels, Rodchenko had reasoned himself out of painterly practice altogether. No more figurative representation, he said. Each surface was a plane and must be painted as such:

“I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it’s over. Basic colours. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation”.

To formalise this close, he co-curated an exhibition of five changing and mostly painted artworks by each of five Constructivist artists – titled 5 X 5 = 25 – to bid a farewell to painting. And so he finally made the logical hop off the canvas and into built construction itself.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Only he didn’t. Like most Constructivists the resources were not forthcoming for him to make such a transition. Russia was in an extremely bad way in the years after the revolution, people were starving and the economy was wrecked. In 1921 Lenin decided to re-permit limited private enterprise as part of his New Economic Policy (NEP). Rodchenko, along with the Futurist poet and former revolutionary Mayakovsky, formed ‘Advertisement Constructor Mayakovsky Rodchenko’ which made an advertising creative of Rodchenko and a copy-writer of Mayakovsky. Bolsheviks cried Capitalism at the NEP. Mayakovsky responded (comforted himself?) in his manifesto ‘Agitation and Advertising’ by casting his and Rodchenko’s work as political agitation:

“The bourgeoisie knows the power of advertising. Advertising is industrial, commercial agitation. Not a single business, especially not the steadiest, runs without advertising. It is the weapon that mows down the competition … But face to face with the NEP, in order to popularize the state and proletarian organizations, offices and products, we have to put into action the weapons, which the enemy also uses, including advertising”.

Under the New Economic Policy Rodchenko and Mayakovsky collaborated to promote biscuits, cigarettes and shopping centres.

That is a sketch of the rather brilliant, rather chilling, Rodchenko. I’d also like to forget the hammer and sickle merchandise – brooches, headscarfs, aprons – arrayed in the Tate Modern shop. The USSR was a totalitarian regime built on the sacrifice of 15 million lives. Soviet leaders then proceeded to defile these symbols and their vision in much the same way that Hitler defiled the hooked cross and its vision of a purified world. I baulk to see those symbols used stylistically or politically, particularly by intellectual visitors to art galleries. The presence of the hammer and sickle resurrected the appearance of the Soviet flag at the recent Put People First demonstration and made me half wonder, given that Fascism and Communism were both palingenetic responses to similar global phenomena (industrialisation, war, the retreat of God, anomie), whether the reappearance of Soviet trappings meant we would sooner or later see another Fascist moment with swastika brooches at the Tate. Matt and I toyed with the idea of buying a print of a Rodchenko poster proclaiming that Trade Unionists had nothing to fear from Lenin’s New Economic Policy, but we quickly decided that, in common with all Constructivist art, it was no fitting ornament for a home.

Liubov Popova

Liubov Popova

I intended to write this piece about Liubov Popova, but now I realise that less proposes itself. I have to think harder about her – which I must because this, I have a hunch, is precisely how women disappear from history. Unlike Rodchenko, she didn’t spend much time reflecting on her practice for posterity, and there was little sense of her own importance. In order to persuade her brother to part with some of her works on plywood, a latter-day collector had to provide him with alternative weatherproofing for the windows of his dacha. Not that she didn’t design on an epic scale – The Struggle and Victory of the Soviets was a revolutionary spectacle involving 2,000 participants which, given the current famine, would have been Mugabe-ishly indecent to stage. Like Rodchenko her works were cold and impersonal – after typhoid killed her husband and ravaged her own health in 1919, her return to painting reveals nothing of her state of mind.This was the Constructivist way.

What animates her painting is the will to escape the canvas and plywood – it has an energy which Rodchenko’s pedantic ruler-and-compass work with lines lacks, for me. Her early works, first Painterly Architectronics and Painterly Constructions but particularly her Space Force Constructions remind me, in the way they seem to try to free themselves from the flat plane, of geese taking off from water. Prior to her migration into free-standing theatrical sets and textiles, she too tried to escape representational forms and attain for many works the status of object in their own right by experimenting with planes and texturing the surfaces with powdered metal and wood.

Ultimately she took off from the flat into stage sets and textiles. Her fabrics were intended to be affordable and distinctive and in this work she felt she connected with the proletariat:

“…no single artistic success gave me such profound satisfaction as the sight of a peasant woman buying a piece of my fabric for a dress.”

However, Useless as a Church points out that her rational dress designs, strangely androgynous considering they were after all dresses, didn’t take off and she didn’t seem to have worn them herself.

Like Rodchenko, Popova sought the obliteration of the individual from artworks. 1922’s stage production of The Magnanimous Cuckold featured her set design, a stylised mill with working parts, and costumes which recast the human actor as an abstract form in the construction.

I think the exhibition would have depressed Popova and Rodchenko, who wouldn’t have felt the punters reflected well on the work. The gallery setting too would have reminded them of their ultimate failure to actualise their utopia. Rodchenko was strikingly previous when he mused in 1927:

“When I look at the number of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them, there are over ten years work in them. But they are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose whatsoever.”

In fact, they form the bulk of his legacy. And people enjoy visiting churches – for the atmosphere.

But the exhibition kept faith with the emotionlessness of Constructivism in at least one important way – it was exceedingly thin on biographical detail. We find out little of their early life or how they came to associate. Or maybe this is because if biographies had been permitted to intrude, communicative Rodchenko would have overshadowed discreet Popova even more.

I also wondered – knowing little about this time – about the extent to which, prescient of the repressive direction which Soviet socialism, with the individual relegated to the status of a single, dispensable cell in a larger corpus, must take, the self-negation of  the Constructivists was in some way an act of self-preservation. Intellectuals would be thought un-heroic in Soviet Russia – Arthur Koestler (in Arrow In The Blue I think) acutely records the inverted snobbery of the times, his own occupational embarrassment and his disappointment when turned down for farm work and consigned to his customary writing work with a gentle reproach along the lines of “from each according to his ability”. In those times artists could not remain as they had been, and the parameters of their evolution were limited by Soviet totalitarianism. These artists were the heralds of a new civilisation, and that civilisation was supposed to be dominated by the miner, the factory operative, the agricultural labourer. It was a social handicap, in the early days, to have expressed speculative thoughts for a living. The end of artistic speculation was supposed to have arrived.

Artists always ask themselves what they are for. It’s infinitely better if ‘for‘ is in the sense of values, rather than in the instrumental, utilitarian sense of Rodchenko’s and Popova’s investigations. In attracting and accepting the official backing of totalitarians, they largely abrogated their artistic obligations with regards to the establishment. This was not a concern for them – they were happy with the establishment, mistaking it for their utopia incarnate. I hope art doesn’t see the likes of Rodchenko and Popova again.

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10 thoughts on “Popova and Rodchenko – self-destructive Constructivism

  1. Excellent piece.
    I have to say I am fond of how this stuff looks, without looking any deeper.
    I’m also interested in the possibility of automatically generating artworks, and of course geometric forms lend themselves to that, in the same way stark electronic music lends itself to auto-creation. Nothing like removing the human from the process entirely – mass produced art for the masses?

  2. “mass produced art for the masses”
    Mmmm… we’ve talked about this. There some mathematical music-generating bloke… And 1984.

    I think it’s very interesting. One of the things I did appreciate about the Constructivists is that they welcomed machines. Photography obliged formerly realistic artists to migrate from realistic art (or become photographers). If we get to the stage where we can’t tell the difference between a machine generated work and a work created from the vision of an artist, then I suppose they’ll be off again looking for a space which is impregnably human.

    Would you agree though – stark electronic music doesn’t move many hearts or bring many crashing insights. If you’re not a Constructivist who believes that your utopia has arrived therefore and your principal remit is to sustain it, then as an artist your job is to penetrate and challenge – no?

  3. It doesn’t move many hearts, you’re right. In fact, on the more extreme ends of things it seems to be more about making a point, be it silent music or noise music – how far can we take it? Art rather than entertainment.

  4. It’s amazing that after all these years, the Soviet avant garde is still annoying those who was, well, meant to annoy in the first place! Rodchenko and co. would have been well pleased!

  5. On the whole, yes, I do. I certainly do not think that Rodchenko would have expected a person with the views of the author NOT to have been annoyed (he’d probably thought he’d failed otherwise).

    And, no, I’m afraid it was not primarily photography which is responsible for the appearance of modern art. As for electronic music (of that era or ours), it may not move many hearts but it certainly moves mine!

  6. “a person with the views of the author”
    Which views are you referring to?

    So Rodchenko treated responses to his art as a kind of political test? If you like it, you’re right, and if you don’t, you’re wrong? I didn’t come across this in the exhibition…

  7. Pingback: jueGo de caFé “roDchenko y poPova” « frecuEncia uRbe

  8. I enjoyed your text but I must throw in a few words against the statement regarding Popva that “like Rodchenko her works were cold and impersonal “.

    There always seem to be so much contained energy within her paintings that this energy, for me at least, transforms effortless into a feeling of vitality & from there it is but a short step to the driving force of life which I find anything but ‘cold’. I would add that were her paintings ‘cold & impersonal’ I doubt that Popova’s images would still have the power to hold our attention nearly a century after they were done.

    • Casting my mind back to the exhibition, I remember a caption on some her work during the time of typhoid to the effect that her work reflected nothing of the personal disasters of illness and bereavement she had experienced in the recent past. I agree with you that cold is not the right word – that’s my dislike of the movement coming out, perhaps – but I do think that ‘impersonal’ was intrinsic to the politics of the constructivist movement, and soviet politics in general. I think I say elsewhere in the post above that you can almost see her work trying to leap off the boards she was painting on – “driving force of life” puts it well,

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