He was the working-class son of a circus performer; she was a rich man’s daughter from Moscow. The Bolshevik revolution threw them together in one the most dynamic cultural shifts of the twentieth-century.
Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova were the original ‘odd couple’ of modern art, forming a breakaway group of artists who wanted to embody the ideology of the new age. While Bolshevik Communism sought to remodel Russian society and overhaul an outdated economy, Rodchenko and Popova were attempting their own revolution. Soon, Constructivism had succeeded in turning the art world on its head.
The Tate Modern’s celebration of the Constructivist movement commences with an exploration of Popova and Rodchenko’s early paintings. Many of the works have never been exhibited in the West before and are borrowed from museums hidden deep in the Russian hinterland.
Popova’s colored geometric compositions are prophetic in their similarity to the Cubist works which were to soon appear in Europe. Abandoning canvas in favour of industrial plywood, Popova was highly experimental, even mixing sawdust into her paint to give her work a tactile quality.
Meanwhile, Rodchenko had already predicted the death of painting and was producing futuristic sculptures based upon mechanical constructions. Russia’s artistic rebels wanted a new abstract art, free from the repression of Realism to explore the infinite possibilities of geometry.
While the early paintings and sculptures are mesmerizing in their modernity and complexity, they are merely a brief prelude to the commercial designs which embodied the tenets of Constructivism with extreme revolutionary zeal.
Rodchenko and Popova sought to ‘constructivise’ the human world. They transformed the theoretical compositions of their paintings into architecture, photography, typography, fashion, theatre and poetry. Popova even created hammer-and-sickle fabric designs for the state textile works in 1923. It is the very definition of kitsch.
‘All of Moscow was covered with our work,’ Rodchenko wrote. ‘We made about 50 posters, about 100 sign boards, wrappers, containers, illuminated advertisements, advertising columns, illustrations in magazines and newspapers.’ Constructivism became the new definition of high art.
The exhibition traces an astounding stretch of creativity. Rodchenko and Popova had designed the blueprint for a whole new Russia: aircraft hangers, chairs, teacups, chess sets, even workers’ uniforms. The Constructivist trajectory showed little sign of waning. The sheer volume of their output is testament to the misguided optimism of the Constructivist cause.
Political posters with slogans such as ‘Keep up the Revolutionary Pace’ combine letters of the Cyrillic alphabet with cut-out images of revolutionary figures. It brims with naivety. This is the beauty of the exhibition, the advantage of viewing an entire artistic movement in retrospect.
Perhaps an entire cultural shift is a bit too much to take in at one go. ‘Defining Constructivism’ can be a little exhausting. Ultimately, Constructivism became a dead end. Quirky utilitarian chess tables gave way to gulags and Stalinism.
The death of the Constructivist dream leaves us felling cold, rather than imbuing us with revolutionary fire.
4 out of 5 stars