The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was one of the greatest upheavals of the
twentieth century. Its leaders envisioned a new society, thoroughly reshaped in accordance with their radical program of social justice. A small group of advanced artists soon embraced this vision and sought to create new forms of art that would help bring the new society into being. Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) was among the most talented and prolific of these artists. This exhibition is the first in the United States to present a comprehensive overview of his work.
Rodchenko was deeply committed to the ideals of the Revolution, and his work cannot be understood apart from the turbulent and ultimately tragic history of Russia in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for three centuries, collapsed during World War I, in February 1917. The October Revolution, led by Vladimir Il'ich Lenin and his Bolshevik Party, overthrew the democratic Provisional Government that had arisen after the abdication of the tsar. The Bolsheviks, soon calling themselves the Communist Party, set out to impose a militant dictatorship in the name of the working class. They emerged victorious in early 1921, after three years of bloody civil war, and in 1922 they renamed the Russian empire the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The growth of industry at the end of the nineteenth century was one of the forces that brought down the tsar, but in the early 1920s Russia remained an agricultural country largely populated by illiterate peasants. Technological progress was the cornerstone of the Communist social program, and it became a principal goal of Joseph Stalin, who won the struggle for power provoked by Lenin's death in January 1924. In 1928 Stalin launched his ambitious First Five-Year Plan of rapid industrialization and forced collectivization of agriculture, which exacted a great human cost. He ruled a brutal totalitarian state until his death in 1953. In the course of the 1930s millions of Russians were jailed or executed. Independent art was suppressed, and remnants of the revolutionary avant-garde survived only insofar as they adapted to the demands of Stalin's regime.
Born in 1891, Rodchenko came into artistic maturity with the Revolution. From 1918 to 1921, while rising to prominence in the new cultural bureaucracy, he pursued a highly innovative program of abstract painting and sculpture. With other artists--including his lifelong companion, Varvara Stepanova--he founded the Constructivist movement. Associating the avant-garde goal of artistic progress with the political goal of social progress, the Constructivists regarded their systematic investigations of the material and formal logic of art as essential to the creation of a Communist society.
In 1921, the driving logic of Rodchenko's theories and his ideal of social agency led him to declare the end of painting and to take up alternative mediums in the service of society. This bold stroke led him to a broad exploration of many fields of design, as well as photocollage and photography. In the 1920s, optimism and wit leavened Rodchenko's earnest fantasy of an ideal world put into order by the artist-engineer, but this fruitful paradox could not long survive in the political and cultural climate of Stalinism. Despite Rodchenko's efforts to adapt, he soon found himself at the margins of Soviet culture, and he spent much of the last two decades of his life in frustrated isolation. He died in 1956, the year that Nikita Krushchev denounced Stalin's crimes.
Closely linked to the Russian Revolution, Rodchenko was also a paradigmatic figure of the European avant-garde between the two World Wars. He inherited the pre-war avant-garde's probing self-consciousness about the workings of art, then used it to challenge the insularity of the avant-garde. Ceaselessly reinventing himself, he expanded the boundaries of each of the many mediums in which he worked. But just as Rodchenko's social engagement fostered his artistic innovations, it embroiled him in a great tragedy, as utopian aspiration yielded instead a violent dictatorship.
© 1998 The Museum of Modern Art, New York