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Photography and the future

“Work for life and not for palaces, temples, cemeteries and museums”. Thus the words emblazoned above the entrance to an astounding photographic treasure-trove greet visitors. Corinna Lotz reviews Rodchenko and His Circle.

The Sensus gallery is the stage on which a contradictory drama is being played out. A substantial part of the photographic legacy of the Russian revolution has been brought together and put on display, thanks, strangely enough, to the efforts of a former gallerist and an investment fund.

Installation view at Art Sensus gallery

Soviet photographer-designer Alexander Rodchenko’s slogans shout out the message that art must belong to all: “Down with art as a precious STONE amid the dirty, dark life of the poor man”, says another. And yet, this could be the one and only time that the public can see the collection as a whole.

Some 300 original and vintage photographs from the Soviet Union dating mainly from the 1920s and 1930s are on display. They were tracked down over 20 years by Zelda Cheatle, who purchased them from many different individuals and small private collections, including the Rodchenko family.

The survival of these fragile pieces of paper through the dark years of Stalinist repression and neglect, when a “Modernist” approach to art was anathema, is amazing. It was in some cases down to secrecy, Cheatle explains. Sometimes the photographers and their families looked after them carefully. Their good quality is often due to being kept mostly in the dark which preserves the life of a photograph.

Alexander Rodchenko
Columns of the Museum of Revolution

The slogans by the artist-photographer-designer Rodchenko convey the excitement of a time when artists inspired the revolution and the revolution was inspired by artists. Rodchenko and his colleagues and students lived through a social and political revolution in which Russia was transformed from a Tsar-ridden autocracy to a forward-looking state.

The Bolshevik leaders of the revolution, Lenin in particular, understood the importance of photography and film in showing the populace to itself, and transforming “the self-awareness of the masses, the crowd, small collectives and the individual who would always now be seen as part of a group,” art historian and curator John Milner writes in the exhibition book.

“Under Lenin from 1917 until his death in 1924,” Milner notes, “Bolshevik policy transformed the cultural life of the Soviet territories.” This was despite the fraught conditions that prevailed in the difficult years following the seizure of political power. All the arts – music, architecture, design, literature, poetry, dance and theatre – experienced a flowering that was both creative and tumultuous.  

Rodchenko and his contemporaries were at the forefront of that movement, embracing new technologies, especially photography which he, like pioneering film-makers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov embraced enthusiastically. It was a way of transforming not only the style of artistic production, but going beyond the narrow circles to whom art had belonged before the revolution.

What is so good about this collection is that we can see Rodchenko’s contribution alongside that of his fellow photographers. Contemporaries like the Stenberg brothers, Evgeni Khaldei, Georgii Zelma, Max Alpert, Vulf Sirotkin, Georgy Petrusov, Naum Granosky, Dmitri Debakov and Simon Fridland have so far been less well-known.

Debabov Leica
Dmitri Debabov 1900-1949 Self-Portrait
Gelatin silver print

But here we can see their role in capturing – and promoting – a vision of the young Soviet Union and its people – farm and factory workers, sports people, parades, street scenes, new architecture, and giant construction projects. They did so with enormous enthusiasm for the new hand-held Leica camera.

A key part of Soviet culture in the 1920s was the restructuring of art education. A fascinating essay by Nicholas Bueno de Mesquita describes how the VKhuTEMAS (the new Higher Art and Technical Studios which replaced the old academies) functioned. Lenin signed a decree to create the school and visited it shortly after it was founded, on 25 February 1921.

In addition to the wide-ranging photographs, the curators have included an amazing group of documents, post-card sized records of the exercises in materials such as cardboard, clay, wood and folded paper which were part of the training for students at the studios.

Vkhutemas  IV-5-43  1920-30
Maquettes from the Vkhutemas schools 1920-30

Materials like cardboard, wood, paper and clay were modelled and folded to allow students to try out new ways of manipulating space. Architectural pioneers Moisei Ginsburg, Ilia Golosov, Konstantin Melnikov and Nikolai Ladovsky headed up the architectural courses teaching alongside Rodchenko. Ladovsky noted that “space not stone is the material of architecture” but that the architect had to understand the psychological impact of that space on the viewer.

In the new schools, the foundation courses were also revolutionised. They were almost entirely taught by leading members of the avant-garde, Mesquita writes, including women painters like Aleksandra Exter, Nadezhda Udaltsova and Liubov Popova. The Vkhutemas were as significant for modern art as the better-known German Bauhaus.

But by 1930, the VKhuTEMAS and their successor, the Vkhutein had vanished, closed down by the Stalinist authorities. Academicism returned. A transition from revolutionary vitality to the dead hand of “socialist realism” appears in Zelma’s shot of Stalin. The reality behind the image of heroic labour is hinted at in Rodchenko’s 1933 image of workers building the White Sea Canal.

Max Alpert
Max Alpert, Fergana Canal, 1939

The fate of these images is currently a contested topic, especially in Russia and and in the columns of the financial press. Presently the photographs belong to the Tosca Photography Fund. This is an investment fund begun by Mehmet Dalman who teamed up with Cheatle in 2005. The original intention was to offer the Russian part to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Some believe that the best home for them would be the Moscow House of Photography.

But at present there does not appear to be a museum buyer and so the photographs may go up for auction as the fund must realise its investment by November. It seems richly ironic that the legacy of Soviet modernism has become a desirable investment “product”.

4 February 2011

Rodchenko and His Circle is at Art Sensus, 7 Howick Place, SW1P IBB extended until 16 April.

Rodchenko and his Circle – constructing the future through photography, curated and written by John Milner is published by Art Sensus at £20.

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