The largest collection of Alexander Rodchenko’s and Varvara Stepanova’s works, owned by the Private Collections Department of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, is currently on display at At home with Rodchenko and Stepanova exhibition and covers the artists’ lives from the 1910s to the mid 1930s.
Much of the paired works of the lifelong partners, lovers and later husband and wife, are presented here through constructivist, painterly, collage-like and photographic works. Alexander’s inspiring liaison with the group The Left Front of the Arts (LEF), of which the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the linguist Grigory Vinokur, Osip Brik and his iconic wife Lily Brik were members, constitutes the pulsating heart of the exhibition.
Due to different working conditions during his life, Alexander experimented with various media in his art. After he had moved from his native city St. Petersburg, first to Kazan – where he met Varvara while studying art – and later to Moscow to study at the Stroganov School, he continued to work with compasses, rulers and sharpeners. Exhibited in a glass vitrine at the Private Collections, these objects remind more of a professional civil engineering studio than of a private place for free expression. Hence, his constructivist approach towards life and troublesome issues dealing with closed spaces first comes to live in his early work.
Securing a more stable financial position as a teacher from 1918 until 1930, first at Prolekult and later at VKhUTEMAS, where he temporarily worked alongside Kasimir Malevich, Rodchenko started to relive some of his childhood memories through Varvara’s work on costumes for a Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin production at the Meyerhold Theatre in Moscow, for which she continued to use the couple’s earlier geometrical elements and used colour variations to add details.
Alongside the changing socio-economic perspectives in the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1920s, Alexander began to focus on photography, which started to become more available at that time. Some of his works – consisting of collages, photographic shots of architecture, machineries, people, mass gatherings, students excising their bodies, sports parades in Moscow – were published on magazine covers. Together with his LEF colleague Mayakovsky, he also produced advertisement posters to address heated socio-economic sphere.
The majority of Alexander’s photographic works are taken from miscellaneous angles during the 1920s. On the 18th of August in 1928 – eight months after Lenin’s death – he writes in his dairy: ‘We don’t see, what we observe. We don’t see, what we look at. We don’t see the extraordinary perspectives and the shortenings of objects. We, who have been taught to see ordinary and educated, we need to rediscover the world of visibility. We need to revolutionise our optical cognition. We need to tear off the veil in front of our eyes, which is called from the navel’.’ Hence, this historically preserved statement adds information to Alexander’s avant-gardistic aim to take on an active responsible role in society to build a different approach towards life.
In 1928, he was formally accused of capturing the world from too extreme angles. Still in hope to agitate society through his work, he took off into a new professional direction: he became a sports photographer. His artistic angles remained however extreme; but in a monetary lucrative way. Even though he had taken pictures of sports and gymnasts before, they do not convey an understanding of the athletes’ movements since he was not primarily interested in competitive sports. The captured swimmers, jumpers, tennis players, horse-riders at the state-owned sport clubs and gymnasts at the Red Squares parades in 1936 rather convey an aesthetically appealing heroic image of sportspersons. The same approach towards sports documentation can also be found in Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematographic work on the Olympic Games in Berlin 1936, in which the Soviet Union did not participate.
During Stalin’s second five-year plan, Alexander started to rediscover painting, but still made use of his ‘third’ (camera) eye. For example, a series on the performances at the circus caught his attention. Pastel coloured clowns, light-weighted gymnasts on galloping horses, and other figures in movement attracted him. And this is the point where the visual journey ends at the Pushkin exhibition centre in Moscow.
Since the exhibition, curated by Alla Lukanova the deputy director of the collection, relies on visual reading, non-Russian speakers access Alexander’s visual expression through looking. The artist would have probably appreciated the way how his work is represented at the public space inside the Private Collections building instead of reinforcing his work by text, which is common for museum displays. However, the degree to which the viewer can actively participate in this exhibition via interactive tools is open for debate.