Alexander Rodchenko – painter, Constructivist, graphic designer, photographer and post- revolutionary Russian avant–gardist – liked balconies. They appear regularly in photographs he made in the mid 1920’s – in Mosselprom Building, 1926; in Balconies. Corner of a House, 1925 and again in Varvara Stepanova on a Balcony, 1928.
More important though than the view of a balcony was the view from one. Witness, for example, Woman with a Baby Carriage or Gathering for a Demonstration, both from 1928. Or, from the early thirties, Tram Line Turning and Asphalt. Theatre Square.
His daughter Varvara recalled that Rodchenko would spend hours sunbathing on the balcony on the south side of his Moscow apartment; and that it was “a constant place for photographing in summer and winter, spring and autumn. Father liked to watch what was going on below – people moving in or out, assembling for demonstrations, children at play.”
Besides providing an opportunity for the unobserved surveillance of his comrades, the elevated vantage point also enabled Rodchenko to represent everyday street life in a manner free of the remaindered pictorial conventions of pre-revolutionary art. “The most interesting angles of our times are from upwards below and from downwards up”, he said. The photographs he made are characterised by the use of vertiginous perspectives, truncated foreshortenings and dramatically off-kilter compositions – devices that constituted a specifically photographic and determinedly post-revolutionary language.
The effect was, as his associate Osip Brik put it, “to silence painting’s chatter about representing life artistically.”
The insistence on unprecedented, and photographic, forms and means of representation went beyond the demand that current events had to be pictured in an appropriately modern way. Rodchenko and the Russian avant-garde in photography were committed to the militant intervention in the construction of the new society. “We emphasize that all means of expression and design must be utilized in order to organize the consciousness, will, and emotions of the proletariat and of the working masses with maximum force”, declared the October group in 1928.
In times like these a photograph of a prosaic street scene, viewed askew and from on high, could be read as a pictorial demonstration of the possibilities of looking anew at everyday life.
Photography’s appeal – Rodchenko abandoned easel painting – lay, of course, in its potential as a reproducible and accessible form of representation with an expanded field of applications. His pictures were used in magazines, newspapers, books, leaflets and packaging. And he maintained the belief, for as long as it was possible to, that formal and pictorial innovations could invest photography with a radical social potency. As a corollary he held that “there is no revolution if…photographers…are still using the same photographic approach that was employed under the old regime or under the influence of Western art”.
Stalin thought otherwise. A decree issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1932 effectively closed down the Russian avant-garde and subsumed its members within a single national Artists’ Union. Rodchenko continued to work but his pictures were removed from museums and he suffered increasing levels of criticism and persecution. By the second half of the thirties his main subjects were officially sanctioned sports displays and circus performances. Soviet life, it seems, could no longer be photographed in a way that suggested the possibility of a popular transformation of everyday experience; now only the spectacular and the staged could be represented.
Rodchenko’s diary entry of June 30, 1938 speaks volumes:
“Strange time. Everyone whispers. All afraid.”
Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography is at The Hayward Gallery , London, 11 Feb – 27 Apr 2008