Revolutions rumble and explode through this stunning and extensive exhibition, organised by the Moscow House of Photography, curated by its director, Olgar Sviblova. Mirroring the arch of idealism under Lenin into the repression of Stalin, the show reveals how Alexander Rodchenko worked with and against hardening Communist values between the years of 1923 and 1938.

As a young man, artist and designer, Rodchenko was a full believer in the Russian Revolution, seeing fertile ground unfurling for artists of all kinds. Photomontage was the medium which Lenin saw as the most powerful agent for propaganda, and Rodchenko was its pioneer and champion.

Rodchenko’s early montages reflect a joyous sense of freedom and fun. He culls images from newspapers and magazines, and in what was to be the start of life-long collaboration with poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, illustrates his poem, “About That”. Each panel contains the glory of modernity – cities, trains, aeroplanes, telephones, bridges, but also creatures from the natural world, dinosaurs and polar bears on great sheets of ice, plus the human presence of Mayakovsky and his lover, Lili Brik. It conveys the idea that images aren’t sacred; that you can cut out and paste together unconnected things to create something new – surreal and energised.
Together Mayakovsky and Rodchenko formed New LEF (Left Front of the Arts). A series of covers show their striking pattern of black and white, with one primary colour. Steep angles, close-ups, arrows, lines and a bold typeface are uniquely incorporated. The style can be traced throughout the history of 20th century book and magazine design.

There is a large and very different section to the exhibition with portraits that Rodchenko took concurrently with his work for New LEF, cinema and the state. Once the camera was in his hands, his urge for experimentation with light, angles, framing and subject matter, knew no bounds. 

Until, that is, repressive Communist paranoia took hold. By 1928 Rodchenko was being criticised for the petty bourgeois crime of “formalism”. He is ordered to move into photo-reportage, although with strict restrictions. The 1930s produce the famous “Pioneer” series, and eventually soft-focused images of state entertainment – the Bolshoi Ballet and State Circus.

Rodchenko’s work here spans 15 intense years of artistic, photographic and political change. The images are chosen and arranged as to honour the photography and design which Rodchenko advanced, and to weave them into the political context with which they were inextricably linked, yet also lived a vital life of their own. 

Ruth Hedges