The posters for last year’s Royal Academy exhibition From Russia bore a Matisse painting as their crowd-grabbing image. In doing so, they were, unwittingly or not, reflecting the unspoken theory that most of the decent art in Russia is actually non-Russian, the spoils of World War Two. Russians, it seems, are allowed to do novels, but they’d best leave the art to the monoliths of Western Europe and the USA. Tate Modern’s Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism challenges such notions in every room of the exhibition, and leaves them cowering in submission by the end.
As a woman, Liubov Popova would have been unlikely to find herself at the forefront of any art movement in Western Europe, but in the nascent Soviet Union she was able to not only practise art as an equal, but push against its limitations. In this, she had a willing co-conspirator in Aleksandr Rodchenko. Together, they became key figures in the Constructivist movement that flourished around the time of the Russian Revolution.
Constructivists felt that art was only useful if it made a contribution to society. They appear to have seen themselves as a vanguard in a war against bourgeois art: most photos of Rodchenko show him wearing a painter’s uniform with military style epaulettes and buttons; a commando struggling against cliché.
One of their first strikes was to reject the bourgeois notion of mimetic representation and focus on paint as paint, line as line, curve as curve. While Stalin’s personal tastes may have condemned later Soviet artists to produce nothing but Socialist Realism, there is a sense here, looking at paintings from 1917, of the possibility that everything could be made new. First they set free colour from the shackles of having to be anything other than itself, then, in Rodchenko’s black on black paintings, they set free painting from colour.
With that task achieved, it’s hard to know where to go. You can feel the artists struggling with this question in the works that followed, with some works, such as Rodchenko’s Abstraction, foreshadowing later twentieth century art movements such as Abstract Expressionism. After four years, the two 1921 exhibitions called 5×5 suggest they couldn’t answer this question to their own satisfaction. The exhibition, part of which is reproduced here, was intended as a farewell to painting, with five artists each showing five works. Rodchenko’s triptych Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour is the standout piece, with three square canvases showing exactly what the title suggests, forty years before Elsworth Kelly started to do the same.
Following the 5×5 exhibitions, Popova, Rodchenko and the other Constructivists turned their attentions to practical usages of art in the revolution: Rodchenko joined with Mayakovsky to form an advertising agency that produced everything from propaganda to cigarette adverts, while Popova was increasingly drawn to textile design, creating over a hundred patterns that, through mass production, brought the revolution to every wardrobe.
With a final section on film and a reconstruction of the Rodchenko-designed Workers Club – a space where the proletariat could read, debate and play chess in geometrical comfort – this is an exceptionally well curated exhibition, pulling in paintings from museums and art galleries in the furthest corners of the old Soviet Union.
After I left the exhibition, I wandered into the Tate’s permanent display of Cubism, and couldn’t help feeling the Picassos and the Braques had lost some of their appeal: was it that their once radical lines were now too familiar? or were they just missing the imprint of truly revolutionary fervour?