Rodchenko Show at MoMA: Stalin’s Gifted Lapdog

On the occasion of the current exhibition of Aleksandr Rodchenko at the Museum of Modern Art, it may be worth pausing for a moment to recall a little history. For almost nothing has been more remarkable about the art history of the last two decades than the sheer magnitude of the attention that has been lavished by American and European museums and publishers on the short-lived modernist movement that flourished in Russia in the years just before and after the Revolution of 1917.

The Russian avant-garde was greatly admired in certain modernist circles in the West from its very inception, of course, yet accounts of its achievements tended for many years to be sketchy and piecemeal, when not blatantly political, and except for the work of a few distinguished exiles-Vasili Kandinsky and Naum Gabo, among them-examples of the art itself could seldom be seen in any quantity. The reasons for this were anything but obscure. While modernist art remained under official ban in the Soviet Union, access to the largest inventories of the art in Russia itself was severely restricted. Few art professionals in the West had any real idea of just how much of the art had survived the harsh measures against modernism-or “bourgeois formalism,” as it was sometimes called-which Stalin had made a cultural priority.

Western scholarship on the subject was put on an entirely new footing in 1962 when a young English art historian, the late Camilla Gray, published The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863-1922 . Gray had been married to the son of the composer Sergei Prokofiev, and it was presumably that connection, among others, that gave her special access to the relevant collections and documents. As a consequence, The Great Experiment -which is still available in a revised paperback edition titled The Russian Experiment in Art , and is still very much worth reading-became the book that reintroduced the subject of the Russian avant-garde to the art public in Europe and America.

Still, almost two decades would elapse before that public got to see significant quantities of the modernist art that the Soviet regime had largely sequestered since the late 1920’s. The three big shows that established the Russian avant-garde as an artistic presence for us were the Paris-Moscou, 1900-1930 exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1979; The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930 exhibition, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1980; and the showing of Art of the Avant-Garde in Russia: Selections From the George Costakis Collection , which concentrated on the years 1908-1932, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1981. More recently, we have also seen retrospectives devoted to the work of Kasimir Malevich and Liubov Popova. All of these exhibitions have been accompanied by extensive catalogues, and we have meanwhile witnessed a kind of Niagara of smaller exhibitions, monographs, critical studies and anthologies on just about every aspect of the modernist movement in Russia. We even have a journal called October , which piously mimics what its contributors imagine to have been the spirit of the early Soviet avant-garde.

Even so, certain questions about the modernist movement in Russian art remain to be definitively answered, if only because they have now been provided with too many conflicting answers. For example: How long did the movement really endure once Lenin had established a secure Soviet-style dictatorship? When, for that matter, did the modernist movement begin in Russia before the Revolution? And who was responsible for killing the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920’s?

As the dates encompassed by the three big exhibitions mentioned above will indicate, there is no unanimity of opinion on these questions even among the “experts.” Camilla Gray concluded her study with the year 1922, by which time Kandinsky and Gabo had already emigrated. (The writer Vladimir Nabokov beat them to the exit by leaving in 1919.) That there is ample reason to regard 1922 as the terminal date of the avant-garde in Russia is confirmed by no less an authority than Aleksandr Rodchenko himself. When the late Alfred Barr met Rodchenko in Moscow in 1928, the artist “showed much satisfaction at having delivered the death blow to painting in 1922,” as Barr duly noted in his diary. All he was shown in Rodchenko’s atelier on that first visit were “many interesting and ingenious designs and models for furniture: office desks, filing cases, etc.” Barr also discovered that the Museum of Abstract Art in Moscow was padlocked.

In his heyday as an avant-garde painter and sculptor, between the years 1918 and 1921, Rodchenko was indeed one of the masters of abstract art, as the current exhibition at MoMA amply confirms. He then exhibited a similar genius for graphic design, especially in the photocollage illustrations he created for the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky-and indeed, as a photographer in his many portraits of Mayakovsky himself. Yet while the forms employed by Rodchenko remained modernist in this so-called Productivist phase of his career when he spurned fine art-including abstract painting and sculpture-as an outmoded bourgeois practice, in what sense could the work still be regarded as avant-garde when its principal purpose was to aggrandize the power and authority of a centralized government bureaucracy?

As early as 1923, Rodchenko was hopelessly employed as a creator of what Leah Dickerman, writing in the catalogue of the exhibition, calls “Constructivist advertising,” which was in effect a species of agitprop for Soviet consumer goods, such as they were. He thus became hostage to the contradictions of early Bolshevism, in which the aping of capitalist consumer-advertising strategies was given a Communist accent, and all sorts of “bourgeois formalist” design strategies were used to promote the sale of cooking oil and caramel candy. This is Professor Dickerman’s very up-to-date postmodernist reading of Rodchenko’s early accomplishments in the ad-agitprop game: “In the paradigmatically modernist device of the mise-en-abîme , the cooking oil ad uses a smaller image of itself as the label on its central bottle of oil to set up a seemingly infinite regression. Here, repetition conjures a mythic socialist plenitude, and at the same time, works to develop a coordinated system of identity between the advertising graphic and the product itself: even as it sells oil, Rodchenko’s design sells the concept of ‘universal’ advertising. No matter what the product or how explicit the message, however, Rodchenko’s … ads never quite escape the ideological ambiguity of their enterprise. Constructivist advertising almost always vacillates between the revolutionary imperative to circumvent the fetishizing of the commodity, on the one hand, and the construction of desire necessary to sell the product, on the other.”

I wonder if I am alone in finding such pretentious blather utterly hilarious?

There are other parts to the Rodchenko exhibition that are less amusing. Even those very remarkable portrait photographs of Mayakovsky acquire a somewhat sinister aura when we read in the wall text of the show that “In 1935, Stalin proclaimed Mayakovsky a hero of the revolution, adding ominously that ‘indifference to his memory and to his work is a crime.’ Printed larger than before, often softly, in warm, romantic tones, Rodchenko’s portraits became icons of the mythic propaganda that accrued to the poet.” Meanwhile, of course, the real heroes of the Revolution were suffering the terror of the Moscow trials.

And there is a lot worse to come in this exhibition as we savor the beauty of the photographs Rodchenko produced to sanitize the brutality and terror of Stalin’s slave-labor building projects of the 1930’s.

The truth is that from the mid-1920’s onward, after he had effectively “delivered the death blow to painting,” at least as far as the Soviet avant-garde was concerned, Rodchenko was to the Soviet regime what a figure like Leni Riefenstahl was to the Nazi regime: a gifted, abject celebrant of a formidably evil power in the world.

What also needs to be remembered about Rodchenko is that years before Stalin was in a position to demonize abstract painting and sculpture as “bourgeois formalism,” the campaign to condemn abstraction as counterrevolutionary was initiated from within the ranks of the Soviet avant-garde itself, most notably by Rodchenko himself. Stalin only codified and criminalized what avant-garde militants like Vladimir Tatlin and Rodchenko had first proposed in rejecting abstract art.

There are many fine things to be seen and savored in the Rodchenko exhibition, but it reminds us not only of a terrible epoch in 20th-century history, but that all recent attempts to expand the period of the Soviet avant-garde much beyond the year 1922 is sheer political fantasy-and bad faith into the bargain. The exhibition remains on view at MoMA through Oct. 6.

Rodchenko Show at MoMA: Stalin’s Gifted Lapdog