Rodchenko Alexander M. and Stepanova Varvara F.

Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova Heritage

The Museum of Personal Collections owns the world’s largest collection of works by Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko (1891--1956) and Varvara Fyodorovna Stepanova (1894--1958). The Rodchenko-Lavrentiev family carefully treasured the heritage of this famous team of husband and wife until 1992, when they presented the museum with works of painting, graphic art, photography and applied art. This collection covers all periods of the artists’ life and work, from before the revolution to after the Second World War.

Much has already been written about Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. Two of the leading masters of the Russian avant-garde, their art has been exhibited in many different countries. The opening of the Museum of Personal Collections offered the chance to create a permanent exhibition of their works, chronicling their long and prolific careers.

Alexander Rodchenko’s early period is represented by such works as [Still-Life with a Candlestick] (1913--14). The geometric forms of the real objects reflect the general interest in Cubism in Russian art in the early twentieth century. In 1918, the artist began to create original architectural projects in his painting and graphic art. Large rectangular planes intersected in imaginary space, recalling fantastic multi-storied structures. Rodchenko addressed the reality of the new artistic world, seen through the transforming prism of a dream. He was infected by the chance to shape the objective environment, creating a whole new world from nothing except his own imagination. One such work is the [Biziaks] kiosk design (1919), which was too impractical to ever be implemented in reality.

Between 1918 and 1920, Alexander Rodchenko worked on the [Concentration of Colour] series of paintings. The main motif was the circle -- the most universal geometric form. Floating on the light background and intensifying in colour at the centre or the edges of the canvas, the superimposed circumferences are like reflected patches from the rays of projector lamps or the fantastic phosphorescent contours of imaginary planets. The contrasts between the matt and varnished surfaces differentiate the textures of the form and background, intensifying the depth of the spatial perspective.

[Concentration of Colour (Colour Sphere of Circle)] (1920) is not painted in the style of a traditional picture. The soft and exact brushstrokes on the fresh coat of oil paint create refined plays of colour, ranging from intense tones to their almost complete absence, making the surface like a fleecy rug.

Around the same time, Rodchenko began work on a large cycle of [Lines] (1920). The aim of the series was to demonstrate how a simple form -- a straight line -- could be the only form-creative element in a work of art. The lace constructions of Rodchenko’s lines recall modern computer graphics. Recreating a popular optical illusion, [Construction on a Yellow Background] (1919) is an example of an intellectual picture.

Alexander Rodchenko’s oeuvre of those years was not confined to lines or dissolving planes. In 1919, he created a series of [Wrestlers]. Later, in the 1930s, when the political atmosphere in the country ruled out any experiments in non-objective painting, he returned to the theme of the circus. Rodchenko constructed the recognisable figure of a man in the same way as an architectural structure, correlating and combining the geometric forms and the construction of the body. Like his other works of this period, [Wrestlers] is distinguished for its subtle range of colours. Such hues as green, red and grey underscore the individuality of each graphic character.

Alexander Rodchenko’s method of painting and drawing was extremely technological. All his works offered a laboratory for artistic experiments. The master had no qualms about painting lines with the help of a ruler or drawing circles with a pair of compasses. Nothing happened by chance; everything was planned down to the smallest detail. Rodchenko’s oeuvre appears to be based not on sudden inspiration, but on a pre-conceived plan, in the same way as a technically complex object is made. The artistic structure of the work and the manner of its construction incorporate the main concept of Rodchenko’s oeuvre -- Constructivism. The master believed that he was working “not for the museums, but for life”, building and inventing life. Although later a radical practitioner and utilitarianist, Rodchenko seems quite contemplative in many of these works, floating in a weightless geometric dream of primordial symbols and absolute harmony.

Varvara Stepanova largely followed in her husband’s footsteps. In 1919, she began work on a large series of [Figures], introducing Rodchenko’s Constructivist discoveries to her own semi-figurative painting. Stepanova did not work from life. She created an illusory world in which impersonal heroes existed and interacted. These characters were made from the same lines, dots, planes and circles as the forms in Rodchenko’s non-objective compositions.

Varvara Stepanova’s works are full of original humour and fun. Her self-ironic approach differs from the chilly, analytical art of her husband. A year before [Figures], she worked on the [Visual Poetry] series, combining Alexei Kruchenykh’s transrational poetry with bright patches and lines, carelessly thrown onto the canvas between the garish, dancing letters. The frozen monotony of traditional printed language is detonated by the almost audible sound of the painterly graphics in [Gly-gly] (1918) and [Zigra ar] (1918).

Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova introduced the new relationship between the text and the illustrations into their designs for posters and printed publications. In 1923, their mutual friend Vladimir Mayakovsky launched a new literary and artistic journal called [LEF] -- Left Front of the Arts. Rodchenko and Stepanova designed the cover of the magazine and Mayakovsky’s own works. They also illustrated the books of Sergei Tretyakov, a friend of Mayakovsky who died in prison in 1939. Their revolutionary, new graphic structure -- now a classic of the Russian avant-garde -- introduced Constructivist quests to such comprehensible documents as printed texts and photographs. The large letters, contrasting geometric elements and bold photomontages symbolised the brutal and boisterous aesthetics of the new era.

Alexander Rodchenko’s poster designs addressed the world of mundane reality, crudely and visually incarnating tokens of modernity. He collaborated with Mayakovsky on Soviet trade advertisements, extolling the virtues of Mosselprom, the Rubber Trust and the State Department Store (GUM). Rodchenko’s advertisements are not narrative; they are based on combinations of bold forms and emblematic elements. The artwork always came first, whether he was designing adverts for sunflower oil or calling on Soviet citizens to join the Air Force Volunteer Society. Rodchenko regarded art as a chance to actively influence the shape of the world, fashioning it after his own plastic visions.

Alexander Rodchenko’s artistic quests were often subjected to harsh criticism. No longer able to exhibit his paintings and graphic art, the master took up photography. He had been interested in photography at the very start of his career, combining it with experiments in other forms of art. Although his early works were traditional, they now let us see the faces of many famous people.

In the early 1920s, Rodchenko made complex photomontages of such writers as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Brik and Lily Brik. In [Books on All Fields of Knowledge] (1924), an advertisement for the Leningrad State Publishing House, he was the first in Russian -- if not world -- photography to reject the frontal image. Playing with the angles of the frame, he showed the familiar, everyday world from a whole new point of view -- a well courtyard from the bottom upwards, a fire escape rising up into the heavens, spots of light on a glass jug, cog wheels advancing on the viewer. Such quests for the independent value of photography were accompanied by pictures of show parades of Soviet athletes and the vanishing charm of the old squares of Moscow. Each photograph captures the spirit of the time, turning an historical document into a work of art depicting the real world with cold artistry.

Russian culture produced many revolutionary phenomena in the twentieth century -- the painting of Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, the music of Alexander Scriabin, the poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky and the films of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. The art of Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova can be added to this illustrious list of names.

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