Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Alexander Rodtschenko and Aleksandr Rodchenko

I want to dispel rumors of my recent death. I am not dead. I've been squeezing in extra days of work before I have knee surgery (You're all supposed to give a collective "Awww...poor Whisket). 5B4 will pick up its pace in the second half of the month while I am laid up and pumped full of Vicadin.

I know what I am about to say will alienate many but after not working for almost all of June and then agreeing to work three days in a row has drained me of all inspiration to write this week. People who work day after day -- you have my sympathies.

So, in celebration of "the workers" I will summon the stamina to briefly mention the new catalog Alexander Rodtschenko (German spelling) from the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin.

Rodchenko I have spent some time on before with his book design collaborations with Vavara Stepanova. His photography, however, is now the center of discussion in his multi-disciplinary career that involved sculpture, painting, collage, set design and even clothing design. Rodchenko started to use photography for collage and within a few years concentrated on the "photograph" as a simple element of design. By the early 1920's he saw the other traditional studio arts failing to provide artistic results appropriate to the time.

Acquiring a Leica and the freedom that came with the small format and rolls of 36 frames, he started photographing in a manner that explored his now characteristic eccentric viewpoints. As he wrote in 1928, "When I present a tree taken from below like an industrial object such as a chimney, this is a revolution in the eyes of the philistine...In this manner I am expanding our conception of the ordinary, everyday object."

In this new catalog several pages are given to a few of Rodchenko's two thousand some photos of the building of the "White Sea Canal" that later appeared in an issue of USSR in Construction. This was a canal built by prisoners that also served as the "re-education" of antisocial types to turn them into useful members of the collective. This essay could be set as an example of Rodchenko's blind-spot of always looking towards the greater good while overlooking the fact that the toiling masses were not participating willingly but under a scheme of terror where some 200,000 prisoners died. The final printed essay, of course, shows "workers" and not "prisoners" with airbrushed smiles willingly doing their service for the greater good.

The catalog is divided into sections according to subject and discipline starting off with collages primarily made in the early to mid-1920s. These constructions are amongst my favorites of Rodchenko's work with their diversity of imagery, broad shifts in scale and the freedom of arrangement. In the early days of Rodchenko's photography pursuit he, like any photographer, becomes a collector and archivist of images but his application of cutting and pasting reduces his photography down to objects.

This catalog is nicely put together with tons of illustrations (several of which I hadn't seen before) and the printing is good but I think the Museum of Modern Art catalog from 1998 is better in terms of production. Unfortunately the essays are not translated from German but what do I expect from a German catalog. Published by Nicolai.

or a good book on Rodchenko's photography there is also Aleksandr Rodchenko: The New Moscow published in 1998 by Schirmer Mosel.

After Rodchenko was expelled from the group of artists known as the October group, he was commissioned to take photographs of Moscow. His wife and collegue, Vavara Stepanova compiled a sequence of 89 of the resulting photos which was prepared to be a book but it was never published. Of course the tenor of the book is the positive social and political changes in the city.

A 1998 edition of this unpublished book was prepared for a traveling exhibition of vintage prints organized by the Sprengel Museum in Hanover. It claims to be the complete sequence but it has only 81 photographs so I am not exactly sure what they mean by "complete". What I do like about this book is the paper stock and printing. For a change, Schirmer Mosel, (whose books all se
em to pretty much look the same) chose to use a paper stock that is a heavy matte with a decent tooth. The printing looks like a faux-gravure with very rich black tones (that occasionally block up but I can over look that).

Margarita Tupitsyn, the art historian who seems to contribute fine essays to all books on Russian artists contributes an introduction.

The last book I will mention (not really a whole hearted review, just a mention) is called The Avant-Garde in Russia 1910-1930: New Perspectives. This is
a catalog from a show in 1980 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I like this title less for the illustrations, which are all in varying degrees of lousy quality black and white, and more for the good essays
from a whole slew of authors. I am sure there are a whole host of books on the subject but I find the structure of this one good for starting anywhere you open the book. It also features a cool cover design which drew my attention from the get go. last lazy mention (not a review). If you are interested in reading Rodchenko's writings on art, his letters, diaries and such you should check out
Experiments for the Future published by the MoMA in 2004. It can be gotten for around $12.00 hardcover as it has been remaindered.

Special thank you to Ed Grazda for lugging a copy of the Nicolai catalog back from Germany.

Book Available Here (New Moscow)

Book Available Here (Avant-Garde in Russia)

Book Available Here (Experiment for the Future)