ART FOR A FORGOTTEN UTOPIA 

When Alexander Rodchenko was born in 1891, the science of photography had already been developing for about 60 years. The decade before Rodchenko's birth, George Eastman introduced flexible film and the box camera, liberating the process from cumbersome equipment and making it available to a wide public. But the art of photography was just getting started. By and large, people were using the camera as a new kind of painting; the same aesthetic criteria were used for the two means of image making.

Rodchenko hit his teens just as photography was experiencing its own rebellious adolescence. On the other side of the world, artists such as Alfred Stieglitz were banding together and insisting that the camera's invention was the birth of an art form equal in stature to — but different in essence from — painting.

In the Soviet Union, Rodchenko soon proved this principle in his own work. Seizing upon the drama following the October Revolution in 1917, he and his peers saw themselves as the aesthetic representatives of their country's new political direction. He and his fellow Constructivists believed in the transformative power of art; and the ways in which Rodchenko radicalized the art of photography were sparked by that conviction.

As a photographer, Rodchenko (who liked to be called "Rodcha") is best known for the startling angles in his compositions. He dropped to the ground and shot up; he climbed buildings and shot down — usually with the camera skewed so that the lines in his compositions struck boldly from one corner of the frame to another. His "Balconies" series exemplifies this, with a building's sharp brick corner rising into space while a series of small black balconies protrude from an otherwise featureless wall.

One excellent photo from this series is included in the McNay's "Alexander Rodchenko: Modern Photography, Photomontage, and Film," a retrospective that provides a solid introduction to the artist's work with the camera. There, "Balconies" hangs a few feet away from another well-known image of a man perched on a fire escape ladder, looking down at the lens. It's an unusual image, odd — even for Rodchenko — in that the ladder is perfectly centered in the frame, producing a symmetrical composition that is rarely seen in the artist's photos.

In other images, Rodchenko applies his "low angles" approach to human portraiture. In a pair of 1930 photographs in which the artist's political ideals bubble to the surface, he views the faces of a boy and a girl (participants in the Pioneer youth program) from about the level of their waists; as a result, the students are larger than life, focused on the task ahead of them, pure of heart and mind.

His portraiture wasn't always so stylized. In the mid-1920s, as Rodchenko was learning photography, he made dozens of portraits of the writers and artists in his circle of friends. Even without kooky angles, he exhibited a strong control over the tone of these images, as is seen when one compares these — where great thinkers stare boldly at the camera or gaze off toward a utopian future — with those he took of his mother, who is captured holding her glasses up to one eye as she reads a magazine. The old woman, a laundress who learned to read in her late '50s, is shown by her son as a common Soviet citizen, ennobled by a life of hard work.

 
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Osip Brik, 1924. Cover design for the magazine LEF. Hand-colored photograph.


 
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Balconies, 1925. From a series "The House on Miasnitskaya." In the autumn of 1925 Rodchenko started a series of extremely abrupt photographs taken from high and low angles.

His other most famous subject was the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a young man with a shorn head and dark, piercing eyes. Rodchenko mythologized the poet with his direct images, but that was only part of his contribution to Mayakovsky's career.

The other side of the collaboration was in Rodchenko's graphic design work, which is highlighted in the first room of the McNay show. Before ever picking up a camera, the artist displayed a gift for collage and design; in 1923 he designed Mayakovsky's book About This, a few pages of which are displayed here. His work for LEF magazine and other clients is characterized by a bold graphic sense and a fondness for startling juxtapositions. He also hinted at the direction his photography would take by making strong diagonal elements the basis for many of his designs; This work is widely copied even 80 years later. One of his most famous ads, in which model Lily Brik holds her mouth open wide as the word "Books" leaps out of it like a megaphone, is alluded to here, as the McNay displays the photograph staged for use in the collage. It's unfortunate the actual ad isn't in the show, as the way in which Rodchenko created his own source material for collage is illuminating.

The omission of this well-known ad is disappointing and hard to explain. While Rodchenko's photography is striking, it's difficult to appreciate the man's career fully without seeing his poster work. It's true that the show's name proclaims a focus on photography and film, but the artist's work in both areas is so tied to his design that it seems natural to include more of the latter. A 1995 Könemann book simply called Rodchenko makes this case by presenting finished advertisements side-by-side with the photos manipulated in them.

It is quite possible that those original advertisements are hard to come by; one would be inclined to accept that as reason for their omission here, if not for the fact that digital copies of other material are presented alongside original pieces. Even the straight photography segment of the show incorporates modern prints of archival negatives, and the whole exhibit was organized with the cooperation of the Moscow-based Rodchenko and Stepanova Archive, so it's hard to understand why the curators didn't at least make some high-quality reproductions of his most important poster work.

That would be especially appropriate given the exhibit's nod to Rodchenko's connections to the Soviet film scene. A smartly chosen clip from Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera plays in the middle of the McNay's show; how nice it would have been to have a huge poster for Vertov's The Kino-Eye, one of the first images that springs to mind when one thinks of Rodchenko, hanging beside the video monitor.

On the whole, though, the show is a fine starting point for those curious about Constructivism, and it holds a good deal of pleasure for those who have seen this material only in books. Looking at the work in light of the generations of artists who followed Rodchenko, his influence on modern art is undeniable. He did change the world, even if the propaganda he thought he was promoting was trampled into the dust by history.

Alexander Rodchenko: Modern Photography, Photomontage, and Film
10am-5pm Tue-Sat,
12-5pm Sun
Through May 26
Free
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
824-5368

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