Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko (1891-1956) was a Russian abstract painter, sculptor, photographer, and industrial designer who, as an early pioneer in Russian Constructivism, believed that art must serve as an agent for social change.
Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko was born in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) on November 23, 1891. Rodchenko was of humble origin. His father, Mikhail, was a theater craftsman while his mother, Olga Yevdokimovna, was a laundress. Little is known concerning Rodchenko's early childhood. It is believed that he left school in 1905 before finishing his formal education.
In 1910 Rodchenko enrolled at the Kazan School of Art in the city of Odessa. His earliest works from this period are figurative and exhibit a marked influence from European trends, particularly the flat decorative quality found in the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Rodchenko's earliest subject matter was derived from the world of the theater, where his father worked, and the circus. Within a short time Rodchenko began to move toward abstract painting. By the time he left the Kazan School of Art in 1914 he had already begun to experiment with abstract design.
Rodchenko's first purely abstract works date from 1915 after he moved to Moscow and registered at the Stroganov School. He began with abstract designs drawn with a compass and ruler. He also worked in collage by arranging pieces of paper on canvas.
The following year was an important one for Rodchenko. In 1916 he met Vladimir Tatlin, who was later to play an important role in Russian Constructivism. Through Tatlin Rodchenko was introduced to many of the leading figures of the Russian avant-garde, including Kasimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. He also met Varvara Stepanova, whom he later married. In March of 1916 Rodchenko exhibited some of his pictures at Tatlin's Futurist exhibition entitled "The Store." Independent though struggling, Rodchenko began to embrace leftist political ideas.
Throughout the revolutionary period in Russia (1917-1921) Rodchenko experimented with both Cubistic and Futuristic tendencies. He was also greatly influenced by the work of his friend Tatlin and the Suprematist Malevich. From Tatlin Rodchenko acquired an interest in surface textures, while from Malevich he learned to work with flat geometric shapes. However, Rodchenko's own attitude toward abstraction digressed from that of many of his fellow artists. His interest in physics, math, and geometry led to a rather scientific approach whereby abstraction became both a scientific and a creative means of revealing reality. Therefore Rodchenko tended to avoid the spiritual aspects of Kandinsky as well as the metaphysical concerns inherent in the work of Malevich. He considered their art evidence of an avoidance of reality. For Rodchenko, art had to serve the function of social change and reform. He felt that his scientific approach was best suited to deal with the problems that reality presented.
After the revolution, Rodchenko played an active and spirited role in the reformation of Russian society and culture. In 1918 he worked for IZO, the Department of Fine Arts of the People's Commissariat of Education. Between 1918 and 1926 Rodchenko taught at the Proletkult School in Moscow and at the vkhutemas (technical workshops) throughout the 1920s. Rodchenko also held memberships in various institutes—for example, INKHUK (the Institute of Artistic Culture).
Between 1918 and 1921 Rodchenko's earlier interest in the arrangement of flat geometric shapes on a two-dimensional surface developed into "spatial constructions" where he broke free from the confines of the canvas to create three-dimensional sculpture. These constructions were made from various materials, including wood, tin, and cardboard. As in his drawings and paintings, Rodchenko abstracted flat, planar, geometric shapes from nature and assembled them in a process akin to the factory worker, often creating a series based on a single theme. Always an experimenter, Rodchenko's constructions grew more elaborate and sophisticated. His Hanging Construction (1920) was one of the first constructed sculptures in Russia to include moving parts. In this work Rodchenko arranged a series of intersecting and concentric circles of wood that hang freely to be moved by the natural circulation of air. Rodchenko became one of the earliest pioneers of the Constructivist movement in Russia.
The 1920s were the busiest and most productive years for Rodchenko. Apart from his busy teaching duties, Rodchenko embarked on a wide range of artistic pursuits. He designed costumes and stage sets for the theater as well as designs in typography. In 1925 he designed the worker's club for the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris exhibition of decorative arts.
However, Rodchenko seemed to devote most of his energy in the 1920s to photography, a field in which he was most original. Known for his unique use of perspective and photomontage techniques, his photographs appeared on the covers of such Soviet magazines as Lef and Novyi Lef in the late 1920s. He also designed several photomontages for various editions of the Mayakovsky's poetry. Rodchenko's skills as a designer and photographer eventually led him to design numerous propaganda posters for the Soviet government. Such practical applications of Rodchenko's talents during the 1920s were indicative of the changes that Russia was experiencing. The revolutionary government began to discourage artists from working in the "impractical" mode of abstraction. Instead, artists were asked to serve the state and its ailing economy through more practical means. Rather than leave his homeland, as did so many other Russian artists during this period, Rodchenko chose to remain. His firm belief that art was created in the service of social reform was perfectly suited to a rapidly changing Russia.
By the 1930s Rodchenko's abstract painting and photography was increasingly losing favor as Russian taste grew even more conservative. Rodchenko's popularity began to wane. For the first time Rodchenko returned to the figurative painting and subjects of his youth.
During World War II Rodchenko was evacuated to Ochera, where he wrote articles and served as a photographer for several local newspapers while his paintings grew increasingly abstract and emotionally charged. The last years of his life were spent working on various literary projects with his wife. Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko died in Moscow on December 3, 1956.
Further Reading on Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko
Several excellent books on Rodchenko are available in English, including David Elliott, Rodchenko and the Arts of Revolutionary Russia (1979) and German Karginov, Rodchenko (1979). Background material may be found in Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art: 1863-1922 (1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Karginov, German, Rodchenko, London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.
Rodchenko: the complete work, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987, 1986.