Alexander Rodchenko: Modernity’s Prometheus Bound – Part III

Alexander Rodchenko:
Modernity’s Prometheus Bound
Part III
By

Brad Kronen

The 3rd Part of the 3rd installment of Brad’s “A Series of Unfortunate Sagittarian Events”

Alexander Rodchenko Teapot 1922

Alexander Rodchenko, “Teapot”, 1922

 

 

Prometheus: ‘Tis a common malady of power tyrannical
Never to trust a friend.
– Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 457 B.C.

 

One year after the Bolshevik Revolution, Alexander Rodchenko began working for the newly established Soviet government’s Bureau of the Section of Visual Arts or IZO in 1918.  He worked directly within the Bureau’s Ministry of Enlightenment or “Narkompros”.

 

As stated in Part II during its developmental years, the Soviet government while still in its infancy both encouraged and financially supported artwork that reflected its revolutionary foundation as well as its proposed sense of egalitarianism for its citizens.

 

Alexander Rodchenko was an integral part of this attempted cultural outreach fleetingly made by the early Soviet government.

 

Not long after being hired to work for the Ministry of Enlightenment, Rodchenko was made the head of IZO’s Museum Ministry. Under his leadership of this branch, the Museum Ministry acquired nearly 2,000 works of modern art by more than 400 artists over the course of just a few years and organized the establishment of 30 provincial museums throughout the USSR.

 

It was also during this time that Alexander Rodchenko as the most versatile artist in all of Art History was at the height of his abilities, creating his best work in a vast number of artistic mediums.

 

“I am so interested in the future that I want to be able to see several years ahead right away.” – Alexander Rodchenko, 1920

 

Being born with the planet of the Future, Uranus exalted in the sign of Scorpio, the man was able to see far more than just several years ahead in time. Rodchenko’s Futuristic vision soared like no other who lived during that same period.

 

As the founder of the artistic style known as “Constructivism” in true Socialist form, Rodchenko believed Art should not be associated with inspiration which would make it elitist and separatist, rather it should serve a “constructive” purpose for everyone at large.
Abandoning painting in 1921, Rodchenko applied his Constructivist principles to the design of furniture and everyday items such as the space age sketch “Teapot” from 1922, the main image for this installment and your author’s favorite piece by the artist.

 

Rodchenko’s Fashions for the Future
The Sagittarian artist with the Aquarian Moon applied his artistic vision to fashion, designing clothing that was utilitarian in nature and Futuristic in design, such as in the self portrait below from 1924 where his choice of dress resembles that of a space age mechanic:

 

Alexander Rodchenko Self Portrait

Alexander Rodchenko, “Self Portrait”, 1924

 

Half a decade before New York City’s Chrysler Building was built in the Art Deco style, Rodchenko was applying that same modern sleekness to his futuristic fashion design, such as in this sketch for a coat he designed for his wife, Varvara Stepanova also in 1924:

Rodchenko wife Varvara Stepanova Coat 1924

Alexander Rodchenko, “Coat”, 1924

 

Pushing the “daring to be different” envelope even further, Rodchenko fused the themes of “Futurism” and “Drama” with his costume designs for the Theater of the Avant-Garde.  For the 1931 play “A Sixth Part of the World” Rodchenko designed a costume more befitting of the year 2231 than the actual year the play was performed:

 

Rodchenko Costume Design for A Sixth Part of the World 1926

Alexander Rodchenko, Costume for the theatrical production
“A Sixth Part of the World”, 1931

 

But it is in the mediums of Photography and Graphic Design where Rodchenko made his most impressive artistic mark.

 

True to his iconoclastic Aquarian Moon, as a photographer Rodchenko produced photographic work that was utterly original and wholly unique.

 

Astrology and its 2 “Cameras”

In astrology, the apparatus that’s used to take pictures better known as the “camera” has two seperate planetary rulerships.  The camera of film, or the motion picture camera is ruled by the planet of Make Believe and that which is Non-tangible, Neptune.  The photographic camera is ruled by the planet of the Future and Individuality, Uranus.  With his natal Uranus being placed at the sign of its exaltation, Scorpio at the time of his birth, Rodchenko’s photographs were like nothing ever seen before.

 

“One has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same key-hole again and again.” – Alexander Rodchenko

 

Rodchenko took that which belonged to the common and everyday and made it an altogether new world with his photography.  Keeping in mind his Socialist take on making Art accessible to all, Rodchenko photographed ordinary scenes and people from everyday life and made them extraordinary, such as his photo “Gears” from 1929:

 

 
Alexander Rodchenko Gears 1929

Alexander Rodchenko, “Gears”, 1929

 

Or his photo “Shukov Tower” also from the same year:

 

Alexander Rodchenko Shukov Tower 1929

Alexander Rodchenko, “Shukov Tower”, 1929

 

When human subjects were added to his photo compositions, common actions such as walking up a stairway or sitting beneath the shadow of a grate took on an entirely new artistic dimension as in Rodchenko’s “The Stairs” from 1929:

 

Alexander Rodchenko The Stairs 1929

Alexander Rodchenko, “The Stairs”, 1929

 

As well as his “Girl with a Leica” from 1932:

 

Alexander Rodchenko Girl with Leica 1933

Alexander Rodchenko, “Girl with a Leica”, 1932

 

Rodchenko & The Birth of Graphic Design
To be frank, the Marketing and Advertising firms of today owe quite a bit to Alexander Rodchenko, given the man single handedly created the artform of Graphic Design and did so a good 70 or so years prior to the Internet Age.

 

With his photography gaining instant acclaim along with his belief  of Constructivism advocating Art’s constructive uses, while in charge of the Museum Ministry Rodchenko began receiving requests from companies and shops throughout the USSR asking that the government create adds for their various businesses.  Despite these requests sounding a tad capitalistic and keeping in mind this took place during a time before the Communist government overtook all aspects of privatized business and industry, Rodchenko embraced his Constructivist ideologies by personally overseeing these add requests and while doing so created a new artform altogether – Graphic Design.

 

One of his first attempts in 1924 was discussed in Part I of this series, an add for a publishing company simply titled “Books” where words are placed next to a peasant woman as she exclaims “Books from every Branch of Knowledge!”.

 

Rodchenko immediately realized the medium was flexibly versatile and could be presented in whichever way the artist chose.  Part I’s version shows the add in traditional Soviet red and white colors but it was also produced with a more vibrant backdrop of blue and green, no doubt from Kandinsky’s influence.  Needless to say “Books” was wildly popular and remains a favorite among many Rodchenko admirers.

 

Rodchenko Collage

Alexander Rodchenko, “Books”, 1924

 

With the immense popularity of “Books” the Ministry became flooded with requests to produce adds for practically every household item imaginable, such as the following add Rodchenko designed in 1926 for a popular brand of cookie:

 

Alexander Rodchenko Cookie Advertisement 1923

Alexander Rodchenko, “Cookies”, 1926

 

 

Baby Dummies – The Visionary’s View of a Brave New World begins to Darken

 

Alexander Rodchenko Baby Dummies

Alexander Rodchenko, “Baby Dummies”, 1923

 

In 1923, Rodchenko and the famed poet Vladimir Mayakovsky joined forces to create “Baby Dummies” which was intended to be a stand alone painting but became a propaganda poster of graphic design.

 

Mayakovsky’s text reads: “There are no better dummies. Suck them ‘til old age. Sold everywhere.

 

Both Mayakovsky as well as Rodchenko were born when the planet Uranus was positioned in the sign of its exaltation, Scorpio and those born with this astrological aspect are said to possess the gift of foresight. Although supposedly freed from Tsarist oppression, after the Revolution Russia’s resources became more and more scarce with famine becoming more of a regular occurrence for the people of Moscow.  The two artists both foresaw a grimmer future with their visions of foresight becoming ever darker as time progressed.

 

The poster shows a rather grotesque baby in garish red and green happily sucking on a bunch of pacifiers that in actuality are bullet casings and grenade pins.

 

In spite of his idealistic enthusiasm for a new Russia, Rodchenko felt further revolts were more than likely from an unsettled and ever hungrier Russian populace. Still reeling from the First World War, Rodchenko’s apprehension for his people was embodied in “Baby Dummies” where the baby represented a new generation of Russian citizen who had been desensitized to violence but also silenced from voicing their opposition to any future wars brought about by their government, given a pacifier is meant to both soothe and silence an unruly baby.

 

The End of the Age of Revolutionary Innocence

 

When the Bolshevik Revolution took place in 1917, there were 3 main sources to lead the “Post-Tsarist government”, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin.

 

And by 1930, then there was one.

 

Lenin died of a stroke in 1924.  Trotsky was exiled from Russia in 1929 and later assassinated and horrifically so with an ice pick.  All that remained was Stalin.

 

And Stalin ruled over all.



In roughly a decade’s time, the revolutionary ideals of egalitarianism disintegrated within the Soviet government leaving it a charnel house led by a paranoid madman where fear and distrust reigned supreme.

 

Disagree with Stalin?  Like the fate of millions of others during the many years of his totalitarian rule, you would be ripped from your bed in the middle of the night, arrested, and would face one of three “options” of which you had no say:  Assassination by firing squad, being sent to a labor (aka death) camp in Siberia, or were simply never seen or heard from again.

 

In 1932 Stalin took absolutist dominance over the Arts in Russia with the release of “On the Reconstruction of Literary-Artistic Organizations“, a decree stating all artists’ unions were officially under the control of the Communist Party. The government mandate stipulated the only Art that was not unlawful to the state was “Socialist Realism”, which was defined merely as content that was “socialist in content and realist in form.” and that unlawful art was reduced to four main categories: political art, religious art, erotic art, and “formalistic” art, which included anything deemed expressionistic or conceptual.

 

Alexander Rodchenko was relieved of his post as the director of the Museum Ministry in 1931.  By the time Stalin’s decree on “Socialist Realism” was released, the man had already lost his main source of income, along with the many forms of creative self-expression the versatile artist worked in had all been simultaneously outlawed.

 

But an event occurred at the end of that dark and impoverished decade where Alexander Rodchenko made his final stand to Joseph Stalin as a Russian artist of the highest caliber – the 1939 World’s Fair.

 

Stalin issued a proposal that whomever was chosen would artistically oversee the visual presentation of Russian culture which would be on display at the Soviet Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova were given the distinction of winning the proposal but as Stalin’s way of openly mocking the “Futurist” former head of the Museum Ministry the two were given the superhuman task to complete the entire project in just eleven days.

 

Considering 11 months would be viewed as a tight squeeze for such a mammoth undertaking, Rodchenko and Stepanova not only met their next to impossible deadline, what they presented was a culmination of their best work from each of their artistic careers which triumphed as a cumulative expression of Soviet culture specifically designed for an event of international display.

 

The two were assigned to show the Soviet Union’s advances within its military as well as an overview of the history of Soviet Aviation along with a compilation of Soviet culture.  Rodchenko and Stepanova made 3 massive, leather bound books in the old Russian flag’s colors of Red, Blue, and White – “The Red Army and Navy”, “Soviet Aviation”, and “A Pageant of Youth” . The covers can be seen below along with one set of pages highlighting the astounding work of incredibly shot and beautifully made photo and photo collage selections which comprise the contents of  all three books. As the Second World War approached in 1939, the Soviet Union’s military forces were poorly equipped and the Russian people as a whole lived in a predominantly underdeveloped and backwards culture, factors a non-Russian would not even remotely perceive after viewing Rodchenko’s and Stepanova’s masterful work showing a Soviet state excited by its unfolding future.

 

It must be stated that nowhere on these magnificent tomes were Rodchenko or Stepanova’s names mentioned.  The only indication given as to who created these three works of wonder was each book had stamped in the back “Printed in the USSR”.

 

Alexander Rodchenko The Red Army

 

 

Alexander Rodchenko The Red Army & Navy for 1939 World Fair

 

Alexander Rodchenko Soviet Aviation Cover

 

 

Alexander Rodchenko Soviet Aviation for 1939 World Fair

 

 

Alexander Rodchenko A Pageant of Youth

 

Rodchenko Dinamo or Female Pyramid 1936

 

The glory that was Rodchenko and Stepanova’s displays of Soviet pride at the World’s Fair were quickly forgotten as their country became embroiled in yet another World War soon thereafter.

 

Rodchenko and Stepanova remained in Moscow for the duration of World War II and for the remainder of Joseph Stalin’s autocratic reign of terror until his death in 1953.  While the dictator was alive, neither artist was ever allowed to fully express themselves artistically with Rodchenko being restricted to photographing strictly Communist Party parades along with the occasional traveling circus.

 

 

Alexander Rodchenko Rhine Wheel 1940

Alexander Rodchenko, “Circus Wheel”, 1940

 


Left penniless with barely enough to eat, Rodchenko recorded the following diary entry in 1947:

 

“I’m absolutely unneeded, whether I work or not, whether I live or not. I’m already as good as dead, and I’m the only who cares that I’m alive. I’m an invisible man.”

 

Even if Joseph Stalin liked a person, the dictator’s affections were short lived.  It was collectively understood anyone who spent more than two conversations with the man lasting 10 minutes or longer put themselves at risk of permanently disappearing.  How did Rodchenko escape the same fate as so many others who perished under Stalin’s regime?

 

When considering Rodchenko’s Sagittarian grandstanding nature, in retrospect it can be said Joseph Stalin sentenced the most versatile artist in all of Modern Art to a fate far worse than any firing squad or Siberian gulag. For the remainder of his life after the World’s Fair, the Communist dictator saw to it that Rodchenko would be permanently silenced by ignoring the man’s creative gifts through heavily imposed restrictions as well as by excluding one of the Revolution’s most idealistic of enthusiasts from any and all dealings that concerned his beloved Russia.

 

This Prometheus of the Modern Age who had endowed humanity with his many gifts of innovative artistry was bound, gagged and left for dead. In effect, Rodchenko was executed under Joseph Stalin’s directive by ending up as he himself described –  the “invisible man” of the Russian Avant-Garde.

 

Alexander Rodchenko died two days before his 65th birthday on December 3rd, 1956.

 

 

 

*Brad Kronen has written a book series which focuses on the life of Alexander Rodchenko as well as fellow Sagittarians Fritz Haber and John Kennedy, Jr. entitled “A Series of Unfortunate Sagittarian Events”.  Part II can be purchased at the link below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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