Rodchenko: aesthetics as politics

Mykhailov Kaufman, portrait of Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1922-1923.

Early Soviet “Climate of Opinions” on Physical and Political Space as Reflected in Rodchenko’s PhotoCamera .

In 1928, a public debate on Aleksandr Rodchenko’s new approaches to photography erupted inseveral Soviet periodicals. In his photographs and his written expositions on the medium, Rodchenko insisted on formal innovations such as extreme foreshortening and seriality, which, he claimed, could transform perception and instigate a revolution in vision. Soviet responses to Rodchenko’s photography ranged from mildly enthusiastic to downright derogatory. One letter to the editor, published anonymously in the magazine Sovetskoe foto, accused Rodchenko of plagiarism 1“An Illustrated Letter to the Editor: At Home and Abroad,” in Photography in the Modern Ear. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 243-244. . In a double-bend Soviet parlance, the accusation was cunningly crafted to praise Rodchenko as an innovative artist and a professor at Vkhutemas with a new artistic vision which, the article stated, was often unabashedly used by foreign photographers “for their imperial goals.” The actual accusation resided in the illustrations that accompanied the article, namely, three of Rodchenko’s photographs juxtaposed with the ones by Ira W. Martin, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. All of the photos by those international photographers had been taken several years prior to Rodchenko’s. “Let the reader draw his own inferences from the materials presented here,” proclaimed the anonymous writer, thus passing from praise to denunciation.

Rodchenko immediately defended his work in an article “Downright Ignorance or a Mean Trick?” 2Alexander Rodchenko, “Downright Ignorance or a Mean Trick?” in Photography in the Modern Era. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 245-248. . Several months later he wrote a response to yet another, this time more intellectually engaged critique by Boris Kushner, a member of Novyi Lef’s editorial board 3 Boris Kushner, “Open Letter to Rodchenko,” in Photography in the Modern Ear. European Documents and
Critical Writings, 1913-1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 249-251.
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Entitled “The Paths of Modern Photography,” it reflected on Kushner’s doubts regarding the use of extreme photographic perspective in the portrayal of Soviet life. This article became Rodchenko’s most articulate statement – his manifesto on the necessity and the nature of the new vision 4Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).. The article was accompanied by photographic illustrations chosen and explained by the artist. Rather than using his own images, Rodchenko illustrated his point with a photograph of a skyscraper from Erich Mendelsohn’s book, Amerika, Bilderbuch Eines Architekten 5Erich Mendelsohn, Amerika; Bilderbuch eines Architekten (Berlin: R. Mosse, 1928).. In doing so, Rodchenko pointed to some possible connection between his own work and that of other art practitioners.

Both these instances of tracing aesthetic affinities, whether in support of or in an opposition to Rodchenko’s artistic direction, point out to some hidden anxieties about the origin of ideas and their circulation patterns. Was Rodchenko truly innovative in his method or did he borrow from others? This kind of question – posed as a binary opposition (absolute ingenuity or pure plagiarism) – is worthy of the “concerned Soviet citizen” of the anonymous letter mentioned above. Apart from reflecting a peculiarly Soviet paranoia about foreign intervention, the question also reveals the deep-seated Modernist bias of ascribing supreme value only to utterly original, innovative art, that is, art of the avant-garde. Everything else that grows from beneath some “influence” is necessarily derivative, second-hand, and therefore inferior. Both the Soviet phobia of the foreign and the Modernist phobia of the non-original obscured the genesis of Rodchenko’s new vision and positioned it in the vacuum of his own mind or at most in the Constructivist circle.

Советское фото, no. 4 (1928): 243.

A photo of a New York urban landscape by Knud Lonberg-Holm, c. 1924, reproduced in Erich Mendelsohn’s Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten, 1928

How did Rodchenko arrive at his new vision? How can certain undeniable aesthetic similarities between Rodchenko and other art practitioners of his time be explained? How productive is it to trace direct or implied intellectual connections disguised by terms such as “borrowings,” “quotations,” “allusions,” etc., to postulate possible means of knowledge transfer and investigate the origin of ideasand their circulation patterns?

Michael Baxandall in his Patterns of Intention voices his suspicion of the term “influence” arguing that such mechanistic cause-and-effect scenarios, when an artist “borrows” from somebody else’s work, can hardly serve as a plausible explanation for the origin of art practices 6Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). . As Baxandall aptly points out the traditional understanding of artistic influence is flawed because it reverses active/passive relations between the agents in question.

When one says that Rodchenko was influenced by Moholy-Nagy or Mendelsohn, it sounds as though he was a passive recipient of some knowledge, while in reality it was Rodchenko who actively engaged with the works of those other artists. Moreover, the traditional model of artistic influence does not explain how Moholy-Nagy or Mendelsohn could have influenced Rodchenko aside from simply being “influential.” Why did encounters with their works not influence a cohort of Rodchenko’s contemporaries, who never introduced any innovations in photography or art in general? Clearly, the traditional understanding of influence, which is predicated on a mechanistic cause-and-effect transfer, fails to explain how ideas originate and circulate. Baxandall proposes to recast these relations as interactions within a field, which he metaphorically describes as a billiard table 7Ibid., 60..

In The Cosmic Web, Katherine Hayles provides a scientific basis for the notion of the field8N. Katherine Hayles, The Cosmic Web. Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth
Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
. Hayles argues that the field concept arose from an array of scientific models rather than a single scientific iteration to become a foundational metaphor for conceptualizing physical reality in the twentieth century. The concept stands in stark opposition to Newtonian mechanics, which is predicated on the existence of discrete units/objects/events that interact with each other in a sequential, unidirectional fashion in empty space. Moreover, Newtonian mechanics presupposes relations of causality whenever distinct units/objects/events affect each other in a linear sequence. It also accepts the possibility of an exterior, objective point of view and a disengaged language of description capable of analyzing those units/objects/event in a detached, hence “objective”, manner.

In 1905, Albert Einstein challenged the assumptions of classical mechanics. Relativity, Einstein claimed, is predicated on two fundamental inferences: first, that the world is an interconnected whole whose various physical characteristics, such as space and time, matter and energy, gravity and inertia, are fluid mutually-dependent aspects of the same phenomenon; second, that there can exist no independent point of view beyond the system that is able to describe these aspects, i.e. the observer and the language of description are part and parcel of the field they are trying to articulate. 

The field concept renders causality irrelevant. Cause and effect can only exist in a system of discrete units that follow each other in a linear fashion. On the other hand, in a system where any interaction is complex and multidirectional, “every cause is simultaneously and effect, and every effect is also a cause” 9Ibid., 20.. The field concept also admits a self-referential language of description as an inherent aspect of its own systemic set-up rather than a methodological limitation that must be overcome.

Hayles points out that the scientific revolution of the early twentieth century, namely the rise of the relativity theory and quantum mechanics, which profiled interconnectedness, indeterminacy, and self-referentiality as fundamental aspects of the world, signified more than just the rise of a new physics. This epistemological turn brought about an understanding of a new world-view. Hayles notes that Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist notion of language as a unified system in which meaning emerges from an interrelation of signs is remarkably similar and roughly contemporaneous to Einstein’s ideas on relativity10Ibid., 22.. However, the fact that Saussure and Einstein each spoke of different phenomena in similar terms does not necessarily mean that they knew or read each other’s works. Their direct personal acquaintance or engagement in each other’s explorations would only be important in a system based on causality. In the system of multi-directional interconnectedness, these similarities prove to be too complex to be explained by mere linear causality.

Hayles suggests viewing culture in much the same way as the field of unified interconnected reality is viewed by physicists, namely as a “societal matrix which consists … of a ‘climate of opinions’ that makes some questions interesting to pursue and renders others uninteresting or irrelevant”11Ibid., 22.. A theory of culture based on the field concept, explains how “a climate of opinions” is generated and how it guides intellectual pursuits at certain times and in places, and not how these intellectual pursuits could result from direct borrowings between cultural practitioners.

Following the same notion of a cultural matrix encapsulated in a field concept that delineates dimensions of cultural inquiry within a specific historical periods, this paper positions Rodchenko and his photographic practice within several intellectual discourses that may have instigated and shaped his artistic innovations. Since the photographer’s extreme foreshortening affected the perception of space, first physical and then – through metaphoric extension – political, certain theory of space, namely, the fourth-dimension, will be considered as a factor that determined Rodchenko’s vision alongside the political climate of the early Soviet state.

Cultural matrix: What can artists imagine at certain historical periods?

In “The Paths of Modern Photography,” Rodchenko urges photo practitioners to go beyond the “antediluvian laws of visual rationality” of photographing from the height of the human navel, the perspectival point that he associates with the traditional construction of realistic images 12 Alexander Rodchenko, “The Paths of Modern Photography,” in Photography in the Modern Ear. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 256-263..The rise of a new environment firmly bound to urban and technological advances prompts the creation of a new vision. New subject matter cannot possibly be portrayed in an old manner: “The modern city with its multi-story building, the specially designed factories and plants, the two-and three-story store windows, the streetcars, automobiles, illuminated signs and billboards, the ocean liners and airplanes…have redirected (only a little, it’s true) the normal psychology of visual perception” 13Ibid., 258-259..

The need for the new vision also extends to “old” subject matter precisely because people become so accustomed to their surroundings that their banal perception no longer registers the world around them any more. Without actually referring to the term of ostranenie, an art device introduced by Victor Shklovsky of the literary and critical school of Russian Formalism, Rodchenko envisions the role of photography in a way that recalls Shklovsky’s theory. Photography (and art in general) should render the world in an unfamiliar way. This technique of estrangement forces viewers to perceive the world in a new manner. Rodchenko thus advocates more than mere mechanical reflection on a new world that has already come into being. Rather, he envisages his camera as a tool to give shape to a new space and new modes of being.

Rodchenko was by no means unique in his utopian desire to redefine physical space and society to make way for this new world. The urge to revolutionize life, whether in artistic, social, or political terms, was a significant, perhaps even central concern of the beginning of the twentieth century. Dissatisfaction with current visible structures may have been motivated in part by various scientific turn-of-the-century discoveries that destabilized long-held concepts of nature and space and suddenly pointed to the existence of a reality beyond unaided human perception. Discovery of the X-rays (1895), of radioactive elements (1898) as well as electromagnetic waves and the subsequent emergence of wireless telegraphy (1890s), among other things, clearly spoke of the existence of some invisible world – one that Linda Dalrymple Henderson has termed meta-reality – which preoccupied avant-garde artists such as Cubists, Futurists, Suprematists, etc., as well as Symbolists and followers of various mystical and occult movements 14Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 15. .

Henderson also points out that the radical redefinition of pictorial space by various turn-of-the-century artists can be viewed as an artistic response to this newly emerged concept of meta-reality: “Against this backdrop, avant-garde artists found themselves liberated both from the dominance of visible light (and the related technique of chiaroscuro modeling) and from a world understood as three dimensional and, hence, best rendered in one-point linear perspective, as it had been since the Renaissance. Instead, painting, could now pursue a meta-reality characterized by invisible dimensions and the new concept of matter and space revealed by contemporary science, including not only the X-ray but also the dematerialization of matter suggested by radioactive emissions” 15Ibid., 18..

A set of interrelated scientific issues specific to the new concepts of space, namely the fourth dimension, non-Euclidean geometry, Einstein’s Relativity Theory, etc., likewise greatly contributed to the general culture of the period. Debates over the fourth dimension and other space concepts were especially prominent in Russian avant-garde circles as there were direct intertextual links between the scientists who developed new geometric theories, cultural practitioners who popularized these theories, and the artists who transformed these intellectual discoveries into tools of artistic inquiry.

Rodchenko, for example, owned a copy of S. H. Hinton’s book The Fourth Dimension and the New Era of Thought, published in 188816Magdalena Dabrowski, “Aleksandr Rodchenko: Innovation and Experiment,” in Aleksandr Rodchenko (New York: MOMA, 1998), 27. . Mathematicians since the end of the eighteenth century had hypothesized the possibility of a fourth dimension that intersected three dimensions of the human world in a perpendicular manner. Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the fourth dimension had been treated primarily as an algebraic variable of analytic geometry. Oxford-trained mathematician Charles Howard Hinton became the first scientist to develop a consistent philosophy of hyperspace based on the fourth dimension, and – unlike earlier researchers, who had operated solely with algebraic symbols – to visualize the physical dimensions of hyperspace. Hinton advocated the development of a spatial intuition that he believed would enhance people’s sense of space and allow them to gain knowledge of new types of spaces.

The hyperspace philosophy was extremely influential in the pre-revolutionary Russian empire. It was further developed by Peter Ouspensky (1878-1947), who was instrumental in merging mathematical findings about the fourth dimension with the Promethean philosophy of “higher consciousness.” Trained as a mathematician, Ouspensky grew suspicious of the positivistic approach to science after his discovery of Theosophy in 1907. In 1913 Ouspensky published Tertium Organum, his major statement on hyperspace philosophy, which was heavily imbued with mysticism and the occult. Mathematical speculations on higher dimensions beyond the visible three-dimensional world prompted Ouspensky to postulate the existence of a noumenal world attainable by humans on conditions of awakening their “higher consciousness.” He claimed a noumenal world could be accessed either through art practice – as artists possess some visionary powers to discern invisible structures and hidden meanings – or also through the exercise of a special system of logic, Tertium Organum, according to which “A is both A and Not-A. Everything is both A and Not-A. Everything is All” 17Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 384. .

The belief that an intuitive, “illogical” logic could act as a tool for conjuring up this new reality was promptly picked up by the Russian avant-garde and applied in various ways. Aleksei Kruchenykh (1886 – 1968), a Futurist poet, developed his theory of zaum’, a transrational language based on absurdity, dissonance, and syntactic shifts. In his essay “New Ways of the Word,” he asserted that a new world could only emerge when the new ways of speaking about it and portraying this world were devised. He also drew parallels between zaum’, a verbal device for breaking the logic of the three-dimensional world, and perspectival shifts in the picture plane: “incorrect perspective brings about a new, fourth dimension” just as “incorrect structure of sentences brings about motion and a new perception of the world” 18Aleksei Kruchenykh, “Novye puti slova,” in Manifesty i programmy russkikh futuristov (Munich: Fink, 1967): 68. .

Henderson connects Kruchenykh’s verbal experiments in transrational language to Kazimir Malevich’s Alogist paintings of 1914, which can be seen as pictorial equivalents of zaum 19Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 403-427. . Nevertheless, the overlap of shapes, the deviation from linear perspective, and the juxtaposition of various sizes in these paintings are still deeply rooted in the three-dimensional world as they portray easily recognizable objects, figures, and letters. Dissatisfied with such references to the three-dimensional world, Malevich moved to non-objective art in 1915.

Kazimir Malevich, “An Englishman in Moscow”, 1913-1914, oil on canvas, 88 x 57 cm
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Kazimir Malevich, “Painterly Realism of a Football Player – Color Masses in the 4th Dimension”, summer/fall 1915, Art Institute of Chicago

Claude Bragdon, “The Projections Made by a Cube in Traversing a Plane,” from A Primer of
Higher Space (Rochester, N.Y.: The Manas  Press, 1913), Pl. 30.

Malevich’s paintings at the 0.10 exhibition, held from December 1915 to January 1916, bore the following titles “Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension,” “Color Masses in the Second Dimension,” etc., and featured geometric figures soaring in an empty, gravity-free space. In his Suprematist works,  Malevich transformed familiar expressions of the three-dimensional world into geometric shapes existing in a noumenal world accessible by higher consciousness via art.

Victor Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie should be considered as yet another aspect of the art discourse that responded to the overall concern of conjuring a new world through art – one that ran parallel to Kruchenykh’s zaum, Malevich’s paintings, and Rodchenko’s foreshortening 20A number of scholars, among them Peter Galassi, brush on Rodchenko’s connection to Shklovsky and the
Russian Formalist school, “Rodchenko and Photography’s Revolution,” in Aleksandr Rodchenko (New York: MOMA, 1998), 119.
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Shklovsky (1893-1984), a literary scholar, writer, and editor of various Soviet publications including the Lef group magazines, published an essay entitled “Art as Technique” in 1917, in which he explained ostranenie, an art device that defamiliarizes the world, makes it look strange, and breaks mental and perceptual clichés: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important” 21Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Four Formalist Essays, edited and translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3-24. .

As a literary scholar, Shklovsky envisioned ostranenie as a function of text, practicable primarily through a switch in narrative voices. In “Art as Technique” he draws examples of ostranenie from one of Tolstoy’s stories, which is narrated from the point of view of a horse. The events of a story seem “strange” as they are channeled through the animal’s eyes. Rodchenko’s extreme foreshortening can be regarded as a type of ostranenie, because it is generated through a change in perspective – by situating the narrator of an image, that is, a photographer, in an unusual position with relation to the depicted object or scene.

Needless to say, Rodchenko was quite familiar with all these theories and their practitioners. He studied with Malevich, worked with Shklovsky on the Lef publications, participated in the gatherings of the Futurist poets, etc. His advocacy of redirecting the psychology of visual perception to make people see the world anew was conditioned by the vibrant intellectual debates in which he participated and by the general modernist search for utopia.

Moreover, Rodchenko’s explorations into the concept of space predated his earliest photographic experiments. In his art trajectory, he transitioned from treating pictorial space to reducing that space to its essential components, such as a line, to creating spatial constructions, and ultimately to making utilitarian art. Rodchenko thus moved from the pictorial space to the real space of art and from there into the real space of politics – from composition, into construction, into propaganda or, in other words, from faktura to factography 22Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography” in October 30 (1984), 82-119. Buchloh delineates two fundamental notions of the Soviet avant-garde as well as their chronological succession that signaled a paradigmatic shift within the Soviet state apparatus. Faktura, a complex of pictorial concerns that privileged material and compositional aspects of art gave way to factography, the production of socially engaged, utilitarian visual culture that was meant to educate the new masses and to mold them into a new proletarian class.. These moves were propelled by the complex cultural matrix of the time with its concerns for redefining physical and political spaces and thus regenerating the world.

Spatial Construction no. 12, 1920. From the series “Light-Reflecting Surfaces”  plywood painted with aluminum plaint and wire. 61 x 83.7 x 47 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

By 1918 Rodchenko had already made a series of sculptures in the round that he called “spatial constructions.” They were objects made of pedestrian materials, such as plywood and cardboard, which were cut into flat pieces and arranged into three-dimensional linear as well as semi-circular and circular shapes 1. Around the same time a number of other artists in Rodchenko’s circle, Tatlin included, started making non-mimetic sculptures that were not concerned with representation but rather with mapping geometric shapes in space. Tatlin’s sculptures, however, still exhibited a strict frontal orientation and a single point of view. In other words, they were still predicated on the idea of pictorial space. Rodchenko was the first to push his objects out of the pictorial space of art and into real space. He deliberated on this point in his notes in 1922: “In the first place they signified the abandonment of painting for the move toward the real space. Tatlin had not yet made up his mind to take this step and had constructed counter-reliefs which were still attached to the walls and like paintings could not be looked at from all sides” 1.

In 1918 Rodchenko’s “leap into space” had already resulted in “a new grammar, a new philosophy or art” 1. Engaging with the medium of photography in later years, Rodchenko followed the same trajectory of redefining the perception of space that ceased to be an insular territory within the realm of art and instead expanded into the field around and beyond art, while also encompassing the position of the viewer. In this light, Rodchenko’s encounters with photographs by Moholy-Nagy, Mendelsohn, or anyone else could, perhaps, have functioned as catalysts for confirmation and validation of his nascent ideas that could then burst forth into realization. But they could definitely not be the primary or initial sources of his artistic vision. The 1928 public debates on Rodchenko’s connection to foreign photographers, however, revealed an entirely different dimension wrapped up in a conversation on the origin/originality of art. The underlying anxieties turned out to be far graver: the hidden dimension, that metaphoric hyperspace of Soviet ideology, loomed as a sinister realm of the political.

At the time, formalist techniques, including Shklovsky’s ostranenie, were often viewed as an estrangement from politics, so-called art for art’s sake, an interpretation implied by Soviet official critics and later echoed in many Western scholarly sources 23Svetlana Boym, “Poetics and Politics of Estrangement: Victor Shklovsky and Hannah Arendt,” in Poetics Today 26, no. 4 (2005), 583.. The persecution of the formalists and the repressions of the avant-garde as a whole by the Soviet state are often explained precisely by their apparent withdrawal from active social life into the realm of private aesthetic experiences. There is something incongruous about this explanation, especially when it comes to artists such as Rodchenko, who adhered to the doctrine of utilitarian art, yet practiced it with certain formalist techniques such as extreme foreshortening. Despite his enthusiasm and wholehearted embrace of the new Soviet way of life, Rodchenko did not escape marginalization and dismissal from the public sphere – if not physical then certainly symbolic. Already in 1933 he was denied a photographic permit and relegated to the position of a photographer of circus scenes, parades, and sport events. How, then, could a presumably apolitical art techniques used in “good faith” to promote the Soviet social order be viewed as subversive to that very order? This is precisely because ostranenie and its parallel iterations (zaum, foreshortening) were deeply political, metamorphosing from “a technique of art to an existential art of survival and practice of freedom and dissent” 24Ibid., 581..

In her illuminating reading of Shklovsky’s ostranenie through the prism of Hanna Arendt’s philosophy of freedom and the banality of evil, Svetlana Boym argues that artistic estrangement posed a tremendous threat to a Soviet climate of social engineering which was meant to increase productivity of labor25Ibid., 581 – 611.. The country’s forced and rapid industrialization required certain rationalization – often even militarization – of labor predicated on the premises of scientific management. Alexei Gastev, founder of the Central Labor Institute and a major proponent of the so-called Taylorization of Soviet society, vehemently advocated the mechanization, standardization and division of labor force into types, which like cogs in a machine would perform certain operations in a conveyer-like production. Automatization was a key feature in fostering the new proletarian psychology” 26Kendall E. Bailes, “Alexei Gastev and the Soviet Controversy over Taylorism,” Soviet Studies 29, no. 3 (1977), 378..

The formalist techniques of ostranenie, foreshortening, and zaum, all meant to jolt people out off the automatized routine, were fundamentally oppositional to the institution of proletarian culture. Their danger resided in their power both to interrupt the routine and thoughtlessness of automatized action and to lay bare the constructed quality of the world, that is, to expose the devices of manipulation and the creation of illusions. This kind of estrangement could only lead to a state of critical awareness – an existential dimension incompatible with the Soviet idea of a unified social body acting as an obedient machine submissive to the will of an omnipotent totalitarian leader. Boym also points out that the origin of Shklovsky’s idea of ostranenie could be traced back to German Romantic theater and its exposure of theater as a make-belief environment, acknowledging “the ironic model of the theater of estrangement is radically different from Wagnerian conception of drama as the total work of art, which influenced the creation of mass propaganda art in Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia alike” 27Svetlana Boym, “Poetics and Politics of Estrangement: Victor Shklovsky and Hannah Arendt,” Poetics Today 26, no. 4 (2005), 587..

The suspicion directed at avant-garde art practitioners, including those who supported Soviet ideology, was already mounting in the mid 1920s. By the end of the 1930s it turned into straightforward accusations that often entailed criminal charges and extermination. Incessantly attacked by Soviet critics, Shklovsky had to renounce formalism in an act of public repentance published in Literaturnaia gazeta under the title of “A Monument to a Scientific Error”28Ibid., 597.. Compared to Shklovsky whose lukewarm attitude to a new Soviet state was quite apparent, Rodchenko was caught in a worse trap: that of embracing Soviet ideology and willing to contribute to its utopian future, yet engaging in his utilitarian art practice with tools that made the world “strange” and thus undermined state ideology.

Rodchenko was forced to distance himself from various international influences. He thus applied his camera view with double vigor to promoting Soviet subject matter. That did not help much to ameliorate the Soviet paranoid culture of public denunciations. Ironically, one of Shklovsky’s pronouncements proved true: the object of depiction was not as important as the way in which it was depicted. As a case in point, Rodchenko’s portrayal of young pioneers was berated despite its subject matter. One of the critics at the time, Ivan Bokhanov, found ideological dissent in the composition of the image: “The Pioneer girl has no right to look upward. That has no ideological content. Pioneer girls and Komsomol girls should look forward”29Peter Galassi, “Rodchenko and Photography’s Revolution,” in Aleksandr Rodchenko (New York: MOMA, 1998), 126.. In this way seemingly benign depictions of physical space acquired metaphoric readings in which perspective, foreshortening, the angle of portrayal – all technicalities of pictorial space – started to embody proper or improper ways of interaction with reality. Soviet subjects who stood on firm ground and gazed forward into the future in a direct line delineated by the party could not assume diagonal, oblique, or vertiginous points of view.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Pioneer”, 1930, gelatin-silver print, 60 x 49.5 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Rodchenko’s story, like that of many others at the time, embodies the Greek sense of tragedy of being doomed to misfortune despite one’s will to do good. Fervently embracing beliefs in the ultimate goodness of the Soviet cause, Rodchenko must have felt profound frustration after the mid-1930s, when he was denied participation in the public sphere. Virtually destitute and nearly forgotten in his later years, Rodchenko resorted to painting, often portraying clowns and other circus performers 30Selim O. Khan-Magomedov, Rodchenko. The Complete Work, introduced and edited by Vieri Quilici (Cambridge: the MIT Press, 1987), 276-283. . These images, which can be read metaphorically as ironic self-portraits, delivered a final coda in the life of a renowned Constructivist who had been forced to become a clown, a laughing stock fooling or fooled by others.

In terms of the macro-history of artistic connections and the larger frame of this investigation into the “climate of opinions”, Rodchenko’s references to Mendelsohn’s book in an article published the same year that vituperative attacks on “bourgeois formalism” began escalating in the Soviet press, seem to have been a dubious defense tactic. Rodchenko described Mendelsohn as a “leftist architect,” thereby attempting to render this characterization ideologically legitimate to the Soviet reader. We thus come full circle to the suspicious notion of “artistic influence” and the reversal of active/passive relations. In this case it was not Mendelsohn who “influenced” Rodchenko but the latter who acted upon Mendelsohn’s work, tinged it in certain ideological hues that it might not have originally possessed, and pushed it to the front line of a leftist, that is, “progressive” discourse of the time.

Was Mendelsohn as enthusiastic about the new vision of modernity, its connection to urbanism, and the new ways to portray it, as Rodchenko was? Mendelsohn’s diaries and letters to his wife reveal quite the opposite. The discrepancy between the Mendelsohn’s presumed “progressive” photographic vision and his conservative position stance towards the modern city, as expressed in his writing, stems from the fact that he did not actually shoot many of the photos that Rodchenko and El Lissitzky understood as signs of the new vision – a fact that both Soviet artists could not have known at the time the Mendelsohn’s book was first published. In the first edition, Mendelsohn actually published the photographic portfolio of a Danish architect Knud Lonberg-Holm, a practitioner of De Stijl and Constructivism, to whom Mendelsohn gave no credit. At the end of this chain of allusions, misappropriations, and cavalier borrowings, Rodchenko’s reference to Mendelsohn, in support of his own art practice, became a wishful imposition of new meanings, convenient for Rodchenko but, perhaps, disputable to Mendelsohn. In response to Baxandall’s urge to forgo the ill-appropriate term “influence,” it may be useful to devise a different set of terms that better indicate the degree, valence, and effect arising from the intertextual relations of Rodchenko and Mendelsohn, such as draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, misunderstand, pick up, quote, differentiate oneself from, paraphrase, revive, remodel, travesty, extract from, distort, resist, simplify, elaborate, reduce, promote, transform, tackle, etc.” 31Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 59. .

Lastly, Katherine Hayles also insists on using a different metaphor for describing the cultural web artists participate in: “Perhaps it can be a metaphor of a constantly turning kaleidoscope …whose shifting patterns arise from the continuing, mutual interaction of all its parts. Two restrictions to a complete description become apparent. Because we cannot describe the totality of the dance, which is incessant and infinite, we must stop the kaleidoscope in our imagination, calling each slice-of-time configuration a ‘pattern’. But by stopping the kaleidoscope we have lost the dynamic essence of the dance, for the static “patterns” never in fact existed as discrete entities” 32N. Katherine Hayles, The Cosmic Web. Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 20. .

The story of Rodchenko’s unique camera-eye, his new perception of space as a physical and political reality, and his unflagging support of this new reality notwithstanding its obviously sinister dimensions could easily be “sliced up” in a different way, with the incisions made at other kaleidoscopic junctures. Each of these new patterns would be valid and indispensable to untangling the overall intricate web of the cultural matrix in question – the process itself inexhaustible, yet worthwhile despite its relentless elusiveness.

  1. “A Photographer” An Illustrated Letter to the Editor: At Home and Abroad,” in Photography in the Modern Ear. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913 – 1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 243 – 244.
  2. Alexander Rodchenko, “Downright Ignorance or a Mean Trick?” in Photography in the Modern Ear. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913 – 1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 245 – 248.
  3. Boris Kushner, “Open Letter to Rodchenko,” in Photography in the Modern Ear. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 249-251.
  4. 4. Alexander Rodchenko, “The Paths of Modern Photography,” in Photography in the Modern Ear. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913 – 1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 256 – 263.
  5. Erich Mendelsohn, Amerika; Bilderbuch eines Architekten (Berlin: R. Mosse, 1928).

Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) was a German architect who traveled to the USA in 1924 and published his impressions of the country as a photographic book in 1926. The book contained photos by Mendelsohn himself as well as those by a Danish architect Knud Lonberg-Holm and a German film director Fritz Lang. However, the 1926 edition does not give photographic credit either to Lonberg-Holm or Lang. Both Rodchenko and El Lissitzky, who wrote enthusiastic reviews of Mendelsohn’s book in the Soviet press, referred to specific photographs in the book without knowing that they had actually been taken by Knud Lonberg-Holm rather than by Mendelsohn himself.

  1.  Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
  2. Ibid., 60.
  3. N. Katherine Hayles, The Cosmic Web. Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
  4. Ibid., 20.
  5. Ibid., 20.
  6. Ibid., 22.
  7. Alexander Rodchenko, “The Paths of Modern Photography,” in Photography in the Modern Ear. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913 – 1940, edited by Christopher Phillips (New York: Aperture, 1989), 256 – 263.
  8. Ibid., 258 – 259.
  9. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 15.
  10. Ibid., 18.
  11. Magdalena Dabrowski, “Aleksandr Rodchenko: Innovation and Experiment,” in Aleksandr Rodchenko (New York: MOMA, 1998), 27.
  12. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 384.
  13. Aleksei Kruchenykh, “Novye puti slova,” in Manifesty i programmy russkikh futuristov (Munich: Fink, 1967): 68.
  14. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 403 – 427.
  15. A number of scholars, among them Peter Galassi, brush on Rodchenko’s connection to Shklovsky and the Russian Formalist school, “Rodchenko and Photography’s Revolution,” in Aleksandr Rodchenko (New York:MOMA, 1998), 119.
  16. Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Four Formalist Essays, edited and translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3 – 24.
  17. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography” in October 30 (1984), 82 – 119. Buchloh delineates two fundamental notions of the Soviet avant-garde as well as their chronological succession that signaled a paradigmatic shift within the Soviet state apparatus. Faktura, a complex of pictorial concerns that privileged material and compositional aspects of art gave way to factography, the production of socially engaged,utilitarian visual culture that was meant to educate the new masses and to mold them into a new proletarianclass.
  18. Magdalena Dabrowski, “Aleksandr Rodchenko: Innovation and Experiment,” in Aleksandr Rodchenko (New York: MOMA, 1998), 32 – 34.
  19. Ibid., 32.
  20. Ibid., 33.
  21. Svetlana Boym, “Poetics and Politics of Estrangement: Victor Shklovsky and Hannah Arendt,” in Poetics Today 26, no. 4 (2005), 583.
  22. Ibid., 581.
  23. Ibid., 581 – 611.
  24. Kendall E. Bailes, “Alexei Gastev and the Soviet Controversy over Taylorism,” Soviet Studies 29, no. 3 (1977), 378.
  25. Svetlana Boym, “Poetics and Politics of Estrangement: Victor Shklovsky and Hannah Arendt,” Poetics Today 26, no. 4 (2005), 587.
  26. Ibid., 597.
  27. Peter Galassi, “Rodchenko and Photography’s Revolution,” in Aleksandr Rodchenko (New York: MOMA, 1998), 126.
  28. Selim O. Khan-Magomedov, Rodchenko. The Complete Work, introduced and edited by Vieri Quilici (Cambridge: the MIT Press, 1987), 276 – 283.
  29. Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 59.
  30. N. Katherine Hayles, The Cosmic Web. Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 20.

 

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