As the Russian Civil War brought down the Czarist regime and opened the door to Socialism and Communism, Alexander Rodchenko stood by to offer his art for the cause. Born December 5, 1891, Rodchenko excelled in multiple media, including painting, graphic design, and photography. Rodchenko’s photography of the Shukhov Tower (above, from 1926) shows the 160-meter-tall steel tower, the pride of Russian engineering, as an aesthetically modern creation as well. Rodchenko founded the school of Constructivism, which took up the challenge of creating a whole new visual vocabulary for the brave new world promised them. His photography used unique new perspectives—looking up through the latticework of Shukhov Tower or looking down upon the heads of crowds gathered in the streets—to challenge the viewer and other artists to turn the world upside down and look at it anew.
Rodchenko’s pre-revolutionary work was equally daring. Dance: An Objectless Composition (above, from 1915) demonstrates his awareness of European modernism, especially the Italian Futurists and their penchant for depicting motion. Rodchenko’s Dance swirls with movement like a Futurist work but simultaneously dissects and explodes the subject itself. Although no recognizable dancer appears, the spirit of the dance comes across. Perhaps the turmoil of this painting reflects the turmoil of Russian society moving closer and closer to total upheaval.
Rodchenko collaborated with other leading artists of the Soviet state as part of the Constructivist ethos of a communal culture of the people. His film poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film The Battleship Potemkin (above, from1926) captures the drama and propagandistic power of that landmark of early film. In 1929, Rodchenko joined an all-star team of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, actor and director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky to produce Mayakovsky's satirical play The Bedbug. The bold lettering style and eye-catching layout of Rodchenko’s designs still influence modern graphic design today. Looking back today, it’s sad to think of the creative energy and hope invested in this scheme to create an entirely new language of culture, completely divorced from all the sad baggage of the past. Like all utopian dreams, however, it was doomed to fail in one way or another. The art of that period, especially that by Rodchenko, still packs a punch that makes you believe, however briefly, that art can truly change the world.