Spare a thought for Aleksandr Rodchenko, who spent a decade or more as a leading light in the Constructivist school of painting. But he then decided that being a constructivist and a painter was incompatible; art needed to have a material base. He turned instead to photography, design,montage, even advertising. But what to do with all of those paintings? According to the current exhibition at the Tate:
When I look at the numbers of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them. It would be a shame to burn them, there is over ten years of work in them. But they are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose whatsoever. [1927, Novyi LEF No. 6]
There are parallels between Rodchenko and Shostakovich. Both were leading innovators in the post-revolutionary period; both fell foul of Stalin’s ‘Soviet Realism’ period, and had to make amends for their previous ‘formalism’ during the ’30s; but both escaped the camps and outlived the Great Leader.
What’s also interesting is that although at first sight their more ‘realist-friendly’ work appears to be a retraction, it is not exactly as it seems. In Shostakovich’s case the 5th Symphony was a tuneful contrast to the more challenging 4th (criticised in Pravda, apparently on Stalin’s direct authority). Rodchenko, for his part, ended up photographing the forced labourers building the White Sea canal.
Both have been criticised for this (it’s customary for Rodchenko to be accused of ‘propaganda’, usually by people who haven’t lived through having friends and relatives sent to camps or killed in well-organised state terror). In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross explains that the 5th is full of musical clues: quotations from and references to the 4th which would pass by the untrained listener, references to a previous setting of a Pushkin poem about the legacy of the artist, and “an apparent allusion to Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudunov, the ultimate pageant of Russian suffering.”
For his part, Rodchenko’s canal pictures, at least to this viewer, do emphasise scale, but they are also framed to emphasise distance and indicate power relationships within the shot. At the very least, they make the picture ambiguous, as in the example below. Both men used their mastery of technique as a form of resistance, inscribing clues – for those who could read them – for later generations.