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Do not miss Rodchenko and Popova

Joseph Rykwert on the remarkable Soviet constructivists’ new show at the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern show Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism is a joyful celebration of two artists who abandoned parasitic, ‘monastic’ (as they contemptuously called it) easel painting to devote themselves to textiles, graphics, theatre, interiors and mass-media. That was what calling oneself ‘constructivist’ demanded, they believed.

Both were colourful and entrancing people, but they were very different. Impassioned Lyubov Popova was born in 1889 and married architectural historian Boris von Eding in 1918. Their son was born later that year, but Eding died of typhoid in 1919. In 1924, the boy contracted scarlet fever and infected his mother – they died a few days apart. In contrast, Aleksandr Rodchenko, born in 1891, presented himself as super rational; his portraits are labelled ‘Konstruktor’. Through the turmoils of socialist realism, Rodchenko kept going as a graphic designer and a photographer. He died in 1956, while his wife and fellow artist Varvara Stepanova (a close friend and collaborator of Popova) lived on until 1958. Both Rodchenkos outlived Stalin.

Rodchenko and Popova despised their own paintings, but they did not discard them

Though Rodchenko and Popova despised their own paintings, they did not discard them. That we can now see their canvases and designs together is due largely to George Costakis, a Russian-born Greek who spent his life as a chauffeur and mechanic in Moscow, while moonlighting as a man-about-town. Helped by a bit of hard currency, he acquired porcelain, pictures, furniture – and traded them. At the end of the Second World War, Costakis realised that a treasure trove had been secreted or neglected by artists and their families, and that it could be had for trifles. He went on to amass work so frenetically that the 1,500 pieces stolen from his home (and lost in a fire at his dacha) barely affected the bulk of his holdings.

When Costakis left Russia, he made a large gift to the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow and was allowed to take with him the goodies that are now in the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Salonika (also known as Thessaloniki). Most of the work that makes up the Tate exhibition comes either from the Tretiakov or Thessaloniki galleries, with a few pieces from provincial Russian museums.

One thing is clear in the Tate’s show – the Rodchenko-Stepanova-Popova trio’s passage from art to design was feverish. After the wonderful canvases – whose sharp, overlapping colour planes often suggest a third dimension – an early Popova fabric, patterned with tiny red sickles and blue hammers that look like the sprays of blooms on a Laura Ashley chintz, shows their confusion. But Popova’s patterns grew robust and more attractive. I treasured a tinted Rodchenko photo of Stepanova wearing a stripy, Popova-designed scarf.

Popova moved towards ambitious theatre designs, of which the best-known is the ‘classic’ constructivist set for Belgian dramatist Fernand Crommelynck’s improbably rocambolesque Le Cocu Magnifique of 1922. By far her largest project, rather underplayed at the Tate, was a design with architect Aleksandr Vesnin and producer Vsevolod Meirkhol’d for a ‘theatralized military parade’, celebrating the third congress of the Communist International in 1921. The design was a battlefield on which fighters from the energetic and forceful Communist city overcame the armies of the embattled capitalist one. Above the battle, captive balloons were tethered to cables with inscribed banners stretched between them. It was one of many aborted avant-garde schemes.

On the other hand, some of Rodchenko’s less ambitious projects were realised, such as his workers’ club for the 1925 Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts, which provides a muted climax for the Tate show. Do not miss it. I found the progress from the slighted experimental canvases to a vision of a vivid and rational environment immensely moving.

Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism is showing until 17 May at Tate Modern, London SE1. www.tate.org.uk

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