As a host of Soviet exhibitions open in Glasgow this issue as part of the New Beginnings season, Andrew Gibbon Williams takes a look at the work of one of the

most illustrious artists involved, Rodchenko.


Famil T'es Rodchenko arrives in Glasgow this month.

Andrew Gibbon Williams assesses his art.

The centrepiece of Glasgow‘s Soviet Arts Festival exhibition programme is a show devoted to the radical and multifarious activities of the artist Alexander Rodchenko (1891—1956), his wife Varvara Stepanova. and their consistently creative descendants. Both Rodchenko and Stepanova were avant-garde pioneers ofpure Abstraction along with Kandinsky. Malevich and Tatlin in pre-Revolution Russia. As early as 1913. Malevich under the influence of Kandinsky who to all intents and purposes can be considered the ‘inventor‘ of Abstraction in the 20th century had coined the term ‘Suprematism‘ to describe a non- representational art in which the principal components were simple geometric forms and pure colour.

The idea was that these pure elements should work directly on the feelings, leap-frogging what they saw as the traditional obstacle: objective description of the real world. Tatlin and Rodchenko interpreted Malevich‘s philosophy in a more functional way which gave birth to the ultimately more influential sister movement ‘constructivism‘. The Bauhaus was the heir and greatest propagandist of the Constructivist ideal and, therefore, through all art, architecture and design imbued with the Bauhaus aesthetic, Rodchenko has touched all our lives.

It is only during the last fifteen years that Western art historians have been able to assess properly the extraordinary artistic ‘revolution’ which preceded the political and social upheaval of 1917 (it is now regarded as every bit as important as Cubism) and only now, thanks to Gorbachev, that Soviet citizens themselves can begin to take pride in Russia’s pre-eminent contribution to modernism. In the early Twenties the new Soviet state decided that Abstraction was contrary to the interests ofCommunism, actively supressed its practitioners (many colleagues of Rodchenko like Kandinsky, Pevsner and his brother, Naum Gabo fled, never to return) and encouraged, for propaganda purposes, an arid realism which has relegated Soviet art to the sidelines ever since. Even now a visit to a Soviet art school is a curious, depressing and

anachronistic experience!

For those who know this story and are familiar with the early Constructivist paintings of Rodchenko and Stepanova’s revolutionary theatre and costume designs, the Kelvingrove exhibition will undoubtedly demolish erroneous pre-conceived notions about the fate of artists like Rodchenko under Stalin. Rodchenko and Stepanova seem to have come to some sort of accommodation with the repressive and narrow-minded authorities and branched out in all sorts of directions; the former working in documentary film and photography copious examples of both are included here; the latter designing textiles and illustrating books. In 1932 they moved into a large (by Moscow standards) apartment which they and successive generations transformed into a creative workshop where they could develop their private art while remaining members of the official Artists Union and working for the state. Since the deaths of the two great innovators the family has safeguarded and cherished their legacy. The majority of the works on show come from the collection of this extraordinary family. By virtue of its subject it is one of the most fascinating exhibitions to be seen in Britain this year. Coming at this particular moment of heartening change in the USSR, it represents one of the benefits of perestroika to us

; in the West. We must be grateful for it.

The List 27 October 9 November 1989 55