I’ve been avoiding the Tate Modern lately. None of the exhibits have been that interesting – I was surprised by how effective Rothko’s famous paintings were when I finally saw them a few years back, but I couldn’t be bothered to queue for hours and face the tourist crowds packing his recent Tate exhibition – and even the installations in the turbine hall have seemed a little half-hearted since Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth.
Now, though, there’s a new and fantastic exhibition on. And, because it’s of Russian contructivists rather than ikea-poster-friendly-material, there are no queues and you can actually get close enough to the art to see it.
I’m an art ignoramus and had only previously heard of Aleksandr Rodchenko because of his famous poster for Battleship Potemkin (the symmetrical one with the guns, not the one with the stairs). Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism begins earlier in his career with something rather different. The first few rooms are full of abstract, geometric paintings made before he abandoned traditional artistic techniques (abandoning artistic strokes in favour of drawing lines with ruler and compass) and then painting itself – his farewell to the medium, three panels of solid colour in which he “reduced painting to its logical conclusion”, is remarkable when you consider when it was created. There’s then a small collection of sculpture, a few pieces of which are striking.
This is all quite good, but then things become brilliant. Having given up on painting and sculpture (“as useless as a church”) both artists turned their attentions to advertising and graphic design, and plenty of space is given to both. I read at least one review sniffing at this as inferior to the earlier art and deserving of less space, but if you like typography, propaganda art or commercial design you’ll find it fascinating. There’s also space given to one area where Popova found a genuinely popular use for her art: textile designs that were then mass produced by a state-run mill.
The exhibition ends with some film extracts, which are interesting but rather hard to watch – I attempted the 25 minutes of nonlinear socialist montage while standing up, but after about ten minutes it was beginning to resemble the visual equivalent of white noise – and, more effectively, a reconstruction of the “Worker’s Club” that Rodchenko designed, which is rather like the set of a 1970s 70mm sci-fi film. Of course, things don’t end happily for the artists. Popova died in 1924, aged 35, while Rodchenko fell out of favour as Soviet Realism became the only acceptable form of art in Stalin’s USSR. The exhibition effectively ends with his 1925 work, including none of his return to painting or later photography.
I came away convinced that Defining Constructivism is one of the best things I’ve see at the Tate Modern since it opened, and it also reminded me that the museum has on display in another room a small selection of David King’s collection of Soviet propaganda posters. It’s great that the museum devoted so much space to Rodchenko and Popova, but I’d love it, in future, to make available so much room for King’s huge archive of art and photos from the same period. For the moment, King has compiled many pieces in this book, which I’d also recommend.