Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Constructing the Future; the Odd Couple Who Changed the Look of Russia after the 1917 Revolution Are the Focus of a Fascinating - and Timely - Show

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Constructing the Future; the Odd Couple Who Changed the Look of Russia after the 1917 Revolution Are the Focus of a Fascinating - and Timely - Show

Article excerpt

Byline: EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK BEN LEWIS

THE WHOLE economic system of capitalism has been discredited. You think bankers were cynical speculators whose schemes enriched them at the expense of hard-working businesses. Your government led you into a pointless war. Millions are unemployed.

It is time for revolution! No, that's not Britain in 2009 -- not yet -- but Russia in 1917. Our world bears more and more similarities to the one that led to the Russian Revolution and the creation of the world's first communist state. That makes Tate Modern's exhibition of two pioneering artists from this era wonderfully prescient and more enthralling than the curators could ever have imagined when they hatched the idea two years ago.

Rodchenko and Popova is a clever, meticulous exhibition, if a little dry, with 350 works, many of them never exhibited in the West before and borrowed from obscure museums deep in the Russian hinterland -- such as the Dagestan Museum of the Arts and Regional Art Museum of Ivanovo. The focus on just two artists of different sexes but equal stature, who weren't lovers, indicates the new sexual equality of the art of the Russian Revolution.

Now, for the first time, men and women played an equal role in society and art, and the art of the women was indistinguishable in quality and themes from that of the men's -- as Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova's was.

They were an odd couple. She was the daughter of a wealthy family but "was never more happy than when she was making dresses for the workers' cooperative".

He was the poor son of a circus performer. She dressed in pearls and furs and, as Rodchenko put it, "left the scent of expensive perfume behind at the exhibition". He was workingclass and macho -- proud of his "iron constructive power", which he taught at the new men-only wood and metalworking RODCHENKO AND POPOVA: DEFINING CONSTRUCTIVISM Tate Modern, SE1 .. .. .. .. ...

department of the state art school, and yet appalled at the "objectification" of women he encountered on a 1925 visit to Paris. Her life ended in illness and tragedy -- her husband died of typhoid in 1918, her son died of scarlet fever in 1924 and infected her, leading to her death, at only 35, a few days later. He was doomed to see his artistic horizons lowered by Stalin.

These contrasting personalities and backgrounds are wittily illustrated by Rodchenko in a cartoon from 1924 -- he stands, legs astride, in boxing shorts with bulging biceps, while Popova bends her head coquettishly behind him in a fancy outfit. Theirs was an unlikely alliance but in 1919 they formed a group of artists who struck out from Suprematism -- a movement defined by Malevich's Black Square -- and did what any ambitious artist of the period had to do -- they launched a new "ism" to express the hopes of the new age: Constructivism.

Both Popova and Rodchenko were looking for a new kind of abstract art whose value resided in surface, texture, shape and line. The Russian Revolution had swept away a centuries-old society. Lenin called for "a war to the death against the rich" -- overnight the Tsar abdicated, the land of the wealthy was seized, banks and factories were nationalised, private enterprise taxed out of existence.

Millions of Russian peasants still tilling their fields with medieval ploughs were introduced to a new political theorist: Karl Marx. Soviet Communism sought to rebuild the world socially, economically and visually. That called for an equally new art..

The first half of the exhibition focuses on their paintings. Popova made flat, geometric compositions of trapezoids of different colours overlaid on each other. Her Space-Force Constructions abandoned the traditional canvas in favour of the coarse industrial material of plywood. On that she painted semi-circles and diagonal lines with white and black triangles painted to suggest volume.

Rodchenko, meanwhile, was producing radical "spatial constructions" -- sculptures of geometric forms, some of which were literal abstractions of construction, others which, with brilliant formality, created hanging threedimensional forms out of repeating two-dimensional shapes (such as Square with a Square, 1921). …

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