Book Review: Alexander Rodchenko

From Rodchenko With Love

With the title being a deliberate play on the James Bond movie (‘From Russia With Love, 1957), to look at the somewhat imposing figure of Alexander Rodchenko standing at 183cm and sporting a shaven head, potentially austere in visage, but wonderfully playful in nature, he could have easily have taken up the role of a Russian villain in a Bond movie, when in actual fact he had the mind-set more like Bond’s life saving gadget builder Q.

However while Q focused on devices, Alexander used his profound talents for building new ways to see the world around him using a myriad of artistic mediums (drawing, painting, graphic design, photography and photomontage). And with that hopefully achieve or at least inspire others to see the world around them differently too. He was somewhat successful in that goal being he was to become one of the most influential artists and graphic designers to ever live.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1891 there was not obvious artistic influences in his working class home. With that almost untainted background it must have been a revelation to him when he later went to the Kazan Art School (where he actually met his future wife Varvara) and the world of possibilities opened up to him.

Initially focusing on drawing and painting as is somewhat standard in art school apprenticeships, these were incredibly potent times for the any creative fields. Futurism and Cubism (and the Dada movement) were reconstructing absolutely everything in the art world, and basically questioning it’s entire structure, use and reality. Between them they wanted to not only tear down our reality, but have the beautiful audacity to rebuild it all with glorious ambition of what could be. Of course this was to have a heavy influence on Rodchenko, but as those movements could be potentially perceived as intellectual or elitist, Alexander had somewhat more populist objectives by bringing that energy, aspiration and question into the lives of everyone in society, not just the academics. This would manifest itself in his participation in founding of the Constructivism movement after the Russian Revolution (1917) which believed in extolling the artistic practices for social purposes, raising everyone’s appreciation rather than repetitive homogenised work that permeated society. Making art an every day part of their lives.

Knigi (Books), 1925 Advertising for the Leningrad department of the State Publishing House, Moscow House of Photography

Knigi (Books), 1925
Advertising for the Leningrad department of the State Publishing House, Moscow House of Photography


Context is everything, and while there is little doubt that Rodchenko may have possibly influenced every single graphic designer currently on the planet, you may not be overtly aware of his work, but again, there is little doubt you haven’t seen it, or at least some really bad copies inspired by it.

Given his huge influence on the arts, it’s a great pleasure to see a new book ‘Alexander Rodchenko’ written by Olga Sviblova (Director of Moscow House of Photography and Multimedia Art Museum) that humanises a man whose work could be viewed with our 21st Century eyes as potentially mechanical looking. An introduction by his daughter Varvava brings a wonderfully warming vitality to his work, an inquisitive, dynamic, social, generous, educational and appreciative individual who was clearly inspired by everything around him, but managed to see all of that like nobody else. Even in the most simplistic way possible, it is easy to see how living on the 8th floor of their apartment block and watching the local kids play on the street below would have influenced his desire to introduce dynamic angles into his work. He saw what everyone else saw, but better.

Steps, 1929 Moscow House of Photography
Steps, 1929
Moscow House of Photography

The book captures not only his graphic design work (some of my favourite design of all time), but also his photomontage and wonderfully enough a great deal of his photography (his Leica camera was always with him) that effectively act as reportage from what seems a distant world, a far away time, yet once again shows us the everyday comings and goings that we all share not only across constructed borders, but history itself, we have far more in common than not.

There’s a lovely excerpt from his diary (1934) mentioned in it too:

‘… I want to take some quite incredible photos that have never been taken before, of life itself, absolutely real, photographs which are simple and complex at the same time, which will amaze and overwhelm people. I really must do that. Then it will be worthwhile working and fighting for Photography as an art’.

Pioneer with a trumpet, 1930 Moscow House of Photography

It’s a great book indeed, full of inspiration (270 images over 248 pages), irreverence, play, joy, celebration, vitality, individuality and consideration.

It clearly shows how Rodchenko saw the magic in even the most simplest of moments, captured it and recast that vibrancy for life back into his work.

That passion is what was at the core of all his work, and no doubt what ignites a similar creative fire in everyone when they discover his work for the first time, now that is Constructivism at it’s very best.

‘Alexander Rodchenko’ published by Skira is available now.

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