Sunday, January 3, 2010
To Rodchenko and the other Russian artists of his generation, Art wasn’t an end to itself but it needed to serve a purpose, i.e. to help the Construction of the USSR. The creation of the first world socialist utopia state was a daunting task, an impossible one has it eventually proved itself to be, but a very exciting one and they took to it with panache and great talent. Normally one tends to consider most endeavours more or less unworthy of the effort, especially in Art where things have a tendency to feel quite arbitrary, individualistic, not essential, or as Wilde would have it, utterly useless. But surely the creation of a fair society is the ultimate goal for each generation. At least they did get a chance and tried their best to make the most of it. They can hardly be blamed for what happened next – neither Stalinism - nor can their failure to beat the impossible odds stacked against them be a measure to judge the honesty and goodness of their ideals. It strikes me that avant garde culture never really becomes main stream, but stands in history as an attitude that beacons us further into actual progress, which itself moves at a much slower pace and to different actual results. Experiments were never meant to become widespread reality, but they are the test ground for unlimited creativity.
The twenties in Moscow were for a while as close as it will ever get for avant-garde artists to put their ideas straight from the studio into general practice, both in editorial and advertising use. The poet Majakovsky was writing ad slogans, the painter Rodchenko had turned multi media. Abstract paintings turned into daring graphic design, new typography – to us westerners made even more exciting, possibly, and exotic by its being based on the Cyrillic Alphabet – the photo collage and photography itself applied in new and refreshing ways taking full advantage of a new handy format and a tiny camera completely new at the time: the 35 mm Leica. They were after dynamic images, and accomplished them both by photographing objects and people in motion or by using the diagonal as a dynamic element of their compositions. Even static buildings, or stone columns, seem to soar or progress through the image, in motion.
If we could slice the building of the FOAM museum in Amsterdam right now, we would have kind of a cross section of present and past avant-garde. The lower floor and one room at the top displays a selection of young Dutch talents, the bulk in between houses an exceptional exhibition dedicated to Alexander Rodchenko with many as of yet in the west unseen photographs, all the very famous ones, and many collages and graphic art. The size, amount and quality of the prints is staggering. They are all vintage, unusually large for the period – most western photographers of the twenties didn’t print as large as Rochenko did – and they are very beautiful. So in a way we are forced to make a comparison if not hold a competition between the Now and Here, and the Then and There, and maybe feel invited to look for similarities and influences. Well, there aren’t many of those. We live in very different times, and young artists cannot but reflect a very different approach. Personally I feel a lack of originality and ideals in the modern work. It feels like a gimmick, motivated more by personal ambition than by any ideal beyond it. Using Photoshop as a random generator of images rather than a super clever tool for image editing seems to me one of the signs of almost fatalistic total cynicism, if not laziness. It’s all about the result (read Success) but don’t be mistaken, the resulting image is as unemotional as the chip that produced it. Can they be blamed for it? Probably not, very few people escape or transcend the limits of their times.
If there is a legacy that we could profit from in the Exhibition of Rodchenko, other than the sheer joy of looking at the work, it must be the lesson that great results can be obtained with little means, when talented people are motivated by noble ideas and work hard.