A Blind Eye to Stalin

Among the bewildering flurry of “isms” spawned by Cubism, the most important was Constructivism. All the bastard Modernist movements – Futurism, Vorticism, Suprematism, Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism et al – shared an aesthetic based on forms first fractured and then remodelled. It was as if, for 20 or so years from 1907, European art was hit by an optical virus that shattered rounded shapes into planes and shards. Most of the styles, however, remained just that – theoretical and confined to art. Constructivism, although a specifically Russian movement and a short-lived one at that, was different. Because it was created by the radical avant-garde, and born with the revolution and co-opted by it, Constructivism marched willingly in step with the nascent Soviet state. Its practitioners sought not just to remake art but also to play an active role in remaking society. Constructivism was the artistic arm of Bolshevism triumphant.

Two of the movement’s central figures, Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) – its theorist and figurehead – and Liubov Popova (1889-1924), its most significant female adherent, are the subject of Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism at Tate Britain (from 12 February). It is an exhibition that charts how they rejected art for art’s sake and turned themselves instead into social engineers, and also how they stayed wilfully blind to the brutalities of the regime they served and fostered. Both started their careers as painters who, after the 1917 Revolution, refined their Cubist vocabulary of cones, rectangles and overlapping planes to focus on the material properties of simple shapes and how best to give them a special presence. “I don’t think that non-objective form is the final form,” wrote Popova, “it is the revolutionary condition of form.” What this meant on the canvas was abstract shapes, mechanical precision, increased linearity and making every line or slab of colour strive to escape two dimensions into a third – to become elements of construction. The result was an art of the ruler and compass, dramatic but dry, theoretical and devoid of narrative, emotion or spirituality.

The culmination came in 1921 with the 5×5=25 exhibition in which Rodchenko, Popova and three colleagues each showed five pieces. Rodchenko’s included three monochromes and with them he declared the death of painting: “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it’s all over.” However premature the claim, it freed Rodchenko and Popova to follow a more utilitarian path.

With the abandonment of painting they turned instead to the graphic and applied arts. The centrepiece of the Tate exhibition is a reconstruction of the Workers’ Club Rodchenko designed for the 1925 International Exhibition in Paris. Workers’ clubs, which sprang up across the Soviet Union, were intended for collective “improving” leisure at the end of the day – playing chess, reading newspapers, political discussion, etc. In Rodchenko’s hands, the club was a place where design and ideology met. He dreamed up a clean, rational space with a hinged communal table that could sit flat or be inclined for reading; a red and black chess table with integral chairs; a collapsible rostrum that doubled as a screen for slogans. Ingenious though his designs were, the clubs were necessary because housing conditions were so poor that the authorities were keen that the workforce should have somewhere other than home to go to.

Rodchenko and Popova’s most striking work, however, was in graphics. They produced a stream of photographic essays, book covers and advertising images. Rodchenko was responsible for the poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), theatre set and costume designs, fabric designs and agitprop posters – for the Society for the Struggle Against Illiteracy, for the Centrifuge Co-operative, for the trade unions as “a defender of female labour”. Their red and black colour schemes, sweeping typography and bold photocollage had an undeniable chic that would later reappear, without the ideology, in ’80s style magazines such as The Face.

Popova and Rodchenko were not innocents though. Popova died in 1924 before the true horrors of the Soviet experiment were apparent. Rodchenko, however, lived through Stalinism but kept the faith. In 1933 and out of official favour, he took a series of propaganda photographs extolling the digging of the White Sea Canal. It was perhaps Stalin’s first gulag and 200,000 political prisoners died in its construction. Proof enough, although Rodchenko never acknowledged it, that clean lines have human consequences.

Political art of a more glamorous sort is also the subject at Tate Britain. Van Dyck and Britain (from 18 February) treats the Antwerp-born artist’s huge influence not just on 17th-century British portraiture but also on succeeding generations of artists – from Lely and Reynolds to Sargent. It will include some 60 Van Dycks – with major loans from the Royal Collection and the National Trust – and 70 works by later admirers. As the official image-maker to the Stuart court, Van Dyck (1599-1641) received generous treatment from Charles I when, after an early visit in 1620, he returned permanently in 1632. In return for a knighthood, rooms in the royal palace at Eltham, a house in Blackfriars and a good stipend, Van Dyck proved that the divine right of kings could come in informal as well as hieratic guise. His pictures of the Royal family, showing Charles as a pre-ordained leader at ease with power, set the model for subsequent aristocratic portraiture as a mixture of luxury and entitlement.

Van Dyck’s images of benign power were produced for a tainted cause. He died in 1641, a year too soon to see that so many of the sitters he depicted naturally assuming Cavalier pomp turned Roundhead in the Civil War.

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