Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography

Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography

5 Oct. 2013 – 12 Jan. 2014


In October a retrospective of the photographs of Alexander Rodchenko, one of the leading  Russian artists of the first half of the 20th century, will open at the Reykjavík Art Museum’s Kjarvalsstaðir site.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1891, Rodchenko worked in Moscow as an artist and designer from 1915. He used many different media in his art: he started out as a painter and sculptor, then moved into photography in 1925.  He was a pioneer in photography and graphic design, designing for instance book covers, posters and advertisements in collaboration with Varvara Stepanova, his wife and closest colleague. The posters are among Rodchenko’s best-known works, and remain inspiring nearly a century on.More information about the film Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Theatre can be found here

St Petersburg Origins

In the early 1990s Russia changed its political system radically and the Soviet system of government was replaced in favour of a new political path with aspirations to democratize its institutions along western lines and economic models of capitalism. A lot has happened since that time. I mention it here as I was in Russia at that time for nearly four months, in St Petersburg in fact, working on a film for the BBC. My experience during that time  had a huge bearing on what I am doing at the moment which is making films and how I am doing it.

While in St Petersburg in 1993 I was introduced to an English guy called Adam Alexander or maybe Alexander Adams I cant quite remember.He had set up as a producer come distributor in the city. He had bought a largish apartment and I was invited around to meet him on one of my few days off during the production. Adam was a tall blond guy with a naive welcoming smile and manner, lively and generous with his personality and keen to get to know people. He showed me around the apartment and in one room he had a whole editing suite set up. A moviola was set up in one corner and abetacam editing suite set up in another part of the large room. I was fascinated by the whole operation in this romantic and phantasmagorical city. It had never occurred to me that you could set up an editing suite and production operation in an apartment. Now of course with computers and non linear editing everyone is doing it. However it was then that I decided I would live in Moscow and have a similar studio set up in an apartment at some time. It was a dream and I didn’t really believe it myself but one which some years later has come to be. As I sit here looking out across a wintry night in Moscow from my 7th floor apartment with a couple of computers making up a the backbone of an editing suite with extra screens for monitoring and so on.
After I lived in Moscow for some time and it came time to buy an apartment we looked for somewhere  in the centre and quite large so that it could double as a studio and a place to live. That way I felt it was a more economically workable investment. We knocked down a few walls during the renovation so that the apartment could double as a living space and a studio.For more complicated  technical operations there is a studio not 10 minutes away which I can use whenever I need to.

TAB Event – Aleksandr Rodchenko + Varvara Stepanova "Visions of Constructivism"

TAB Event – Aleksandr Rodchenko + Varvara Stepanova “Visions of Constructivism”

Starts in 4 days
At Utsunomiya Museum of Art
Media: Graphics, Painting
On display are 170 works by Aleksandr Rodchenko from the collection of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

[Image: Aleksandr Rodchenko (1924, 1965) collection of the Pushkin Museum]


From 2010-09-19 To 2010-11-07

Website (Japanese) (venue’s website)


Adults ¥800, University & High School Students ¥600, Junior High and Elementary School Students ¥400

Venue Hours

From 9:30 To 17:00
Closed on Mondays
Note:On a Public Holiday Monday, the museum is open but closed on the following Tuesday.


Navitime (Japanese)
Yahoo (Japanese)


25 minutes by bus from West exit at the JR Utsunomiya station or 20 minutes by taxi from the JR Utsunomiya station.


1077 Nagaoka-cho, Utsunomiya-shi, Tochigi-ken 320-0004
Phone: 028-643-0100 Fax: 028-643-0895

When you visit, why not mention you found this event on Tokyo Art Beat?

Rodchenko and Popova at the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern is to host an exhibition of the graphic work of Alexander Rodchenko and Lubova Popova – “Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism” opening on 12th February 2009. 

 As part of the exhibition the DVD film “Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Avant-garde” will be on sale in the gallery bookshop throughout the course of the exhibition where it can be purchased along side other films in the series “The Russian Avant-garde – Revolution or Renaissance” by Copernicus Films and directed by Michael Craig, (click on various links for more information) and include the titles “Meyerhold Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde”, “Mayakovsky” and “Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde”.

Rodchenko and Popova’s designs revolutionised the way art was conceived in its relation to advertising and society. Popova was active in the world of graphics but also spent a considerable amount of energy designing sets for the theatre. She designed a set for Meyerhold’s production of The Magnainimous Cuckold. The construction was a complete break from traditional concepts of theatre design and began a trend in constructivist set design in the Moscow theatre in the mid to late 1920s. 

Popova’s design of spinning wheels and raised platforms against a plain backdrop (see banner above) was the perfect way of fulfilling Meyerhold’s intention of combining the three dimensionality of the actors body and the two dimensionality of the stage design.
 The whole production showpieced Meyerhold’s new acting and performance techniques called biomechanics based on movement and dance. Popova’s work with Meyerhold is featured in the film “Meyerhold,Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde” which was filmed in Moscow and uses actors. The goal of the film was to understand the meaning of biomechanics as well as using archive footage and graphics to explore Meyerhold’s development as a director.

David Burliuk and Gauguin in Film

In 2008 Bob Duggan reviewed the film “David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde on artblogbybob. His comments about the section which referred to Gauguin in the film led to a reassessment of the way the whole series of documentary films called The Russian Avant-garde – Revolution or Renaissance. was constituted, of which “David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde” is a part and was produced by Michael Craig and Copernicus Films in 2007. On his site, as well as commenting on the quality of the photography in the film, Duggan explained that he was especially interested in the part of the film about David Burliuk and his trip to Ogasawara, a small Japanese island in the Pacific ocean about a thousand kilometres south of Tokyo. David Burliuk admired and drew inspiration from Gauguin. In 1920, after several successful exhibitions in Japan, Burliuk traveled to the Ogasawara islands to recuperate after his gruelling journey through Siberia and paint in the manner of Gauguin who also traveled to the island of Tahiti in the early 1890s in order to develop what he believed would be a new art for a new era. Gauguin was himself also strongly influenced by Japanese art and this overlapping of interest in the film was of particular interest to Duggan.

When this section was included in the film, not only did it have implications for the structure of the film, in so far that Burliuk was interested in Gauguin and wanted to emulate Gauguin, it also had implications for the entire series. Gauguin was a precursor of the Russian Avant-garde and strongly influenced this unique artistic event in the history of world art. In this sense the episode devoted to Gauguin did not simply draw together strands of the Burliuk film but also drew the strands of the entire series together, connecting the sometimes disparate and amorphous phenomena which is known as the Russian Avant-garde. The Russian avant-garde incorporates movements from neo-primitivism, rayonism,constructivism and lasted roughly through a period from the 1880s until the early 1930s. This section of the film about Burliuk, gave the series a prisim though which all the various themes of the series could be viewed even if the structure is somewhat imposed on the material. Self evidently any structure which is applied to the history of the Russian avant-garde is not a true reflection of its development but merely a method of organising material into a coherent and accessible form for digestion by the public or viewer. The most important thing while preparing such a film is to be aware of this framework as something which is imposed and try not allow it to dominate an understanding of the material. In this way the viewer can reach their own conclusions or can be stimulated to discover the subject further for themselves. An example of the problems which arise for instance is associated with the whole project of presenting artists as if they were individuals working in isolation of the world around them. I will try to explain this in more detail.

In the west we privilege the individual over and above the collective and this is a result of our liberal humanist tradition derived form Christian-Judaeo concepts of the individuals place and role in the world. The development and progress of western culture is presented as a parade of past individual geniuses who serve as pillars or supports upon which society rests and in the present a further group of lone geniuses which will propel it into the future. For many Russian avant-garde artists and writers this obsession (or what they considered an obsession) with individual genius was in their eyes an obstacle to artistic progress and a false assessment of the contribution by artists to the overall development of society. As Alexander Rodchenko commented in the 1920s that in the modern era, in the age of the machine and industrialisation …”there will never be a unique airplane or car” ..therefore …”we need artist workers, not geniuses”. This belief was further underlined by Osip Brik, the futurist thinker who announced in a clear attack on the notion of authorship and its connotations of genius, that if Pushkin had not written Eugene Onegin somebody else would have sooner or later. This brings me back to the documentary arts series: The Russian Avant-garde – Revolution or Renaissance. Nearly all the films where about individuals “Rodchenko and The Russian Avant-garde”, “Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde”, “Kandinsky and the Russian House”, “Mayakovsky” and of course “David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde”. Only one film in the series “Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde” has a more general thematic structure, however even in this film I concentrated on three main figures – Malevich, Tatlin and Constantine Melnikov. It was very difficult to wriggle out of such a thematic straight jacket but nonetheless in each film a concerted attempt was made to relate the individual accomplishments of each artist to the wider concerns of the period and not portray them as lone geniuses working in isolation of each other but part of an artistic movement which had deep roots in the social and political events of the early part of the 20th century. Artists like Gauguin, Kandinsky, Burliuk and Rodchenko were grappling with some of the same artistic problems of their age, albeit exploring different solutions depending on the context in which they found themselves. The film “David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde”, with its reference to Gauguin’s influence on the work of the Russian avant-garde artists of the era, presented an opportunity to draw together many of the threads which constituted this artistic epoch without forcing a preordained framework on the series. Instead the viewer could make up their own mind as to how the phenomena of the Russian avant-garde developed and influenced art in Russia before and after the revolution.

Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Avant-garde

About the photography of Alexander Rodchenko and the making of this film in Moscow.

By Michael Craig
When I began to make films in Russia in the mid 1990s, I was prepared for all kinds of problems but none of the problems I subsequently encountered. I had already worked in the UK for many years in the film and television industry. I finally decided to move to Moscow to make films and to write. The first two years was a question of finding my feet both linguistically and culturally in a city and a society which was undergoing a total transformation. I had an advantage in that I had already learnt Russian language at school and also had worked in St Petersburg for almost four months on a BBC Drama in 1993. It was this experience which decided me to move to Russia, albeit Moscow. All the same there is a great difference between working in Russia with all the support that a paid position offers and actually living day by day in an alien environment. As I already mentioned the first two years were a case of acclimatization. Just as I ran out of money during my first winter in Moscow in a tiny room in a large apartment built in the Stalin era, I was offered a job on a feature film “The Saint”. This got me through the worst deprivations of that first year. It wasn’t so bad in reality. The apartment was warm and the old lady who owned it, let me live my life as I pleased without interfering. As long as I paid the rent, that’s all she worried about.The job on the “Saint” ended and a BBC film “The Stringer” started shortly afterwards in Moscow and I worked on this film for the next six months and by the time the following winter arrived I was in a better financial position than the previous winter. I had also got into the Moscow rhythm of life so that even the financial collapse of 1998 passed me by more or less unnoticed as it did many Russians who considered it just another one of those things which they had to cope with.However I felt it was time to start on my own work and make a film. That was one of the main reasons I came to Moscow. When I was working in Warsaw I was introduced to Zygmunt Malanowicz, who played the role of “the young man” in Roman Polanski’s first film “Knife in the Water”. I asked him why he didn’t go to Hollywood with Polanski when he had the opportunity. He wasn’t able to give me a good answer but he said he was much happier making feature films in Minsk for under $70,000 than spending his time in Hollywood. It was one of those moments which opened my eyes to a whole new set of possibilities for making films outside the usual political system for raising money for film projects. Also the aesthetic of Eastern European and Russian Film making appealed to many of my sensibilities. So now I was in Moscow with all kinds of ideas for making films but where to start. I became interested in the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s and by chance picked up a book in the Tretiykov Gallery about the avant-garde artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko. What attracted me to him especially was that he gave up painting for photography, denouncing paining as “finished” and unfit to express the modern social and visual realities of life in the early 19th century with its speed and industrial cityscape’s and mass culture. Photography he believed could better express and embody this reality and Rodchenko set about experimenting with new techniques of photography and photo collage, exploring new visual territory in his home in Moscow. What especially interested me about Rodchenko was that he denied the value of painting and art as a matter of principle and this I thought would be a good starting point for a film.I decided there and then to make a film about Rodchenko and his work. I gathered together some money and began researching Rodchenko’s work and managed to find a good camera operator, Valentin Savenkov. I wrote a script showed it to Valentin and worked out where and what in Moscow I wanted to film. This was relatively straight forward at that time.The first day of filming around Moscow was not good. After about an hour it began to rain and didn’t stop for four hours. I had checked the weather forecast but light drizzle was all that was expected. A week later we tried again. It was mid october and the weather was perfect. A deep blue sky, such as you only get in Russia at that time of the year when the air is cold, crisp and clear. Perfect weather for the kind of effect that I wished to bring to the film. Sharply defined edges of light and shade to give volume to the composition of shots and which would compliment Rodchenko’s photographs. One of the hallmarks of Rodchenko’s work is the balance between light and shade, volume and line all of which are contained within the composition of the photograph and its subject. Nothing needs to be added or taken away afterworlds, no effect or mystification is necessary everything exists already in the photograph and its compositional value giving a visual power and strength which is immediately apparent.The real problem came when I decided that I wanted to film a dramatisation of Rodchenko using an actor. I had a venue where I could film – a small room in a Museum which had a desk exactly like one in a photograph with Rodchenko working in his study.
It just needed a bit of rearranging and we were back in the 1920s. The hard bit was finding Rodchenko. Rodchenko had a shaved head which gave him a very distinctive look. It would have been possible to find any bald actor and film them in shadow or partly hidden so that the face was not important but just the over all impression. I interviewed actor after actor but it just wasn’t right. I was introduced to a famous Punk singer, Sasha Sclyr, who had also shaved his head. I met him but again it just wasn’t right. I began to get desperate. I found an American who seemed to fit the part but he disappeared almost as quickly as he appeared. I started to look for bald men on the streets of Moscow, on the Metro trying to gather enough courage to ask them if they would be interested in working on a film. The few attempts I made were not very successful. I began to contemplate using Yuri Lushkov, the bald Mayor of Moscow and drafted a letter which with the help of an influential friend I could maybe enlist him in the part of Rodchenko. I wanted to get on with the film and I was getting nowhere.I had given up, nothing was working. Then one evening I was in a cafe in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall waiting to meet someone and I saw that in an enjoining cafe they were filming something. Always interested, I walked round to get a better look. One of the actors that I worked with on the “Saint” was playing one of the roles in the main scene they were filming in the cafe. Suddenly a guy with a shaved head walked onto the set from behind the camera said something to the actors and walked back into the shadows from where he had appeared. My first thought was “its Rodchenko”. The resemblance was uncanny, not just that he had shaved his head but everything. In a free moment I caught the eye of the actor that I knew and asked him who is that guy. “He’s the director”. “Introduce me to him”. I said. I had to wait to the filming stopped and I was introduced to Anatoly Artemanov, the director of the film. Anatoly was a Russian Director living in new York and he had come over to Direct Russian in Moscow quickly explained to him what I needed him for and he immediately agreed and when I told him I had some money and that I could pay him he said “and you’ll pay me as well !- that’s even better”.This was the final piece in the jigsaw of the first film I made in Moscow and the film was completed with final editing and sound recording in March 1999. I found an English actor William Rousey, to do the narration. In this I was very lucky. He had studied at the famous Moscow Arts Theatre and so had a good grasp of Russian culture and the kind of voice that I thought would suit the film. I hadn’t intended to make any more films about the Russian avant-garde but as always one thing leads to another. The Rodchenko film was quite successful and the outline of a second film began to emerge about avant-garde architecture of the same period. This again would pose problems but of a very different kind.

Features of the Russian avant-garde.

Features of the Russian avant-garde. One of the important things to remember about Rodchenko and his co artists was that they sought to de-mystify art, to reveal its most fundamental character, its reality, exposing its materials and processes. And they attempted to engage the viewer in a direct and unmediated experience. There was no attempt to represent an outside reality or a reality which was doctored in the developing process, with the viewer responding only to what was in front of them. As a communist his idea of photographic truth would have satisfied many of Rodchenko’s ideological and concerns as well as his “aesthetic” quest for truth.Rodchenko used qualities already inherent in the subject – light,shade, volume. line, contrast etc and drew the viewers attention to these qualities by his system of Rakursy or perspectives i.e. using the angle from which the object is photographed to maximize the compositional value of the subject or the visual dynamics of the subject without falsifying it. In other words these qualities are already inherent in the subject and the camera is used merely to bring out these qualities in new and interesting ways – to make the usual unusual and and make the unusual usual. Rodchenko was against manipulating the technical capacities both in photography and and developing stages by interfering unduly in the process to produce effects, which would distort the reality of the subject. “Rakursy” exploited the visual “laws” already given in the everyday world as seen by human beings. The function of the camera is to exploit these laws, volume, light shade, rhythm etc) to the maximum advantage for presenting the subject to the viewer. Not arbitrarily as Rodchenko was often accused of doing but consciously and deliberately. As Rodchenko himself noted. “These laws have always existed even though they are hard to describe and explain.

For instance there is one picture of a diver on an ascending upswing before descending into the water. The diver is placed in the far right hand corner and the question arises why not in the center or in the left hand corner or to the side. Rodchenko consciously exploits two of the specific features of human perception.
In western culture we read from left to right. The placing of the figure in the top right hand corner creates a natural dynamic drawing our vision upwards
to the rising figure. We seem to be looking up as if we were at the event itself staring up as a spectator even though we are looking at the photograph square on. Secondly the illusion of motion is purposely created from a still image, which at that time was an innovative and bold approach to photography which today we very much take for granted . Its not clear if they are connected but Rodchenko’s sketch on a note pad on the left hand side seems to show how important these geometric “laws” were for Rodchenko’ approach to photography.

Michael Craig 2007