PRINT October 1977

Back to the Material: Rodchenko’s Photographic Ideology

AT MOSCOW IN SEPTEMBER 1921, Rodchenko exhibited his three “last paintings” (Tarabukin), each in monochrome: Pure Red, Pure Yellow and Pure Blue. With these works even more than with Malevich’s White on White canvases of 1918, Russian nonobjective art came full circle in its evolution.

The problem of representation in the plastic arts had haunted creative minds, and the artists now believed they had attained at least one of its limits, if not the ultimate one. The crisis of finalities that this momentary impasse in plastic expression generated was reflected in one of the most violent shocks that the history of painting has known: an entire generation of creators thought that the transcendence of pictorial practice had been definitively achieved.1 Thus Malevich could declare in 1920 that painting was “out of date,” considering the painter “a prejudice of the past”—a statement that announced the end of several centuries of easel painting.

The theoretical conclusions that Malevich himself drew from the transcendence of the ontological limits of this level of the plastic arts were of a purely philosophical nature. If, for a creator like Theo van Doesburg, “the existence of theory appears to be a necessary consequence of creative activity” (1917), for Malevich Suprematist philosophy constitutes the transcendence and the sublimation of a purely plastic thought. By 1920, “There can no longer be a question of painting in Suprematism.” Malevich’s choice of direction now was an intensification of his abstract thought, a sort of mutation of the categories of the finalities of plastic thought that became the springboard for higher creativity—that is, for pure philosophical thought.

For most of the other artists the way out of this crisis of the image was to be found in another type of iconoclasm which, all things being equal, might seem like a similar extrapolation of finalities, but this time in the opposite sense. They chose to come closer to life, to increase the anti-theoretical element in plastic creation that for them was a sort of objective and purely material sublimation. This was the “Productivist” ideology, with all its implications of a voluntary rejection of the theoretical finality of models; it offered a kind of return to the earth after the long cosmic flight of Malevichean Suprematism and the plastic super-specialization in which nonobjective art had hurled itself so wholeheartedly between 1915 and 1918. Fleeing the labyrinth of excessive and extravagant theorization, the Productivists hoped not only to bring art to society but, especially, to avoid the anguish of existential questions that nonobjective painting asked in 1918 as much in Malevich’s White on White canvases as in the “picture-writing” of Rodchenko, Popova or Exter—think of those famous “last paintings.”

Only a few weeks after the closing of the “laboratory” (Constructivist) exhibition called “5 X 5 = 25” in Moscow in September 1921, where Rodchenko’s exhibited works struck so desperately on the “blind wall of representation” (Tarabukin), the first Productivist declaration was voted in the Moscow Inkhuk. Twenty-five young painters (including Rodchenko) renounced “pure” pictorial practice.2 They wanted to substitute for it a materialist orientation, toward “the production” of material goods, a goal for which they proposed themselves as the “engineers.” As Ossip Brik emphasized in a manifesto article, “Towards Production” (Lef, No. 1, 1923), Rodchenko was the most exemplary “artist-constructor” of this tendency.

It is not enough to interpret this gesture as a simple negation of the suicidal passion which marked a century that had refused to face the fundamental questions raised only a few years earlier. It is even easier to assimilate this Productivist decision into the direct consequences of Lenin’s NEP (New Economic Policy). Certainly for many second-rate painters, the extra-pictorial motivations were decisive. But for those who really were creative, outside determination could not have played a catalyzing role if purely plastic thought had not already come to a crossroads that dramatically required a reassessment of the whole problematic of painting. The crisis in pictorial values was sufficiently acute that the abandonment of nonobjective creation (as a goal of visual thought) could certainly be justified on a theoretical level.

After having ostensibly rejected the esthetic platform of “pure creation,” the individual Constructivists turned toward typography, theatre, film and industrial design (textiles, furniture and common household objects). During the ’20s, Rodchenko devoted himself to all these affairs, but he also discovered a field where the pure manipulation of images could at the same time correspond with the socio-material postulates of Productivism: photography.

In his text “My Work with Mayakovsky” (1939) Rodchenko wrote that the poet was largely responsible for this possibility, particularly as Mayakovsky himself was so interested in photography and film. Rodchenko’s return to “material of life” like this was first expressed in photomontage: “In connection with my work in photomontage,” he said, “I began to photograph.” Photomontage was in itself a return to narrative subject matter, although it could not be exclusively pictorial. Even if the subject was treated in terms of the formal laws of a pure plastic (nonobjective) device3 the result was a retreat from the requirements of “the purely plastic specificity of the work” (Sklovsky) to the benefit of the narrative. This was a sort of compromise with the extra-pictorial subject matter whose very exclusion from the purely plastic range was what had constituted the nonobjective avant-garde’s decisive victory in 1915 (Malevich and Tatlin, but also Mondrian). Now here was a return to the anecdote, with what in 1924 the Polish Productivist Mieczyslaw Szczuka had explicitly called “the inevitable literariness.”4

We easily see, then, how in such a context Rodchenko’s first photomontages must chronologically follow the artistic earthquake effected by Malevich’s rejection of pictorial practice in 1919. Indeed, after the 10th State Exhibition, “Non-Objective Creation and Suprematism” (Moscow, January 1919), Rodchenko’s reaction was immediate: his first step was to reject that passion for the pictorial which in 1918 had hurled him dizzily into abstract “light painting.” To return to what Rodchenko called “linearism” now amounted to a kind of ascetic cure by which he hoped to “reduce to nothing the last footholds of painting: color, tone, texture and planes.”5 But from a purely pictorial viewpoint, this reactionary tendency quickly led him to exhaust the repertory of representational problems. Not wishing to founder in a purely formal stylistic (a level of painting that had definitely been abolished by Malevich in 1917), Rodchenko concentrated his efforts in the field of true three-dimensional material—sculpture. Always a step beyond the pure idea (i.e. the nonobjective thought of Suprematism), Rodchenko took refuge in the reality of (concrete) materials. But in his sculpture of 1920, we find a pronounced, obvious survival of “linearism” and a formalist tendency that was vital to the process of modular systems, whose possibilities he was exploring at the time. But since the sculpture was just as difficult to justify on any but a purely esthetic level, Rodchenko abandoned it in 1921.

The process of photomontage was the next step out of the dead-end of “pure” plastic research. In 1920 Rodchenko realized his first photomontages, planned to illustrate Ivan Aksionov’s book of poetry entitled Gerkulessovy Stolby (Hercules’ Pillars). Aside from the very formal orientation of the works—their rigid geometrization being obviously close to contemporary “textural” painting—these photomontages were clearly conceived as book illustrations. Aksionov’s book never went to press, but Rodchenko’s photomontages were reproduced in the early issues of the periodical Kino-fot (Moscow, 1922). Alexei Gan, the editor, attributed to Rodchenko a definite cinema-photography-Productivist orientation. It was around this periodical, with which Rodchenko himself was closely associated, that the ideas of “cinema-verité” gravitated (as is demonstrated by the frequent publication of the manifestos of the “kinoki” group as well as new ideas on “montage” advocated by Gan himself, Lev Kulechov and Victor Sklovsky).

Up to this time Rodchenko was not using the camera himself. He relied instead on the photographic material of others. Thus in 1923, when he received another commission for photomontages to illustrate Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Pro Eto (Of This), another book of poems,6 he asked a professional photographer, A. Sterenberg, to take the photographs that he needed (portraits of Mayakovsky and Lili Brik). In these circumstances, Rodchenko’s role was similar to that of a film director who uses a professional cameraman. The image used on the cover of Of This goes a step beyond photomontage, along the lines of what Ossip Brik called in 1926 “photographic specificity.” Stylistically, a visual parallel for this image probably can be found in one of the most striking examples of Alexei Gan’s work in pure montage: the cover of his pamphlet, Long Live the Demonstration of the [Material] Environment (Moscow, 1923). There the leader of cinematographic Productivism used in film a frontal view that is just as aggressive as Rodchenko’s image of Lili Brik on the cover of Of This. Rodchenko’s composition is not a photomontage in the orthodox sense, but only a photograph—the portrait of Lili Brik, absolutely frontal and staring at the camera—although it does relate to Gan’s montage in film. The obvious directness of the image, its perfect symmetry and the clarity of its highly contrasted geometric arrangement, as well as its manifest desire for a maximum two-dimensionality of the plane of the image (the ground is eliminated), all seem to refer back to Rodchenko’s own nonobjective habits of before 1919. But the use of an altogether photographed portrait, the centrality of that portrait and the rather aggressive exposé of its narrative, psychological content (the fixed gaze on the viewer) indicate a “factual” and specifically photographic trend. Rodchenko was taking a position that was in esthetic opposition to the anti-narrative mythology of nonobjective art.7 By emphasizing Lili Brik’s stare, the artistic finality of the image was now radically reversed, altering the range of its plastic contents;8 it reduced the purely plastic component to the benefit of the narrative subject (that is, its psychological content).

Thus, Rodchenko’s recourse to the photograph corresponds precisely with the theoretical orientation of the group around the periodical Lef (abbreviation for the Left Front of Art). The members actively supported Rodchenko’s plastic work and encouraged his orientation to photography, since that tended to direct the evolution of the plastic arts toward the “factual-Productivist” camp, whose veritable thirst for the “new social reality” so animated the work of the literary Productivists united in the circle of Lef.9 For them the ideal of Productivist photographic work was reportage and not purely formal research; it was certainly not abstract, which was the case for some of the greater photographers of Western Europe at the time like Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Funke, Drtikol or Brugière.10 Then, after 1925, an entire theory of factual photography was developed in the pages of Novyi Lef (New Lef), where considerable space was given over to photography: photographs (often those of Rodchenko) were reproduced and theoretical discussion took place. Novyi Lef’s issue No. 8 of 1928, subtitled “Photo-issue,” was a culminating point, such important theoreticians as Ossip Brik and Boris Kuchner taking part in the discussion. It is interesting that the editor of this issue was not Mayakovsky but Sergei Tretiakov, an influential poet and linguist and, importantly, a theoretician of Productivism and of photography in particular. (Tretiakov wrote an excellent monograph on John Heartfield, published in Moscow in 1936. It is noteworthy that the first monograph on a great European photographer, Telechov’s own remarkable book on Moholy-Nagy, had been published in Moscow in 1927.)

We discover Rodchenko’s attraction for the objectivity of a material means of expression as early as 1915 in his compass and ruler drawings. In these works he wanted to eliminate the imperfection of the painter’s hand, relying instead on the objectivity of mechanical instruments which he used with a formal virtuosity that remained characteristic of his artistic personality (formally speaking) throughout his life. In the same way, the camera which Rodchenko used as of 1924 offered him comparable possibilities for the skillful handling of a technical instrument. Close-ups, long-range views and dramatic vertical shots became the special traits of his photographic vision. The quality and variety of his previous work in painting (a nonobjective practice, remember), was now applied with an extraordinary “richness of texture and tonal intensity”11 to his photographs in the ’20s and ’30s, in which we find a sensitivity to light that lent his photographic vision a textural intensity similar to that found in his remarkable canvases of 1918.

The many accusations of “formalism” that Rodchenko was subjected to as of 1928 are understandable when we consider his photographs: their rich,luminous textures are as far from the academic realism (the famous “progression of planes”) of traditional photography as they are from the stereotyped “geometrization” (the law of rectangular intersection of diagonals) of the so-called Constructivist style that was generally accepted at the time (Klucis, Langman, Bogdan).12 Proposing now “to achieve a revolution in our visual thought,”13 Rodchenko set out to explore a multitude of dynamic angles and points of view that would help to “reveal the object at an angle from which we are unaccustomed to seeing it.”14 In one of his most important articles of 1928 he advocated “repeated experimentation in the shooting of stills from a variety of angles,” adding that “the photograph of a newly constructed factory should not be the photograph of the building. The new factory is not just a simple fact but an event of pride and of joy, resulting from the industrialization of the Land of the Soviets, and this is what must be captured in the photograph.”15

Such constant exploration of new, specifically photographic, devices led him in 1926 to employ negative images for the first time, in his cover design for Mayakovsky’s book of poems Syphilis, composed on the poet’s return from a trip to the USA. It is not accidental that Rodchenko chose a negative image to illustrate a negative text (the book was very critical of the faults of the capitalist society). We can, of course, trace the origins of the reversed optical imagery to the camera obscura of the 18th century, and of “negative” images to cut-out silhouettes; and we find a new interest in reversal occurring around 1900 when Georges Mélies and his contemporaries used it to effect cinematographic tricks in their silent films.16 We are also aware that Italian Futurists like Bragaglia were interested in such techniques, as were Russian futurists like Larionov and the makers of photograms in the mid-’20s (Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Brugière, et al.). But for Rodchenko reversal or negation was a matter of being faithful to the factual esthetic: the negative image was used to reinforce an expression of the subject matter and not to achieve purely formal effects. Moreover, Rodchenko’s works were meant to be incorporated as much as possible into a new popular imagery, while Man Ray’s photograms, for instance, remain part of the old esthetic cult of the unique object—which Rodchenko himself attacked in his article “A Warning,” published in Novyi Lef, No. 11 , in 1928.

To illustrate a book of poems for children by Sergei Tretiakov, Samozveri (Robot-Beasts) in 1927, Rodchenko pushed his fascination for the photographic image in a new direction. Together with his wife, Stepanova, he made a series of puppetlike cardboard figures of children and animals, which he then photographed. The final result17—the photographs—illustrated Tretiakov’s book. Thus, the work no longer consisted of the figure, but, rather, of its photographic transformation. This desire to “alienate,” here through the photographic medium, is similar to the famous technique of ostranenie (“to alienate”) that a large number of avant-garde writers were using at the time, including several sympathizers of the Lef ideology. The photographs for Robot-Beasts clearly illustrate Rodchenko’s wish to assume, by all possible means, the “revolutionary challenge to revise visual thought” advocated by his contemporaries. Convinced of “the precision and documentary superiority” of the photographic image to pictorial representation, he sided with Ossip Brik: photography must reject the limited pictorial device of easel painting and should “find other laws for making stills, shooting and framing the image, laws that are specifically photographic.”18 The constant search for the purely photographic specificity of this new material of vision gave Rodchenko’s photographic works an originality and a plastic strength that was often far superior to that of his contemporaries.

In an important reply to Boris Kuchner19 and Volkov-Lannit,20 Rodchenko warned the theoreticians of hard-line factualism against “a fetishism of the factual that is not only useless in photography but also perhaps quite harmful . . .” In this declaration, a sort of credo of his photographic doctrine of the ’20s, Rodchenko stated:

We are fighting with easel painting, not because it tends to be too esthetic, but because it is not up to date. It is technically weak and cannot reflect [modern life], it is cumbersome, and each work being unique it cannot benefit the masses. In fact, we seem to be fighting not so much with painting—it is dying anyway—but with a photography that imitates painting, is “like painting,” “like etching,” “like engraving,” “like drawing,” “like sepia,” “like watercolor.”

Any bad and puerile photograph of an event cannot pretend to have any artistic value in the field of photography. There is nothing revolutionary in having photographed the leaders of the workers in the same style as one would make a portrait of a [czarist] general.

The photographic revolution occurs, then, only when the fact is photographed in such a way that, thanks to the quality of the angle (“how one has photographed”) it is forceful, and that because of the striking quality of its photographic specificity it cannot only compete with painting but also show to all a new way of discovering science, the technical world and the material environment of contemporary humanity. . . .

More simply speaking, we are trying to find, we are seeking, and we will find—not to fear!—a new esthetic that can express with photographs the passion and the pathos of our new socialist reality.

Andréi B. Nakov

This article was translated from the French by Patricia A. Railing.



1. My remarks refer not only to the Russians. One also thinks of Duchamp or Picabia, whose position in 1915 was close to that of the Russian artists.

2. Andréi Nakov, 2 Stenberg 2: The “Laboratory” Period (1919–1921) of Russian Constructivism, exhibition catalogue, Paris, London, Toronto, (1975) and Nikolaì Tarabukin, From the Easel to the Machine, Moscow, 1923 (French trans. in Nikolaì Taraboukine, Le dernier tableau, Andréi B. Nakov, Paris, 1972).

3. Cf. a 1918 work by P. Alma, reproduced in De Stijl, 1/8 (1918), p. 90.

4. Cf. his text on photomontage in the Warsaw periodical Blok, No. 5, 1924, p. 8.

5. A. Rodchenko, “The Line,” English trans. in Arts Magazine, June 1975.

6. For it, Rodchenko realized 11 photomontages; 7 were used in the book.

7. Here I refer the reader to Malevich’s texts of 1915 as well as to my own remarks in Andréi B. Nakov, ed., Malévitch Ecrits, Paris, 1975.

8. We find the same type of psychological reaction directed against extreme abstract theorization in recent American painting where the “hyper-realist” portraits by Chuck Close, for instance (e.g. his Portrait of Richard Serra) demonstrate a similar mechanism of psychological regression in opposition to Minimal art and hard-edge painting in the late ’60s.

9. To illustrate this, I refer the reader to the numerous theoretical discussions appearing in the pages of Lef and Novyi Lef, as well as The First Anthology of Texts by the Workers of Lef (in Russian): Brik, Gritz, Pertzov, Trenin, Tretiakov, Chuzhak, and Sklovsky. These texts were published at Moscow in 1929 by Chuzhak under the title Literature of Fact. Unfortunately little has been translated into English.

10. Their work was well known in the USSR and especially in the circle of Lef, as Mayakovsky returned from each of his voyages to Europe with several books and original works. Once he brought to Rodchenko a gift of photographic paper from Man Ray. Rodchenko himself was in close contact with the Bauhaus and with Moholy-Nagy in particular, with whom he corresponded as of 1923. Cf. Andrei Nakov, Tatlin’s Dream, exhibition catalogue, London, 1973, p. 81.

11. Cf. Volkov-Lannit, Alexander Rodchenko, Moscow, 1968, p. 102.

12. A rather abundant bibliography in Russian, Czech and Polish exists on this subject. These texts being rather inaccessible to the English-language reader, I refer the reader (more hopefully!) to a recent German publication, Rosalinde Sartorti and Henning Rogge, Sowietische Fotografia 1928–1932, Munich, 1975.

13. Rodchenko’s note in Novyi Lef, No. 9, 1929.

14. A. Rodchenko, “Towards an Analysis of the Art of Photography” (in Russian), Sovetskoe Foto, No. 9 1935, pp. 31 ff.

15. A. Rodchenko, “Predosterejenie” (“A Warning”), Novyi Lef, No. 11, 1928, pp. 36–37.

16. One of the most precocious examples of this occurs in Empire State Express (The Ghost Train) of 1901.

17. This book was never published, but the photographs were reproduced in Novyi Lef, No. 1 (1927).

18. Cf. Ossip Brik, “Fotokadr protiv kartiny” (“Photography Versus Painting”), Sovetskoe Foto, No. 2, 1926, p. 42.

19. See note 15 above.

20. Volkov-Lannit, “Fats na foto,” Novyi Lef, No. 11, 1928, pp. 28–36 and B. Kuchner, criticized Rodchenko’s overly complicated stills reproduced in Novyi Lef, No. 8, 1927; Kuchner also criticized Rodchenko in his article, “Nachi i zagranitza” (“Ours and Foreigners”), Sovetskoe Foto, No. 4, 1928. The polemics continued in Rodchenko’s reply in Novyi Lef, No. 6, 1928, followed by another attack from Kuchner in Novyi Lef, No. 9, 1928.