Russian Arc

The recent Tate Modern exhibition of Alexandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova got me thinking about drawing as a tool of avant garde design. These two Russian artists made the leap from painting to “productivism” in the wake of the Revolution. Autonomous works of art – paintings to hang on the wall – just didn’t cut it as instruments of political radicalism. What they were after was a penetration of their ideals into everyday life, and they hoped to do this through design: clothing, ceramics, architecture. As Christina Kaier notes in her wonderful book on the subject, Imagine No Possessions, objects were now to act as “comrades” in the struggle for a socialist and democratic state. Of course, it didn’t work out that way: the Constructivist avant garde was crushed in the 1930s as Socialist Realism became the house style of the state. But the drawings in the Tate exhibition showed how artists like Rodchenko and  Popova tried to put their principles into practice.

What I found interesting about this narrative arc was that their early paintings looked handcrafted, but their later designs have an austere geometric quality that would be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce in a three-dimensional object. Here is a 1917 panel painting by Rodchenko:

 

Ironically, the leap to abstraction exposes the very concrete methods by which the painting is put together. You can get a detailed sense of his working process, with scored layout lines (made using a rule and compass), strong silhouettes achieved using hand-cut masquing stencils, and a variety of textures achieved with a palette knife or by applying paint mixed with sand. The conventional artistic technique of shading a profile at the edge, to create a sense of volume, is divorced from representation, so it seems like just one more material “effect.”  In Popova’s work, there’s a similar interest in this sort of thing; she even mixed wood dust into her pigments before applying them to plywood, as in this 1921 painting:

 

Both artists were already interested in design at this time. Rodchenko’s 1917 drawings for lamps to be used in the Café Pittoresque in Moscow show him trying to apply his abstract language to the creation of 3D objects.

          

You can feel the tension here between the logic of Constructivist painting and the requirements of design. You’d have a hard time building lamps based on these drawings alone – their topology seems sort of magical, like that of a Mobius strip. Shading is back to its usual role of indicating three-dimensionality, but that is the only concession to real space.

As Rodchenko and Popova gave up on fine art formats and entered their Productivist phase, this conflict between abstract ideals and manufactured objects becomes more and more evident. Their drawings are very eloquent in this respect. Both artists came to de-emphasize the physicality of their designs as much as possible. Here for example are a 1922 design for a cup and saucer by Rodchenko, and a 1923 costume design by Popova:

       

In both drawings, there is hardly any sense of the volume of the object, much less the way it will sit in the hand or drape over the body. Notice for example the development of the teacup base using a perfect triangle that, in actuality, would curve up the side of the form; or Popova’s use of similar equilateral triangles to join the legs of her design, which would be distorted if the outfit were worn. And unlike their paintings from about five years earlier, the drawings themselves are made to look as uninflected as possible, like they were produced automatically. Partly this was to imply that their approach to design was egalitarian. Their own skill in rendering the object was beside the point; it could only detract from the democratic re-invention of everyday life.

Yet both artists seem to have struggled with this tension between an ideal, unachievable form and the qualities of real, crafted objects. Here are two more of their costume designs from this period – a threatrical costume by Rodchenko on the left, a dress made from custom-printed fabric by Popova on the right.

                    

I’m fascinated by the attempt to integrate a pure language of abstraction (the red square in the Rodchenko, especially) with such true-to-life details as the bunching of fabric. It’s as if they are trying to persuade you that perfection  really can enter your life, if only you give it a chance.

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