Sunday, 22 February 2009

Rodchenko & Popova at the Tate Modern

12 rooms of the Tate Modern have been taken over by the experimental Constructivists, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova. Each one expressing different fundamental properties of art and its place in new society. From 1917 to the 1920's, the Constructivists not only contributed to everyday life, but propelled Popova, one of the first females to be viewed as equal to her male counterparts, in to the spotlight.

The first room houses the artist's paintings that explore textures and the surface’s interaction with light. Rodchenko explores this most successfully with his ‘Black on Black’ series. Glossy and matt finishes of the paint subtly depict crescent shapes, which only become visible when the light reflects off the stippled surface. Popova took the idea further in to the realm of geometric shapes in her collection named ‘Painterly Architectonics’. The overlapping shapes are seemingly haphazard, but build up a painting that almost feels 3D.

Room two reveals new roles for the Constructivist’s art. Proving wrong the popular assumption that widespread design and architecture did not take place until the 1920’s, we see Rodchenko’s designs for an aircraft storehouse and lamp designs that could easily be mistaken for something out of the IKEA catalogue. The pair’s graphic works between 1917 and 1919 show Popova taking a softer approach with embroidery designs. However, the innovative artists still kept up with their painting, exploring more linear pieces with plenty of crosshatching to create a layered look. The muted primary colours are easy on the eye in comparison to the complex patterns chosen.

As you enter the third and fourth rooms, it is hard not to notice the almost mathematical appearance of Rodchenko’s work. By this I mean the stark geometric shapes in mild yellows and reds have been placed on the black page with delicate precision, rather than with a free flowing hand. He began to use rules and compasses, further blurring the line between artist and constructor. The result leaves your mind reminiscing of Spirograph. The artists favoured an impersonal approach to composition; they didn’t feel the need to express personality or feeling through their work. Popova's response to this was Space Force Constructions. Sharply cut shapes were brushed on to plywood using thick oil paint. The solidarity of the chosen surface contrasted with the scattering of sawdust over the top, creating a slightly softer appearance than Rodchenko's pieces.

As soon as I entered the first room of the exhibition, the works immediately seemed similar to that of Wassily Kandinsky. So, it was no surprise when room five was dedicated to Rodchenko and Popova’s response to his work.

It took until room six to witness what the Constructivists actually constructed in real three-dimensional sculptures, but fear not, it was wholly worth the wait. Several aluminium oval shaped frames have been interwoven with another and hung from the ceiling. The spectacle scrambles the brain as you attempt to work out just how it had all been pieced together, and so delicately. The other hanging structure in the Spatial Construction series is similar but uses square wooden frames, giving the sculpture a more severe appearance.

Room seven and eight displays the transition from graphic painting and designs to making art play a role in reality. The artists wave goodbye to abstract paintings and put their designs to good use. Sketches from Rodchenko reveal detailed chandeliers as Popova designs a series of banners.
I struggled to hold my attention in rooms nine and 10 as the artistic duo delved in to the world of advertising. Dominated by blues and reds, the posters were simple yet bland, with a lack of imagination seen previously in their graphic paintings. However, the small textiles corner caught my attention with fabric designs that could easily be seen on the high street now. The monochrome patterns reminiscent of Tetris are modern before their time.

In the mid to late 1920’s, both artists experimented with theatre and film. One of Rodchenko’s film projects, ‘The Female Journalist’ is displayed in room 11. The story makes fun of the bourgeois culture that sprung up from the New Economic Policy in Russia at the time. Popova also contributed to theatre but both artists considered the mediums as collaborative art, helping to reshape society.

Tired after the previous 11 rooms? Then take a seat in room 12: the workers club. But I warn you; it won’t be a comfortable one. The Tate have recreated Rodchenko’s design for the leisurely space, but have replaced leather loungers for, yes you’ve guessed it, geometric functionalism.

If there is one thing for certain, the Constructivists sure do give value for money. Rodchenko and Popova’s work spreads over such a wide range of mediums in such a short space of time. The message was clear with the added bonus of sexual equality.

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