Art Through Time: A Global View
Conflict and Resistance Art: Books!
The 1917 Russian Revolution overthrew the Czarist monarchy in favor of a collective, utopian Communist system.
This political shift was accompanied by dramatic changes in Russian art production. The kind of individual expression associated with fine arts came to seem bourgeois and incompatible with the lifestyle and values advocated by Communism. In response, a group of artists known as Constructivists set out to reconceive the role of art in society; they demystified it by establishing rigorous guidelines, renounced traditional media, and emphasized the notion of art in service of the proletariat.
Aleksandr Rodchenko was one of the leading artists in the post-revolutionary era. Although formally trained in painting and sculpture, he devoted himself to photography and graphic design. In this 1924 poster, Rodchenko combines the two media in an image that is mechanical and linear. The text, in big block letters, is clear and legible; no flourish of the artist’s hand is evident. The photograph of a woman who appears to be calling out the Russian word for “books” is Lilya Brik, a fellow member of the Constructivist circle. Her image has been manipulated and integrated into the bold design. The aesthetic of immediate communication exemplified by Rodchenko’s poster was characteristic of official Soviet art of the period and was in use not only for posters, but also for political journals, book covers, and other kinds of propaganda. Through images that were visually arresting and easily accessible, Rodchenko and his colleagues believed that they could best convey the messages of the Communist state to the masses.
Jane Ashton Sharp Associate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University
“The pre-revolutionary avant-garde experienced a tremendous sense of resistance to the Czarist state in the last years of the Russian Empire. So that when the revolution occurs, many of these artists are thrilled, elated, and view it as their mission to really join their forces in a way that had never existed previously—a kind of unity of leftist political fervor together with artists who had resisted all institutions of power prior to the revolution.
Rodchenko exhibited with the artists or students without a master, who became the ‘Society of Young Artists.’ That’s what they called themselves in 1920 and ’21 when they exhibited the works that we associate with Constructivism. These artists really desired a mass audience. That was the entire purpose, and to have viewers critically engaged in the process of looking at art and understanding art. The Constructivists in their production of these mass-distributed images could be really contained by the State.
It would have been very hard, I think, for someone like Rodchenko to oppose and have his work gain the kind of public visibility that it ultimately did gain if he had been resistant in some way.”
“Aleksandr Rodchenko (June 25–October 6, 1998).” In Exhibitions & The Collection. Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Web site. http://www.moma.org/explore/exhibitions.
Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Fer, Briony, et al. Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art between the Wars.New Haven and London: Yale University Press and The Open University, 1993.
Margolin, Victor. The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917–1946. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Tupitsyn, Margarita, ed. Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism. London: Tate Publishing, 2009.