Photograph Exhibition Review: ‘Building the Revolution’ Soviet Art and Architecture Exhibition

Alexander Rodchenko's radio tower

Photograph Exhibition Review: ‘Building the Revolution’ Soviet Art and Architecture Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art, London.

 

When entering the ‘Building the Revolution’ exhibition the first thing that becomes obvious is that these photographs are about contrast, contrasting the modern photographs of Soviet architecture with vintage photos of the buildings while they were in construction, or being used for their original function and with drawings and art from the period, even the positioning of photographs as you walk around the gallery shows this contrast. However, rather than standing out as alien, the modern photos perfectly capture the spirit of constructivism and echo the ideas and images that have become iconic to the idea of this Soviet style of art.

Graham Clarke writes that the roots of Constructivism lay in the 1917 Russian Revolution and those who sought an art appropriate to the social and political ideals of this new order developed it. Following the revolution there was a period of intense design and work by artists such as Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin and El Lizzitsky who combined art, geometry and architecture. In amongst the photographs are littered drawings and paintings, which reflect this idea and demonstrate the styles and key features of the movement and provide comparison with the architecture photographed around them. The combination of the different mediums shows the unity of the movement, the many ways it was affected Russia in the 1920s and 1930s and how it permeated on many different levels. The main work of the exhibition, however, are photographs by the British architectural photographer Richard Pare, who made eight extensive trips between 1992 and 2002 to Russia to photograph the now derelict and forgotten buildings that had inspired a global art movement. The choice of photographic matter around the exhibition is itself an example of Constructivism, the buildings chosen to be photographed are those with a function, bakeries, textile buildings, college dormitories and political and government buildings.

The 1999 photo by Pare depicting the Moscow ‘Palace of the Press’ photographs the buildings curved balconies from below, photographing upwards and echoing the words and photographs of the artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko who stated in the 1920s “The most interesting angles of our times are from upwards below and from downwards up.”
Throughout the exhibition Pare deliberately mirrors these artists and photographers, the founders of the Constructivism and Bauhaus movements. The amazing photograph of the interior of the Radio Tower in Moscow, which takes an entire wall in the exhibition, is a spectacular example of this. Contrasted below the full wall photo are small photos from the 1920’s and 1930’s of the radio tower and its imposing frame against the skyline, but the photographs style mirrors perfectly the same photo that Rodchenko took of the tower. The photograph, which is one of the most beautiful and skilfully taken of the exhibition, experiments with angles and perspective, and combines the circular outer structure with the straight lines, distorting the perspective of the image, just as the work of Rodchenko in the 1920’s and 1930’s did.

Unknown Photographer 1930's Moscow Radio Tower

Richard Pare 1999 Moscow Radio Tower

Another technique that is mirrored from the work of the 1920’s and 1930s Constructivists is the use of shading that can be seen in the artwork surrounding the photographs, but also that can again be seen in the work of Rodchenko and Ed Lizzitsky. In the photograph of the Student Housing at the Textile Institute Dorm, for example, Pare uses the shadow from ramps to create a new shape and to add shading and detail to the stairway, distorting perspective slightly and changing the way the angle that the photograph has to be viewed from to still be seen as looking at a set of stairs.

That is not to suggest there is no originality to the photographs and that they are simply copying, as there is something unique about the buildings being captured in this style. The Soviet Constructivism movement was concerned with the relation between aesthetic form and socio-political function, yet in these photographs the buildings no longer have a function, they are derelict, forgotten and as in the photograph of the bakery and textile factory, showing beyond the ideas that the Constructivist photographers tried to capture in their photographs and shows the architecture when the function is removed. The original work was designed to document and provide art for what many of the artist believed would be a new utopia, but Richard Pare’s photographs show this idea in the state of many of the buildings are, ruined and forgotten.

Another spectacular set of photographs demonstrating the originality and captures the exhibitions aim of ‘contrast’ are the back and red photographs of Lenin’s mausoleum, one of the exterior and another photograph of the interior of the tomb. The photographs capture the Constructivist style of the building, with its straight lines and smooth reflective marble, but then also depict the emperor like decoration of the inner tomb, which stands decadent and beautifully intricate in contrast with the straight lines and angles of the buildings style. While this was done because of the huge respect to Lenin, seeing the styles next to one another shows the stark and smoothness of the Constructivist style and is a clever use of the contrasting photographs to further demonstrate the fascinating Russian style.

The exhibition is not just about displaying the architecture of the time but is about showing the ideals and styles that influenced it. Liz Wells writes of the Constructivist movement that it cannot be understood without the historical context, not just in the case of understanding the subject of the photographs but also to understand the artistic techniques employed. The ‘Soviet Art and Architecture’ exhibition understands this idea, it shows the context of Pare’s images by showing the photographs next to drawings and original photographs. It not only photographs the buildings, but it recaptures the spirit of constructivism that inspired the buildings being built. While a few pictures do seem to be very simple, the straight-line blocks of Lenin’s monument for example, these works are overshadowed by the beauty of the full wall photographs of the bakery and the textile factory and the interesting angles of the Radio Tower and Press palace. The grainy black and white photographs of the textile school dormitories echo the black and white photographs of Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and other artists who developed the Constructivist movement and the straight lines and angles next to the geometry inspired illustrations and building sketches show how important the ideas of constructivism were in inspiring art, photography and architecture.

References

Clarke, Graham, The Photograph (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) pp. 189 – 193

MoMA Alexander Rodchenko Collection <http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A4975&page_number=113&template_id=1&sort_order=1&gt; [accessed 11th January 2012]

Royal Academy of Art ‘Building the Revolution’
< http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/building-the-revolution/&gt; [accessed 18th December 2011]

Secher, Benjamin in The Telegraph ‘Alexander Rodchenko – A man who took life lying down’ (Feb 2008)  <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671028/Alexander-Rodchenko-A-man-who-took-life-lying-down.html&gt; [accessed 18th December 2011]

Wells, Liz (ed.) The Photography Reader (London & New York: Routledge, 2009) pp. 5

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