Rodchenko: power and fear

The Rodchenko exhibition at the Hayward was, for me, a revelation. The posters for the show featured his familiar photomontages, referenced by everyone from Peter Blake to Franz Ferdinand:

There were also his wonderful (and often bonkers) propaganda photographs, celebrating sturdy, patriotic Soviet youth at work, rest and perfectly choreographed play:

But what most caught my attention were his circus photographs, which were taken in 1940, when he was nearing the end of his career. By now Rodchenko was disillusioned and exhausted, his early idealism burnt out by the grim realities of Stalin’s Russia. He must also have worried that his own work as a propagandist had helped build the country he now lived in. As he wrote in 1943:

“Art is service of the people, but the people are being led goodness knows where. I want to lead the people to art, not use art to lead them somewhere … art must be separate from politics.”

Enhancing his beloved Leica with a softening Thambar lens, Rodchenko gives these photograph an aching, elegiac beauty. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, he captures both the glamour and the sadness of this world: the fragility behind the limelight. But I couldn’t help feeling that the former propagandist is saying something else here too. Look at this picture of the Rhine Wheel act:

On one level it’s a demonstration of extraordinary strength and power: muscle, electricity and steel. This is mastery of science, technology and gravity, all in one. But when you look close up, however, the performer’s eyes seem full of fear, of knowing she’s a heartbeat from disaster. Rodchenko isn’t only telling us about the circus; he’s telling us, just as passionately as ever, about Russia.

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