Red and black and spread all over

The new and improved design language of Constructivists Rodchenko and Stepanova

by Mark Thompson

The avant-garde generally gravitates toward absolutes; you’re either with them or against them. But how often in history has progressive art been created in service of the state’s one-size-fits-all ideology? Not many, and perhaps the best-known example is the group that appeared in a brief window of time between Old World czars and the iron fist of Josef Stalin: the Russian Constructivists.

Flourishing for more than a decade in the wake of the 1917 October revolution, they were part of the larger bonfire of European Modernism. Instead of springing out of elitist manifestos written in smoke-filled salons, though, this group of forward-looking artists saw themselves as being at one with the masses, creating for the working people and the state. As leading Constructivist Vladmir Tatlin once said, their goal must be to take “Art into Life.”

The current exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum in Meguro, “Aleksandr Rodchenko & Varvara Stepanova: Visions of Constructivism,” focuses on two major artists, who were married to each other as well as to this extremely influential movement. First meeting in 1913 at art school in Odessa, Rodchenko and Stepanova created an expansive oeuvre, both together and independently, that encompassed painting, sculpture, drawings, photography, cinema, as well as designs for stage, fashion and advertising.

In denouncing links with the past and declaring the need for a new means of expression, the Constructivists were stealing a page from the neighboring Futurists. The Russian artists, however, weren’t merely embracing progress for its own sake or, Lenin forbid, endorsing anarchy. They saw themselves marching alongside the proletariats toward a common society-enriching goal. They took different approaches and utilized all forms of media, but there was clear solidarity in their fundamental concepts.

The Teien show kicks off with Rodchenko and Stepanova’s early paintings and drawings, which show an affinity for Modernism role models of the time. Both artists dabbled in CubuFuturism, a Russian blend of the most radical art that Europe could offer. In Stepanova’s “Three Figures, Musicians No. 23″ she abstracts a band into dynamic lines and vibrantly colored planes. Think Kandinsky and Picasso meeting for espresso.

The next room, however, shows both artists, Rodchenko in particular, painting closer to ground zero. Armed with a ruler and a compass, Rodchenko took art to its most basic elements — first by repeating lines that built shape and depth, then boiling it all down to pure color and shape. On the back wall hangs Rodchenko’s trio of “pure” color paintings in yellow, red and blue. At their unveiling for the notorious “5 x 5 = 25″ show in Moscow, 1921, Rodchenko announced the death of painting. While not as infamous as Marchel Duchamp’s urinal or Andy Warhol’s soup cans, these works nevertheless stand as a testament to self-assured bravado.

And that’s when the party really got started. As Mother Russia transitioned to the USSR, the Constructivists started to harness raw design power and jettison dramatic brushstrokes, sentimental representation and romantic titles. For “Construction No. 127 (Two Circles),” Rodchenko painted a large and small circle intersecting on a black background. Its flatness morphs toward three-dimensionality, and in its “my kid could paint that!” simplicity it is deceptively potent.

Having binned his paintbrushes, Rodchenko picked up the tools — scissors, glue, ink and camera — of more accessible media. Using arresting compositions, bold typography and subtle wit, he churned out collages, posters, book covers and advertisements for state- supported institutions and companies. He probably never imagined his ads for baby pacifiers, rubber products and cheap bread would hang in a museum in Tokyo, but his innovations reverberated through art and design — Bauhaus, Op Art and Pop Art — and inspired graphic designers such as Neville Brody as well as the cover art of bands such as Kraftwerk, The Ex and Franz Ferdinand.

Rodchenko lucked out by being around when the new Leica cameras became available. The portable and versatile 35 mm camera allowed him to superimpose his finely tuned aesthetics on life in Moscow and to shoot from heretofore impossible angles — straight up, from beneath the chin of parade bugler, or down from above, capturing the skewed shadow of a man striding down the street. With the exception of a few portraits of friends and family, there’s a discernible distance between Rodchenko and his subjects. For the most part, people were props on his geometric stage. In this sense, for all his talk about empowering the common man, he didn’t appear to be that engaged by him.

Perhaps more than Rodchenko, Stepanova came closer to moving beyond studios and museums. Much of her work on display encompasses her designs for theater costumes, sportswear and workwear. Her textile designs, whose interplay between positive and negative space predated Op-Art by decades, actually made it into mass production.

The goals of the Constructivists ultimately proved to be too rigid to adapt to the changing times. As patriotic Social Realism became the rage, they were eventually cast aside. Communism needed more accessible agitprop, and, admittedly, Rodchenko’s signature work uniform appears a bit too Comme des Garcons, not enough Walmart.

In the end, utopias never go as planned. Allowed only to photograph athletic events and circuses, Rodchenko still worked the angles, but obviously the thrill was gone. He even double-backed, found his neglected brushes and did a bit of painting. Until their deaths in the 1950s, Rodchenko and Stepanova stayed behind the scenes, working on publications and posters.

The Teien show’s curator hasn’t done much to document the creative relationship between the two artists, but with visions as consistent as these, you can still connect the dots. Rodchenko and Stepanova would probably approve of the gift shop, which predictably sells postcards, magnets and eco bags emblazoned with the artists’ designs. By buying a utilitarian eco bag, you’ll be taking still-relevant art into life. Power to the retro-chic capitalist!

“Aleksandr Rodchenko & Varvara Stepanova” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs till June 20; admission ¥1,100; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed monthly on 2nd and 4th Wed. For more information, visit www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp