The defining feature of this issue of the magazine is the back cover, a full-page advertisement for Mosselprom by Aleksandr Rodchenko.
Rodchenko is the most widely known of all Russian avant-garde figures. Malevich is better known in painterly circles (or squares, perhaps…), Melnikov in the architectural discipline, Mayakovsky in poetry, El Lissitszky and Gan in theory, Eisenstein in film, Meyerhold in theatre and Klutsis in propaganda, but Rodchenko’s is the most identifiable and popular body of avant-garde work.
This was a ‘renaissance’ man. It may be strange to use this term to describe an artist whose prominence was due to the patronage of the Bolsheviks. There could hardly be a wider gap between the religious, class-based Europeans of the 15th and 16th centuries and the Russian revolutionaries. The connection and appropriate use of the term is due to the mastery of media of which Aleksandr Rodchenko disposed to such far-reaching effect. In graphic design, he was beyond compere in communication via visual impact. In photography, he was a trend-setter, employing unconventional perspectives. He possessed the talent and ability to translate movement into a still image, and so reanimate it for the viewer of the picture. In spatial and interior design he produced clean and functional layouts for institutions, places where the aesthetic of the furniture and space conspired towards the motivation of the individual contained therein, to reach the objective – construction. In photo-montage, collage, in painting, Rodchenko was an innovator. He had declared that art is dead and new directions must be followed. He was not afraid to lead the way.
Working for the State – the darkness
As with most of the leading cultural figures of the time, there was a sinister side to Rodchenko’s work. He was a major contributor to the international propaganda magazine, ‘USSR in Construction’. In 1933 he was commissioned to take photographs of one of the first grandiose projects of Soviet civil engineering – the digging of the White Sea Canal, linking the northern White Sea with the Baltic. The 227km waterway was completed in 20 months by the manual labour of around 125,000 GULAG prisoners. The ‘official’ figures, acknowledged by the government, record the deaths of 12,000 during the construction. That equates to about 20 fatalities per day. In her splendid book, ‘Gulag’, Anne Appelbaum states the real number was around twice that. Rodchenko photographed the canal and its workers. He used his skills in photo montage to heighten the sense of achievement of the construction of the canal. His work was then published in ‘USSR in Construction’ and sold around the world.
Rodchenko was in good company in this venture – the most celebrated of all Soviet writers, Maxim Gorky, had visited the Solovki labour camp in 1929 and wrote a book about it, entitled ‘Our Achievements’. For the White Sea canal, Gorki teamed up with Aleksei Tolstoy and others to form the ‘Writers’ Brigade’, which produced a large and sycophantic book called ‘The Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal’. The book was published in 1934 and then in 1937 every copy was withdrawn from sale and destroyed, because one of the chief ‘heroes’ of the book was Stalin’s head of secret police, G. Yagoda, who fell from grace in 1936 and was shot two years later. He was one of those condemned at the famous trial of ‘Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites’, the official account of which is here in our collection.