Museum Proper: The Cemetary Gates





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In 1928, Alexander Rodchenko wrote a manifesto titled "Against the Synthetic Portrait, For the Snapshot" in which he argued that while painting tries to capture one true image of a subject, photography, in its documentary objectivity, tries to give only one image that when combined with a "file of photographs" as well as books, notes and other artifacts, may give some synthesis. Rodchenko believed that photography would prevent a cult of the personality: "there is a file of photographs, and this file of snapshots allows no one to idealize or falsify Lenin." Photography is a witness against falsehood, not a co-conspirator.

The exhibit that opened this week at the Berkeley Art Museum of Rodchenko's photography gives the lie to that belief twice over, and that is, partly, the point. First of all, Rodchenko used his photography for propaganda purposes to support the Soviet Union and hide its policy of forced labor (more on this later).

Secondly, Rodchenko's most innovative and interesting work was not his photography, but his graphic design and montage work for advertisements and movie posters. This, along with his abundant painting and interior design work, is mostly absent here. This leaves a less-than-complete picture of probably the most influential Russian avant-garde visual artist of the Revolutionary period (a group that also includes the painter Kazimir Malevich, the filmmaker Dziga Vertov, the graphic artist El Lissitzky and Rodchenko's wife, the painter and designer Varvara Stepanova).

The exhibit, which has prints of most of Rodchenko's best photographs, also has several that are either really too small to look at, or simply uninteresting. Many of the most interesting photos show Rodchenko's attempts to find a new angle from which to look at the world.

Rodchenko angled his camera sharply up or down, taking photos of common subjects (a building, a tree, a person) and distorting them to make them new. Good examples of this are "Fire Escape" and "Pioneer with a Trumpet," both shot from below. "Dive" is an amazing photograph of a diver flipping in the air. As in his friend Vertov's film "Man With a Movie Camera," Rodchenko shows an experimenter's absorption with film as a new medium and reflects the Soviet fascination with technology and athletes.

More traditional portraits of his circle bring out both Rodchenko's visual style and a sense of humor. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Rodchenko's frequent subject and collaborator, stares at the camera in turn with threatening and amused looks, and Rodchenko's camera captures his mother, wife and daughter lovingly.

Rodchenko began experimenting in photography in 1923, first for photomontage illustrations, and then as a medium itself. Rodchenko helped start a movement known as Constructivism, which sought to bring art into life to help build Communism. Rodchenko strove to be useful: He and Mayakovsky created advertisements for state-owned stores, and he designed book and magazine covers, posters, furniture. He even built a model workers' club for an international exhibition. Moveable parts fascinated him (it's typical that his layout for a special issue of the magazine "USSR in Construction" included a pop-up parachute and, on the same page, a fold out section that reads "Next: land").

At some point, this eagerness to help the cause led Rodchenko to cross a line into criminal collaboration. In 1933, Rodchenko accepted a commission to photograph the Belomor (White Sea) Canal for the "USSR in Construction" issue. The canal, like Moscow State University and the Moscow Metro, was being built with prison labor. This willingness to whitewash the Belomor project causes some to think less of Rodchenko's art, although it's unclear whether he had much choice in the matter. Perhaps for this reason, Rodchenko is less popular in Russia-where the pre-Revolutionary museums are full, but the halls that showcase art of the 20th century are empty or closed-than in America, where the question is more academic.

The dilemma for anyone judging Rodchenko's photography is coming to terms with what's not in the frame. It is difficult, seeing the photographs of Moscow and Rodchenko's circle, not to view this show as documentary, the photographs seen as evidence of a particular time and place. But we resist. One lesson Rodchenko teaches us is that photography is not always true.

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