The future is now

We can hardly imagine the world that created Aleksandr Mikhailovich Rodchenko. He was born into an almost medieval Russia, with donkey carts and carp fishing and serfs, and witnessed the super-violent birth of a modern country, with steel works and machine guns and mass death. This explosion of newness fuelled a new kind of radical politics that promised a better life for all. Rodchenko and his fellow artists sought a way of creating art that lived up to the irresistibly new world around them. Oil paint would not do, copying the masters would not do. What mattered now was happening in the streets; Vladimir Mayakovsky’s declared that now ‘the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes’. It soon became clear that abstract sculptures were not the best way to improve people’s lives, and Rodchenko was instrumental in reworking Constructivism as Productivism, which demanded direct participation in industry and the end of ‘art’. He exhibited his last pure artwork, The Last Painting, in 1922, and then formed a team with Mayakovsky to seek work as ‘advertising constructors’. Graphic design was born: the combination of words and images we all use. Borrowing from the mad paste-ups of the Dadaists, which mixed drawings, torn newspaper and handwriting, Rodchenko invented a controlled way of bringing together photographs, flat colour, abstract shapes and lettering to convey a clear message. A photograph enhanced by cropping, with words that spelled out exactly what you wanted to say, made more dynamic with bright colours and arrows, was something entirely fresh. The Hayward might call it ‘art’, but it is, in fact, all advertising – paid work, for clients. The image of a woman cupping her mouth, which seems to be the epitome of revolution, is actually an ad for a new bookshop.Alexander Rodchenko: Revolution in Photography is at the Hayward, Southbank Centre, London SE1, until 27 April

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