Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Constructivists at Tate Modern

Two Russian Constructivists, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova: the show ends this week, belatedly got there yesterday and now wish I had time to return for a longer look at some of the individual works.

Primarily painters, they were doing abstract works, including lovely drawings and linocuts, from the early days of the Revolution in 1917. What struck me in this exhibition, as in so many that show avant-garde artists who had theories, is what the captions and explanations never explain.

The blurbs – and the artists in the quotes – spell out is their ideas on what should go in a picture and what it should try to do in a technical sense: Rodchenko and Popova set out to be like engineers, ‘arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object’ (exhibition leaflet), banning representation, emphasising line over colour and texture. They talked about how lines meet, about how shapes interact with each other, how dynamism is created.

But for what? What was the whole enterprise for?

At one level it was to contribute to a new society, and in this respect the work seems heroic. Not only were their ways of working admirable (men and women were equally valued as artists; they contributed to the design of useful objects like textiles, packaging and buildings such as workers’ clubs), but one can imagine how important it would be in a revolution to promote a taste for new styles and a rejection of the hangovers of the earlier society as stuffy, reactionary and hideous.

But about straight works of art, especially paintings: what is a painting supposed to do when a viewer confronts it – or indeed when the painter is painting it? What is it that’s being made and what sort of happening is it that what is made induces?

In the absence of any clear answers from the artists (and the explanations of artists in general tend to be incoherent; I haven’t studied these two), we have the works to go by. My sense is that the pictures draw you into a parallel universe in which stuff goes on: relationships can be tracked, gentle transitions and abrupt changes happen, echoes and contrasts impress themselves. What for? No point in asking. These things exist; they are no more for anything than a tree is or a person’s unselfconscious smile or posture. They demand to be acknowledged as things that now exist and once didn’t and to be examined and explored like any other interesting and intricate thing that exists in the world. What’s especially mysterious about them is that they’re produced by deliberate human activity, yet their relationship to the person ‘behind’ them is unfathomable.

And in my theorising about art (and music), that’s as far as I can ever get. Ideas about expression, for instance, while relevant – there’s obviously something in them – never seem to explain the form taken by this work as opposed to works in general.

As for the experience of Rodchenko’s and Popova’s works? Abstract, striking, vigorous, exciting, intriguing and engaging to explore and get inside; and – I'm reduced to this – ravishingly beautiful.


Jen G said...

Pete, loved reading this - read it three times. Can I link to it from my blog?

Makes me think of many things - first, the paintings are beautiful, indescribably lovely; second, my own experiences with 'artist statement' type of writing; third, I enjoy your way of writing about art (and buildings, and books). What do I like about it? The way you report on your inner experience in a way that allows me to ride along on your viewing and thinking process.

Hope you don't mind this long comment.

Pete Medway said...

Thanks, Jen! I welcome the comment -- not really long! -- and would be happy if others felt like commenting too. Yes, I'd be honoured if you linked to it.

I suspect we're not alone in finding that the usual commentaries don't address our experiences and puzzlements in the face of art.