‘Alfred Barr made us pull out all the old junk’
Source:the art newspaper Author:Anna Savitskaya Date: 2014-11-26 Size:
Rodchenko and Stepanova’s grandson gives an insider’s insight into the lives of the Russian avant-garde artists

“At Home with Rodchenko and Stepanova” opens at the Pushkin Museum, Moscow

As a show on the work of Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanovaopens at the Pushkin Museum on 26 November, our sister paper The Art Newspaper Russia speaks to the couple’s grandson, Alexander Lavrentiev.

Lavrentiev, born in Moscow in 1954, is an art historian and graphic designer. In 1976, he graduated from the Stroganov Moscow Higher School of Art and Industry. He has published numerous books on the history of design and photography in Russia, and the works of Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. He teaches at the Stroganov Moscow State Art and Industry Academy and the Alexander Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia.

The Art Newspaper: The Department of Private Collections at the Pushkin Museum owns the estate of Rodchenko and Stepanova, donated by your mother Varvara Rodchenko (the daughter of the artists) and you in 1992. Why did you choose this new department and not, for example, the Tretyakov Gallery?

Alexander Lavrentiev: In 1991, for the 100th anniversary of Rodchenko’s birth, two exhibitions were held in close succession: one at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna and the other at the Pushkin Museum. It was also the time when Irina Antonova started gathering works for the Department of Private Collections. So we decided it was a good time to ensure a place in it.

What did you donate to the Pushkin?

The collection includes more than 600 works and spans their entire careers. It represents the whole spectrum of their activities: painting, original and printed graphics, works for the theatre, posters, industrial design, collages, photographs, and installations.

The museum is doing a detailed inventory of the collection. How is this being done?

Rodchenko had a numbering system for his works and those of Stepanova. These serial numbers are always included in exhibition catalogues, but no one really pays attention to them. Now, in the catalogue for the Pushkin show, we used his numbering system to order the works chronologically. It is very interesting to see how carefully Rodchenko treated his works; he was a very organised artist in this sense. He believed that it was necessary to show not only successful, but also unsuccessful works. His registration system was crucial because it was a way of patenting his discoveries for him. In 1920, a Rodchenko exhibition was staged that followed his numbering system, and this is once again being done in the catalogue for this show.

Is it true that there is no catalogue raisonné for Rodchenko, one of the main figures of the Russian avant-garde?

There is no catalogue raisonné as such, but there are some informative books. The first and most complete at the time was by Herman Karginov, published in Hungary in the late 1970s. The book was published in several languages, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, French, and of course, English, but not in Russian. This edition made waves in the understanding of Rodchenko, because traditionally he had been regarded as a photographer, and only marginally as a…


No, nobody even considered his paintings. He was known as a photographer and a poster artist. But for Western art historians, Alfred Barr for example, the founder and the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, Rodchenko was a key figure in the Russian avant-garde. When Barr came to Moscow in 1928, he visited every Moscow artist he could find, including movie directors, because for him, Modern art was a conglomerate of different media. So it was important for him to meet Eisenstein and Meyerhold, Vesnin and Rodchenko. Another one of Barr’s aims was to date some of Rodchenko’s works because for the cover of his book Cubism and Modern Art he created a chart of all major artistic trends, all the “isms” of the early 20th century. So it was important to precisely chronicle the year when Constructivism was born, when a certain show had been held, etc. Barr saw Rodchenko as a hero of the non-objective past and published a number of his abstract spatial constructions and paintings in his book. Rodchenko then also donated some of his graphic works to MoMA. There is a funny entry in Stepanova’s diary about the American’s visit: “Barr made us pull out all the old junk. I thought these were the things no one wanted, these dusty canvases, I am absolutely not interested in this anymore,” because at that time, in 1928, “the soul is already filled with photography.”

At this point, painting was already behind him. But together with Barr he revisited his paintings, and corrected some of the facts in Barr’s book. For example, Barr had mentioned that Rodchenko had been a pupil of Malevich. But he had never in fact studied under Malevich; they were actually quite confrontational with each other. This is one of the remarkable aspects of the Russian avant-garde: foreign critics seem to always ask why Lissitzky didn’t have tea with Rodchenko. They think that all the avant-gardists treated each other very kindly. The answer is simple: each had his own team, and between them emotions ran high. Viktor Shklovsky put this well: “We were giving birth to a child, and we had to determine its sex and eye colour.” Every detail was therefore fundamental.

After 1930 Rodchenko almost completely dedicated himself to photography, but he also created his series of paintings “The Circus”. Why?

I think that he always needed to balance his work with pieces that he kept under wraps. The idea was to respond to changes in his perception of the world, some keep a diary for this purpose, and for Rodchenko these works were a kind of artistic diary. Though he wasn’t familiar with what was going on in America or Europe, this series is often compared with the works by Jean Arp. But Arp used collage and flat shapes, while Rodchenko’s figures were more constructive and voluminous.

It is surprising that Rodchenko is so famous and so explored, but no one has ever dealt with the reconstruction of his lost and damaged works.

I think the time will come. Perhaps now is the moment when he can really be understood as an artist, photographer and especially designer. When I started teaching 20 years ago, and showed some projects by Rodchenko, my students were slightly puzzled: “What’s that?” they would say. They seemed to be ugly, too simple. But now it appears to me the new generation understands that with all their brutality these works have a strong artistic idea. They understand that based on this material they could create something themselves.

[Editor] 古洋