An Interview with Aleksandr Lavrentiev and Yekaterina Lavrentieva

26 May 2020


Alexandr Lavrentiev


Rustam Gabbasov


Xenia Plotnikova

 here are names that are in­cluded in the his­tory of art al­most auto­mat­ic­ally. They be­long. Rod­chen­ko and Stepan­ova are artists of this kind. In­deed, there would now – thanks to the ef­forts of their heirs and in­ter­es­ted schol­ars – hardly seem to be an un­ex­plored corner of their ex­ist­en­ce after the out­pour­ing of their let­ters and schol­arly art­icles and mem­oirs about them that began to be pub­lished in the late 1980s with the re­new­al of in­terest in the Rus­si­an av­ant-garde. Yet this con­ver­sa­tion with Aleksandr Lavren­tiev, schol­ar and pro­fess­or at the Strogan­ov Academy, of­fers a new angle on many ques­tions: Rod­chen­ko’s life be­fore the era of Con­struct­iv­ism, his role at VKhUTEM­AS, the Con­struct­iv­ist let­ter­ing al­most ob­scured by the paint­ings, his ac­claimed ad­vert­ising pro­jects un­der­taken in the 1920s. This in­ter­view is de­voted to these as­pects of Rod­chen­ko’s life and cre­at­iv­ity. Here I would like es­pe­cially to thank Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva, a teach­er and his­tor­i­an of graph­ic design and the daugh­ter of Aleksandr Lavren­tiev. Her par­ti­cip­a­tion in the con­ver­sa­tion and the dis­cov­er­ies in the fam­ily archives that she shared with me, as well as her staunch de­fense from the lectern at the Strogan­ov so that Aleksandr Nikolaevich might be left in peace for at least half an hour more for our con­ver­sa­tion, were in­stru­ment­al in the pre­par­a­tion of this text. — R. G.

I would like to talk a bit about Rod­chen­ko’s first years in Mo­scow, after his move from Kazan. Who was the biggest in­flu­en­ce on him at that time? How did he come 
to non-fig­ur­at­ive art?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: A look at Rod­chen­ko’s life shows that he was al­ways in­ter­es­ted in the mod­ern. He was in­ter­es­ted in the mu­sic and lit­er­at­ure of sym­bol­ism. His early draw­ings, for ex­ample, are very sug­gest­ive of Beard­s­ley, and that was no  ac­ci­dent. Like Vru­bel’s, the strokes in Rod­chen­ko’s pen­cil sketches mul­tiply, rather than end. As he searched for a whole­ness of con­tour,  his early line was nervous, broken. It seems to me that, once Rod­chen­ko had seen Beard­s­ley’s sketches, he un­der­stood that any mul­ti­pli­city could be brought to­geth­er as a unique graph­ic sign. That was his first dis­cov­ery. Fur­ther­more – and this is, of course, put­ting it simply – he brought the com­pass out of the work­shop. Every art-school stu­dent had a com­pass, of course; every­one stud­ied de­script­ive geo­metry and had drawn all kinds of dia­grams with all kinds of lines. It simply had not oc­curred to any­one to make art with this drafts­man’s tool.


The Egyp­tian Ball. A stu­dent so­cial at the Kazan Art School. 1912. Rod­chen­ko is third from left in the second row. The Rod­chen­ko fam­ily moved from St. Peters­burg to Kazan in 1902. Rod­chen­ko had com­pleted only four years at a par­ish school. Without a dip­loma at­test­ing the com­ple­tion of his sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion, Rod­chen­ko en­rolled as an aud­it­or at the Kazan Art School, widely known, though un­of­fi­cially, for its pre­par­a­tion of artists for pro­vin­cial theat­ers.

In 1914 Rod­chen­ko met Var­vara Stepan­ova, and they had a stormy ro­mance. When she had to leave Kazan be­fore fin­ish­ing her studies, they wrote to each oth­er. Rod­chen­ko’s let­ters of the peri­od are vir­tu­al re­ports on his artist­ic act­iv­it­ies. In one let­ter, he wrote: “I am do­ing something for which there is as yet no name.” He ima­gined that he was en­ter­ing some sort of de­mon-haunted un­der­world. It was at this time, I think, that he saw the mo­tifs of his non-fig­ur­at­ive work.


Алек­сандр Род­чен­ко. Сле­ва: жен­ская фи­гу­ра в ки­мо­но, 1912. Спра­ва: жен­ская фи­гу­ра, 1914.

Из за­пис­ной книж­ки, 30 июля 1912. Я устро­ил свою квар­ти­ру. По­ста­вил шкаф с кни­га­ми, тут мно­го сти­хов, тут Га­мар­ди, Стринд­берг, Уайльд. На сте­нах япон­ские эс­ки­зы, Ан­та в бе­лой ра­ме… Мой стол по­крыт свет­ло-зелё­ной бу­ма­гой, на нём раз­ло­же­ны ки­сти, ка­ран­да­ши, ма­сти­хи­ны, пу­зырь­ки, ко­роб­ки с крас­ка­ми, аль­бо­мы с ре­про­дук­ци­я­ми, с на­брос­ка­ми, жур­на­лы, ак­ва­рель, тем­пе­ра, за­пис­ные книж­ки, ка­та­ло­ги. Ав­то­пор­трет Вру­бе­ля, ми­ни­а­тю­ра ма­мы, брон­зо­вый мед­ведь, нож для бу­ма­ги с мель­хи­о­ро­вой руч­кой, кни­га чер­но­вая для сти­хов, на­по­ло­ви­ну ис­пи­сан­ная мо­ми по­чер­ком и за­пол­нен­ная ри­сун­ка­ми пе­ром.

In­cid­ent­ally, why does Stepan­ova al­ways refer to him as “Anti” in her let­ters? What’s it short for?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: At first she called him Leander Ognen­niy [Leander on Fire]; the monik­er turns up of­ten in the early let­ters, and Rod­chen­ko called her, po­et­ic­ally, Nag­uatta. Anti – that came about be­cause he was al­ways in op­pos­i­tion, against the world. He res­is­ted the usu­al judg­ments and opin­ions. At the same time, the nick­name hints at Anti Kit­aeva, whom he had been in love with at the art school.

The change from Leander Ognen­niy to Anti happened rather fast. Is there something deep­er in it? And is it cor­rect to say that mod­ern book design marked a sub­stan­tial break with the clas­sic­al tra­di­tion, at least with re­spect to cov­ers?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: For him, it seems to me, everything flows from his sense of vign­ette, not from book cov­ers or il­lus­tra­tions. The Rod­chen­ko vign­ette of those years was something twis­ted, un­real, like a snail shell. Even the fig­ure later be­comes a vign­ette for him, even an or­na­ment. Or­na­ment for Rod­chen­ko is something akin to a me­di­um; he made more dis­cov­er­ies in the world of or­na­ment than in il­lus­tra­tions or cov­ers. He was drawn to the rhythm of or­na­ment­a­tion: not de­script­ive but still nat­ur­al.


A vign­ette by Aleksandr Rod­chen­ko (No. 1, 1914), and vign­ettes from journ­als of the art-mo­d­erne peri­od: 2 – Ko­lo­man Mozer (Ver Sac­rum, No. 4, 1899); 3 – Ernst Wal­ter (PAN, No. 4, 1897); 4 – Pavel Kuznet­sov (Vesyi, No. 12, 1906); 5 – Otto Eck­mann (PAN, No. 3, 1895).

Europe saw a boom in art journ­als be­gin­ning in the mid-1890s. Most of these art-mo­d­erne peri­od­ic­als ori­gin­ated in the cul­tur­al cen­ters of vari­ous prin­cip­al­it­ies of Ger­many (from Ber­lin, PAN and Die In­sel; from Mu­nich, Ju­gend and Sim­pli­cis­simus; from Darm­stadt, Deutsche Kunst and Dekor­a­tion); to these should be ad­ded Ver Sac­rum (Vi­enna) and, of course, Peters­burg’s Vesyi and Mir Iskusstva and Mo­scow’s Apol­lon. Among their typ­ic­ally art-nou­veau il­lus­tra­tions and ty­po­graphy, there are ex­amples, too, of vign­ettes, a par­tic­u­larly clear sym­bol of the re­jec­tion of the aca­dem­ic. Some of the vign­ettes are drawn al­most real­ist­ic­ally (as, for ex­ample, those by Otto Eck­mann and Ernst Wal­ter), while oth­ers are dy­nam­ic­ally ab­stract forms. While the vign­ettes fea­ture mo­d­erne’s usu­al curving lines and sug­ges­tions of ve­get­a­tion, the tiny ob­jects are clearly mov­ing to­ward a kind of “Con­struct­iv­ist mo­d­erne” graph­ic style, a stone’s throw from pure Con­struct­iv­ism.

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: Here we should men­tion Henri van de Velde and his cov­er for a book of poems by the Bel­gi­an sym­bol­ist poet Max El­skamp, or the fam­ous poster for Tro­pon, the maker of food con­cen­trates. The cov­er in­cludes an ab­stract draw­ing, and it was done long be­fore Kand­in­sky, for ex­ample. It’s not even an or­na­ment, in the sense of Al­phonse Mucha, for ex­ample, but a sub­stance with its own atom­ic particles. And with these atom­ic particles he pro­poses to con­struct com­pletely “real­ist­ic” ele­ments and, for ex­ample, let­ter­ing for journ­als. Wal­ter Crane, a mem­ber of the Arts and Crafts move­ment, a book de­sign­er and re­search­er, came close to do­ing something very sim­il­ar. His book, Line and Form, in­cludes an il­lus­tra­tion in which he shows that all ex­ist­ing or­na­ments de­vel­op from the ba­sic geo­met­ric­al forms of circle and square. Or, when viewed from top to bot­tom, how all de­script­ive forms, no mat­ter how com­plex, can in the end be re­duced to those two ba­sic ele­ments. That il­lus­tra­tion stunned me when I first saw it, if only for its unique­ness. Everything else in Crane’s book was in the tra­di­tion­al mode of how-to books for artists.

Per­haps we make a mis­take in think­ing of the ab­stract me­an­der­ing or­na­ment and the sol­id Con­struct­iv­ist line as op­pos­ites. After all, Rod­chen­ko, Stepan­ova and Gan might have looked at these things on pa­per as or­na­ment­a­tion, though in ex­tremely sim­pli­fied form, as if col­lapsed to the min­im­ally ex­press­ive form.

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: But let’s not for­get struc­ture. Or­na­ment usu­ally hides struc­ture: for ex­ample, a build­ing’s façade con­ceal­ing the line of a bal­cony. Or­na­ment func­tions sim­il­arly on a book cov­er; it ob­scures the body of the book. But Con­struct­iv­ist lines, to the con­trary, bring out the struc­ture. For Rod­chen­ko it was im­port­ant to cla­ri­fy the space by means of the graph­ic.

You men­tioned Kand­in­sky. Why, in the end, did he and Rod­chen­ko part ways in­tel­lec­tu­ally?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: I rather like the ex­plan­a­tion from the art his­tor­i­an, who said the young­sters were crowding poor Kand­in­sky in his own home, play­ing on the pi­ano when the own­ers were out, and so they quarreled. In fact, Stepan­ova’s di­ar­ies tell us that they were very close and con­sid­er­ate to­ward each oth­er; the cook was even in­struc­ted to meet every re­quest from the neigh­bors up­stairs. The first meet­ings of INKhUK [In­sti­tu­te of Art Cul­ture] were held there, at Kand­in­sky’s. The in­sti­tu­te was his darling, and he wrote its ori­gin­al pro­gram­mat­ic state­ment. The meet­ings there were thor­oughly aca­dem­ic: a theme would be set, and des­ig­nated mem­bers would come with pre­pared re­ports.   Kand­in­sky had the idea at the time that, if you could de­scribe and sys­tem­at­ize all the ele­ments of every type of art, it would be pos­sible to use them for some kind of a new, syn­thet­ic art.


Aleksandr Rod­chen­ko and Var­vara Stepan­ova as wan­der­ing mu­si­cians. The pho­to­graph was made in the home of V. V. Kand­in­sky. 1920. Stepan­ova and Rod­chen­ko lived for about a year in Kand­in­sky’s home at 8 Dol­giy Al­ley (now Bur­den­ko St.) in Mo­scow. The Mu­seum of the Picto­tial Cul­ture opened in 1920 in Mo­scow. Rod­chen­ko headed the mu­seum staff, with Stepan­ova as aide. Vas­ily Kand­in­sky was the mu­seum’s first dir­ect­or (1919–1920).

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: If I may try in a very simple way to for­mu­late the mo­ment: Kand­in­sky held that all the visu­al arts spring from mu­sic and dance (hence his later the­at­ric­al-pictori­al ex­per­i­ments, Zheltiy Zvuk [Yel­low Sound], Kartinki s Vys­tavki [Pic­tures at an Ex­hib­i­tion]), while for Rod­chen­ko, as for all the Con­struct­iv­ists, primacy be­longed to sculp­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture. It was emo­tion versus the ul­ti­mately tact­ile, con­struct­ive, ma­ter­i­al, con­sciously or­gan­ized pro­ject. 

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: Kand­in­sky’s start­ing point was his emo­tion­al un­der­stand­ing of art, but the young­sters, the new grass (Rod­chen­ko, Pop­ova, Stepan­ova,) needed a meth­od, not mere  de­scrip­tions. They wanted ex­act for­mu­la­tions for what they were do­ing. This was the root of Kand­in­sky and Rod­chen­ko’s fail­ure to un­der­stand each oth­er. And this was ap­prox­im­ately when Stepan­ova and Rod­chen­ko left. Stepan­ova’s di­ar­ies col­or­fully de­scribe what happened: how much they had hoped to get from liv­ing to­geth­er and how dis­sat­is­fac­tion grew and led to the break.

But they had so much in com­mon at first, right? The in­terest in mu­sic, in the new paint­ing?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: That is so. Rod­chen­ko and Stepan­ova were in rap­tures over Kand­in­sky’s de­scrip­tion of the Schoen­berg con­cert. They were struck by the fact that the idea of the mu­sic that was go­ing to be heard was ex­plained be­fore the con­cert began. This was a strategy that they found very at­tract­ive for them­selves: their art needed ex­plan­a­tion. This was ex­actly when Rod­chen­ko wrote his first con­cep­tu­al texts: “Line” “It’s All — Ex­per­i­ments,” oth­ers. He took it as a mod­el: if there was a new dir­ec­tion, a new form, it had to be ex­plained, be­gin­ning with how the cre­at­or un­der­stood it. In­so­far as every artist would have his own un­der­stand­ing of his cre­ations, the res­ult would be a his­tory of the arts as seen by the cre­at­ors. Rod­chen­ko un­der­stood everything in a lin­ear way, in strict lo­gic­al terms, al­though he con­ceded that he really didn’t know why he did so. He re­cog­nized that there are al­ways ir­ra­tion­al and in­ex­plic­able ele­ments in art.

How did Rod­chen­ko un­der­stand line at this time?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: Line had sev­er­al key as­pects for him. First, line as in­tern­al ax­is. Rod­chen­ko taught his stu­dents at VKhUTEM­AS [High­er Art and Tech­nic­al Stu­di­os] to see line as the dom­in­ant in­tern­al ele­ment, the in­vis­ible lead­er. The com­bin­a­tion of lead­ers defined the com­pos­i­tion. Second, line as the gen­er­al com­pos­i­tion­al scheme along which the in­tern­al ele­ments are situ­ated. And, third, line-as-out­line, line as the tech­nic­al side of draw­ing. “Line is the bind­ing, the com­bin­a­tion, the sep­ar­at­ing out,” he wrote in the texts where he ex­plained “lineism”, his term, not just as a move­ment in art but as a world-view.

Did he ap­ply his prin­ciples in ap­prox­im­ately the same way to his ty­po­graphy, paint­ing, ar­chi­tec­ture and pho­to­graphy?

Yes, they con­sti­tu­ted a kind of over­arch­ing prin­ciple. When he writes, “today we don’t have cov­er pho­to­graphs,” he has in mind ver­tic­al pho­to­graphs, com­pos­i­tion­ally strict.

Was the course work for Graph­ic Con­struc­tion on Plane, which as part of VKhUTEM­AS’s Pre­lim­in­ary Course, also dic­tated by these struc­tur­al ideas?

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: Yes. Moreover, in the ex­amples that Rod­chen­ko showed to his stu­dents (which in­cluded ex­amples of work deemed un­sat­is­fact­ory), the sur­face seems to open tele­scop­ic­ally in­ward; it feels like work in three di­men­sions. 

How did the stu­dents re­spond to the as­sign­ments? 

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: We have the very de­tailed re­col­lec­tions of Ana­stas­ia Akh­tyrko about her train­ing at VKhUTEM­AS un­der Rod­chen­ko. Writ­ing very much later, around 1965, she shared in one of her let­ters her con­sterna­tion that their youth had kept them from un­der­stand­ing the de­gree to which Rod­chen­ko’s as­sign­ments were use­ful and how ap­plic­able they were as a uni­ver­sal meth­od. Es­sen­tially, he was shar­ing his artist­ic sys­tem, lay­ing it out in terms of its sep­ar­ate com­pon­ents.

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: Yes, and it’s also worth re­mem­ber­ing Za­khaar Bykov, an­oth­er of Aleksandr Rod­chen­ko’s fa­vor­ite stu­dents. Many left for oth­er de­part­ments and some dropped out al­to­geth­er, like the Chichagova sis­ters.


Aleksandr Rod­chen­ko. Stage still-life. 1924.

How did this train­ing sys­tem dif­fer from the train­ing in the First and Second Free State Art Studios and, look­ing fur­ther back, from the work at the Strogan­ov school?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: Be­fore the re­volu­tion, geo­met­ric work (work with circle, square and tri­angle, to sim­pli­fy) was done mostly in draw­ing classes; that’s where as­sign­ments were giv­en in ba­sic com­bin­at­or­ics. The closest thing to ana­lyt­ic art was Vru­bel’s class, and it didn’t last long. They styl­ized flowers and plants, trans­form­ing them in­to or­na­ment. The stu­dents were re­quired to find the pre­cisely right con­tour, dis­cov­er the right com­bin­a­tion of fig­ures.

These schem­at­ics are a little re­min­is­cent of Rod­chen­ko paint­ings: which have their angle, zig­zag, even di­ag­on­al. He be­lieved that the power of his paint­ings lay in their com­pos­i­tion­al schemes. Malevich, through the square, con­veyed an un­der­stand­ing of form in gen­er­al, but Rod­chen­ko showed that every com­pos­i­tion has an in­tern­al car­cass, and that if this is brought out, the com­pos­i­tion and the work gen­er­ally gain. In any case, the ap­proach means that every work is dis­tinct­ive. This is evid­ent if you look at ex­amples of work by Rod­chen­ko him­self – line up his pho­to­graphs, book cov­ers and even the smal­lest of his little ac­ci­dents. Each work has its own rig­or­ous scheme, which keeps it dis­tinct from any­thing sim­il­ar nearby. Rod­chen­ko was al­ways after a visu­ally con­cen­trated idea, not merely ab­stract geo­metry.

So Rod­chen­ko was pre­par­ing stu­dents to be­come pro­fes­sion­al graph­ic de­sign­ers in the con­tem­por­ary sense? Today one can count on the fin­gers of one hand the de­sign­ers who have their own meth­ods to find the right im­age. Rod­chen­ko offered such a meth­od: how to avoid crash­ing in the first stage of work and, con­se­quently, not wast­ing time.

Yes, it offered a key to or­gan­iz­ing one’s ma­ter­i­al. The name of one of his courses – Ini­ti­at­ive – im­plied three levels: first, the ini­ti­at­ive of the artist; second, the ini­ti­at­ive of each of the com­pos­i­tion­al ele­ments, and, third, the ini­ti­at­ive of the gen­er­al com­pos­i­tion.

How did the course help stu­dents in their train­ing in the elect­ives they chose after the Pre­lim­in­are Course?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: Un­for­tu­nately, al­most not at all; after all, Rod­chen­ko’s lead­er­ship of the Ba­sic pro­gram las­ted only a year, per­haps a year and a half. Aca­dem­ic draw­ing was later in­tro­duced. The ar­chi­tec­ture fac­ulty had its own sys­tem, which in­cluded graph­ic ex­er­cises. Sculp­ture was sim­il­ar – Babichev would set his own tasks (“in­cisions”). The only one who might have drawn on something from the Rod­chen­ko course was Klut­sis. 

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: Klut­sis’ pho­tomont­ages are worth not­ing; they have a spe­cial as­sert­ive­ness and a geo­met­ric­al skel­et­on that sup­ports the whole struc­ture. With Rod­chen­ko, it is as if he is do­ing the mont­age in a dif­fer­ent di­men­sion and has set him­self a dif­fer­ent task. Klut­sis ap­proaches the task more from an ar­chi­tec­tur­al stand­point.   Over­all, stu­dent at­ti­tudes to the ba­sic dis­cip­lines was quite spe­cial. They put on an en­tire show, “The Trail of VKhUTEM­AS or Vkhutem­askites and Their Tor­ments,” with eight cos­tumes for the eight dis­cip­lines.

Khan-Magomedov in his mono­graph about VKhUTEM­AS em­phas­izes that the lead­er­ship tried more than once to re­make the syl­labus so that the dis­cip­lines of the Ba­sic Course would more lo­gic­ally fit the elect­ive courses. Did Rod­chen­ko have any plans along these lines?

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: It wasn’t an easy thing to do. I have talked with people who spe­cial­ized in tex­tiles, and they rather skep­tic­ally re­called: well, yes, Rod­chen­ko came by, asked us to draw a loom set-up, a par­tic­u­lar mod­el with lots of threads and plaques, per­haps a jacquard. But why draw it, they com­plained, we already know it by heart! Of course, Rod­chen­ko wanted the tech­nic­al draw­ing for the de­sign­ers, and they, un­like the oth­er stu­dents, un­der­stood why it was needed. 

The most pop­u­lar courses at VKhUTEM­AS were the ones dir­ec­tly con­nec­ted to pro­fes­sions. For ex­ample, the course “Space” –  the train­ing in this dis­cip­line pro­duced many ar­chi­tects. On the oth­er hand, “Graph­ics” was not pop­u­lar be­cause it was not taught by the ty­po­graphy de­part­ment, where draw­ing and en­grav­ing were taught in their own way by Fa­vor­sky, Mit­urich, Bruni and oth­ers. They had their own teach­ing meth­ods.

The famed VKhUTEM­AS con­flict between left­ist artists and the teach­ers in Fa­vor­sky’s circle now looks quite para­dox­ic­al. After all, they were all seek­ing new im­ages, just by dif­fer­ent means. For ex­ample, for Fa­vor­sky the con­cep­tion of time was ex­tremely im­port­ant for his the­ory of com­pos­i­tion, where­as Rod­chen­ko was con­cerned about ques­tions of the or­gan­iz­a­tion of forms on the page. Why did they nev­er get to­geth­er, nev­er dis­cuss these things? This ap­plies to Lis­it­sky, too.

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: What Vikt­or Shk­lovsky said at an even­ing hon­or­ing the memory of Rod­chen­ko ex­plains a lot: “We were hav­ing a child, and we quarreled about what col­or the eyes would be, and wheth­er it would be a girl or boy and what pro­fes­sion the child would fol­low. But we were very happy.” At this point, we can’t know everything, and cer­tainly not why they didn’t vis­it each oth­er for tea. Lis­it­sky, for ex­ample, had his own team and his own tasks, and the same was true for Rod­chen­ko, and their paths crossed only when one needed the oth­er. For ex­ample, Lis­it­sky might be launch­ing a course in fur­niture design in the wood­work­ing de­part­ment and learn that Rod­chen­ko is plan­ning to take his own stu­dents on a trip to the zoo or to the post of­fice some­where, and he says: “Can I come along?” Or he be­gins se­lect­ing work for an ex­hib­i­tion in Stut­tgart and goes to Rod­chen­ko for pho­to­graphs and, at the same time, gives Rod­chen­ko some pho­to­graph­ic pa­per. Busi­ness con­tacts, noth­ing more.

It was im­port­ant for Lis­it­sky to be in the thick of things, at the cen­ter of whatever was go­ing on. He thought of him­self as an in­ter­na­tion­al fig­ure. How im­port­ant was that for Rod­chen­ko? And how did it hap­pen that Rod­chen­ko’s book wasn’t pub­lished in the fam­ous Bauhaus series of Bauhaus Books (Bauhaus­büch­er)?

Rod­chen­ko pre­pared everything for Tschich­old, but it didn’t work out. But Tschich­old did pub­lish everything in the journ­al Die Lit­er­ar­ische Welt, and that single pub­lic­a­tion was enough to make a name for Rod­chen­ko in the West. It’s in­ter­est­ing how little is some­times needed for a pro­fes­sion­al pub­lic to ap­pre­ci­ate and ac­cept a new artist.

What was Rod­chen­ko’s at­ti­tude to the West, gen­er­ally speak­ing? On the basis of let­ters from Par­is, one gets the im­pres­sion that his feel­ings were am­bigu­ous: on the one hand, he was in­spired by the tech­nic­al qual­ity of the man­u­fac­tured goods, and, on the oth­er, he was dis­turbed by the pan­der­ing to bour­geois tastes.

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: The idea of “things as friends and help­ers” was vir­tu­ally a Rod­chen­ko motto. He missed that in Par­is, where he found what he thought of as an in­dif­fer­en­ce to the hu­man en­vir­on­ment. The lan­guage bar­ri­er played a role in this. I re­cently came across a curi­ous fact that I had nev­er be­fore con­sidered. That very 1925 Par­is ex­hib­i­tion in­cluded an It­ali­an pa­vil­ion. Oddly, it showed, side by side, old-fash­ioned, totally un­sur­pris­ing tra­di­tion­al designs and the dis­plays of the fu­tur­ists. It is clear from pho­to­graphs that the fu­tur­ist cre­ations were, es­sen­tially, pro­to­types for the designs of the later Mem­ph­is group, which flour­ished in the 1980s. It would be in­ter­est­ing to know if Rod­chen­ko saw them and how he re­ac­ted. 

Aleksandr Lavren­tiev: On the oth­er hand, he surely did see and ap­pre­ci­ate the works by So­nia Delaunay. In one of his let­ters to Stepan­ova, he writes of the geo­met­ric fab­rics in Par­is [at the show], but “our people are afraid of everything and would it not be good to show them at your fact­ory.”

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: In think­ing about the fest­iv­al, Rod­chen­ko wrote many let­ters home from Par­is dur­ing his free time; in these he re­cor­ded all his visu­al im­pres­sions; the let­ters were a di­ary for him. In his hotel room, he set up a com­plete photo labor­at­ory; he took and de­ve­loped pho­to­graphs, took pic­tures of everything that in­ter­es­ted him – a street ad­vert­ise­ment, ob­jects, fur­niture. He was drawn to everything simple and func­tion­al; it’s no ac­ci­dent that there are fold­ing chairs from a park in one photo.

I would like to talk a little about Rod­chen­ko’s print designs. Why did the Con­struct­iv­ists so love to use block let­ters without serifs?

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: I have some thoughts on the mat­ter of block let­ter­ing. The artists of the 1920s did their sketches on graph pa­per; they liked the pre­pared di­vi­sions, which read­ily brought out struc­tures and the rules that gen­er­ated them. This was not face­less and amorph­ous stuff; it was pre­cisely or­gan­ized space. All that re­mained to do was to fill the boxes in a par­tic­u­lar way; moreover, all sorts of vari­ations were pos­sible. Which let­ter would dom­in­ate? Would there be an ar­row, a so-called pay-at­ten­tion sign? Such ac­cent-signs abound in Con­struct­iv­ist ty­po­graphy – Lis­it­sky re­ferred to this as the ar­tic­u­la­tion of the text. Each new vari­ant called for a dif­fer­ent kind of graph­ing. And then, too, it was very easy to en­large these sketches.

In the 5x5=25 ex­hib­i­tion, Rod­chen­ko showed a work called “Kletka” [Сage]. It has not been pre­served, but it was made up of lines that run through the sur­face from top to bot­tom and from right to left. It is as if he laid out in “Kletka” the fun­da­ment­als of the new art: there is line as a sep­ar­ate ele­ment, and then there is the struc­ture. It seems to me that this comes out of Rod­chen­ko’s nature, his char­ac­ter – he tried to fol­low lo­gic in everything, and he tried to ar­range him­self, make him­self dis­cip­lined in char­ac­ter. His sci­en­tif­ic-ex­per­i­ment­al ap­proach to cre­at­ing was not merely a res­ult of something in the air at the time, a fash­ion. Think of the posters for Mos­sel­prom – crazily verb­ose things. A con­tem­por­ary de­sign­er would play with it, ask for the text to be shortened, would add an im­age. Rod­chen­ko had to lay out the en­tire text in a sys­tem­at­ic way, bring out the main point, cre­ate a hier­archy – only thus could he work out a nor­mal re­la­tion­ship with the view­er.

Rod­chen­ko made many con­struc­tions of ele­ments of a single kind. Al­ex­an­der [Lavren­tiev, Yeka­ter­ina’s fath­er. – Ed­it­ors note] gave them a won­der­ful name – for­mu­las for fu­ture things. It seems to me that it is ne­ces­sary to look at these things to­geth­er with Rod­chen­ko’s block let­ter­ing.

Block let­ters for the Con­struct­iv­ists were def­in­itely not, all in all, a flat phe­no­men­on. One gets a sense of this in Rod­chen­ko’s work in cinema, more spe­cif­ic­ally, his sub­titles for Dziga Vertov’s news­reels. The thing is that we have be­come used to think­ing about the Con­struct­iv­ists’ stick fonts as something stat­ic, “typ­ic­al” of them. But the im­pres­sion grows that they saw stick fonts as part of their three-di­men­sion­al con­struc­tions, and they thought of such type as po­ten­tially three-di­men­sion­al. 

One news­reel showed del­eg­ates en­ter­ing an in­ter­na­tion­al meet­ing. Even with the best ideo­lo­gic­al pre­dis­pos­i­tion, this would be bor­ing to look at. Here Rod­chen­ko’s sub­titles serve as sep­ar­ate in­tro­duc­tions (like stand-alone titles on a sep­ar­ate page be­fore the start of a new sec­tion of a book) for each en­trance, and each of the head­ings is sym­bol­ic. It con­veys the con­crete char­ac­ter of each coun­try. To parse the sym­bol­ism is it­self in­ter­est­ing.

I found yet an­oth­er sur­pris­ing thing for my­self in the journ­al Kino-Phot, No. 5. In an art­icle about doc­u­ment­ary films and a bit about Rod­chen­ko’s sub­titles, there is a start­ling phrase: “Sign like an elec­tric­al cord, a wire through which the screen is nour­ished with glow­ing real­ity.” It oc­curred to me that such sub­titles were already be­ing thought of as ad­apt­able for ad­vert­ising. Of course, such ads didn’t yet ex­ist in Mo­scow, but the Con­struct­iv­ists knew about Broad­way. 

Yes, in the let­ters to Stepan­ova from Par­is, Rod­chen­ko does, in fact, men­tion ad­vert­ising in lights.

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: This in­volves a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship to text. It seems to me that, on this, Rod­chen­ko moved away from Lis­it­sky. El Lis­it­sky thinks in terms of books, he tries to present things as a series of pic­tures, one suc­ceed­ing an­oth­er, “self-speak­ing cre­ations.” With Rod­chen­ko we have a great many works with levels and im­pos­i­tions of one word on an­oth­er: for him, let­ter­ing was the equi­val­ent of de­tailed blue­prints for something with volume. Let it be that these things were nev­er made ma­ter­i­al in the news­reels in the planned an­im­ated form, but the sys­tem of move­ments ex­is­ted in them. The let­ters are of vary­ing heights; something can hap­pen in them; they hold, as it were secretly, a po­ten­tial dy­nam­ism. “Type is a three-di­men­sion­al con­struc­tion with­in a giv­en field.”

How did Rod­chen­ko re­act to changes in the cul­tur­al policies of the USSR, when it moved to so­cial­ist real­ism, while op­pos­ite pro­cesses were tak­ing place in book design, and once again dis­play serifs re­turned to book cov­ers, and pa­per­backs were re­placed by stamped cov­ers? Could he ad­apt him­self to this es­thet­ic?

Yeka­ter­ina Lavren­tieva: Rod­chen­ko’s notes from the post­war years are shot through with pess­im­ism. My grand­moth­er re­calls once ask­ing my moth­er: “Why is our papa so sad?” She took a breath and said: “Ima­gine a ma­chine that can do any­thing and stands idle.” Up to 1941 the move­ment was still alive, as was the idea that it was ne­ces­sary and de­sir­able. Fi­nally, there was the peri­od­ic­al, SSSR na stroike [USSR in Con­struc­tion], the last edi­tion of which Rod­chen­ko and Stepan­ova sub­mit­ted on June 21, 1941 (it was nev­er pub­lished for ob­vi­ous reas­ons). Every­one went in for pom­pos­ity in print­ing: Lis­it­sky, Ily­in, Telingater…

The end­less 1930s’ books of pho­to­graphs about the Mo­scow sub­way sys­tem, about avi­ation, they saw as very in­ter­est­ing pro­jects. We went through one of the pack­ets in the archive and found little books of this kind and sheets of pa­per fol­ded in half. This was a step-by-step scen­ario for a fu­ture pub­lic­a­tion, which sur­prised me in that it was not ac­com­pan­ied by any con­tent. How, after all, do we work now? We start from the ma­ter­i­al and con­sider what we are giv­en: what kind of text, what se­lec­tion of il­lus­tra­tions. Rod­chen­ko star­ted from the form­al­it­ies of com­pos­i­tion; that is, he drew the full-page spreads with his be­loved geo­met­ric forms. Only later would he lay out the text and oth­er ma­ter­i­als.

Then, Stepan­ova, like a dir­ect­or, would lit­er­ally cov­er the pages with writ­ing in the way that the ma­ter­i­al was to be de­ve­loped. At that stage, they already had in hand some pho­to­graphs. For ex­ample, the is­sue of USSR in Con­struc­tion de­voted to Kiev was put to­geth­er this way, with full em­phas­is on how read­ers would re­act to each por­tion of the pub­lic­a­tion. The es­thet­ic of the photo al­bums of the 1930s was largely based on cine­mat­ic and pho­to­graph­ic mont­age.

The 1950s was a dif­fi­cult time. Today we un­der­stand that Rod­chen­ko died just a few years be­fore his gen­er­al re­cog­ni­tion. I al­ways think of the film, The Cranes Are Fly­ing, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The cine­ma­to­graph­er for the film was Sergei Ur­u­sevskiy – a stu­dent of Rod­chen­ko. He be­lieved he was formed as a pro­fes­sion­al in the pho­to­graphy circles at VKhUTEM­AS, which were or­gan­ized in 1928–1929 by Rod­chen­ko. Cre­at­ive work for Rod­chen­ko and Stepan­ova was a means for im­prov­ing com­mu­nic­a­tion in the space in which they lived. And their in­flu­en­ce on the young­er gen­er­a­tion of artists was not just sig­ni­fic­ant. It was a sys­tem.

Literature (in Russian)

  1. Адаскина Н. Л. ВХУТЕМАС–ВХУТЕИН: Москва, 1920–1930 // Энциклопедия русского авангарда / Под ред. В. И. Ракитина и А. Д. Сарабьянова. — М.: Глобал Эксперт энд Сервис Тим, 2013.
  2. Лаврентьев А. Н. Роль Родченко в формировании пропедевтической дисциплины «Графика» во ВХУТЕМАСе // Художественные проблемы предметно-пространственной среды. — М., 1978.
  3. Лаврентьев А. Н. Пропедевтическая дисциплина «Графика». ВХУТЕМАС. 1920–1922 годы. // Техническая эстетика. — 1984. — №7. — С. 16–21.
  4. Лаврентьев А. Н. Школа прикладного искусства и дизайна на переломе. Подготовка рождения ВХУТЕМАСа // Материалы Всероссийской конференции, посвященной 100-летию образования Свободных государственных художественных мастерских (СГХМ) / Отв. ред. Есаулов. — М.: МГХПА им. С. Г. Строганова, 2018. С. 14–20.
  5. Лаврентьев А. Н. Лаборатория конструктивизма. — М.: Грантъ, 2000.
  6. Lavrentiev, A. Alexander Rodchenko. Book Series Heroes of Avant-garde. — M.: Sergey E. Gordeev, 2011.
  7. Малясова Г. В. Первые СГХМ в Москве 1918–1920: к истории формирования // Вестник CПГУТД, №3, 2013. С. 21–23.
  8. Ракитин В. И. Ахтырко Анастасия Ивановна // Энциклопедия русского авангарда. Изобразительное искусство. Архитектура: в 3 т. М.: Глобал энд Сервис Тим, 2013. Т. 1. С. 28.
  9. Родченко А. М. Опыты для будущего. — М.: Грантъ, 1996.
  10. А. М. Родченко. Статьи. Воспоминания. Автобиографические записки. Письма. Под ред. В. А. Родченко. — М.: Советский художник, 1982.
  11. Степанова В. Человек не может жить без чуда. — М.: Сфера, 1994.
  12. Хан-Магомедов С. О. ВХУТЕМАС. — М.: Ладья, 1995.

In the spring of 1914 Stepan­ova, not hav­ing gradu­ated from the Kazan Art School, went to Mo­scow to Dmitry Fy­o­dorov, to whom she was mar­ried after gradu­at­ing from high school. — Ed­it­or

In 1918 in the course of the first art edu­ca­tion re­form all art schools in Rus­sia were trans­formed in­to Free State Art Stu­di­os (SGKhM). In Mo­scow the First SGKhM was the former Im­per­i­al Cent­ral Art and In­dustry School (Strogan­ov School). The Second SGKhM used to be the Mo­scow School of Paint­ing, Sculp­ture and Ar­chi­tec­ture. In 1920 dur­ing the second re­form the First and Second Stu­di­os were merged. In doc­u­ments and pro­grams that new in­sti­tu­tion was of­ten re­ferred to as VGKhM. On Decem­ber 19, 1920 by the Sovn­arkom (So­viet of People’s Com­mis­sars) de­cree the form­a­tion of VKhUTEM­AS (High­er Art and Tech­nic­al Stu­di­os) was ap­proved.

See more: Al­ex­an­der N. Lavrentyev. Her­oes of Av­ant-Garde. Al­ex­an­der Rod­chen­ko. M.: Seregey E. Grodeev, 2011.