Friday, June 3, 2011

Rodchenko and Ai Weiwei in Photography Museum, Winterthur

What a stroke of genius by the Photography Museum Winterthur, Switzerland, to run two parallel exhibitions, "Alexander Rodchenko - Revolution in Photography" and "Ai Weiwei-Interlacing".

photo:paul doolan
The Russian constructivist Alexander Rodchenko needs little introduction, having taken photos that  became such icons of the Russian communist revolution, that many of them now grace history textbooks worldwide, like his famous portrait "Pioneer" from 1930.

Alexander RodtschenkoPioneer girl, 1930
Gelatin-silver print, Vintage print
56 x 43,1 cm
Moscow House of Photography Museum
© Rodchenko’s Archive / 2011, ProLitteris, Zürich

Rodchenko became the leading spokesperson for those Russian avant guarde artists who threw in their lot with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and put their art in the service of the great cause of creating a world of peace and justice. Of course we know it turned into a totalitarian nightmare, against which Ai Weiwei is now one of the most famous current victims.  When we view Rodchenko's early, optimistic works, we are forced to admire his craftsmanship and his ingenious originality, but we inevitably see this through eyes laced with irony. Who can read Rodchenko's words "The camera lens is the eye of civilized man in a socialist society."(1928), and not be struck by a sense of sadness, knowing that this was the year Stalin commenced the first Five-Year Plan. It seems quite heartbreaking to read "My creative path has not been easy, but it is clear to me who I was and what I want. I am certain that in the future I will make genuine Soviet works" (1935), knowing that the year marks the beginning of the Great Purges and that the near future will mean the dismemberment of Lenin's original party, the murder of millions and a gigantic war against Nazi Germany that will kill 20,000,000 Russians.

Alexander Rodchenko
Caricature Showing Osip Brik, variant of a cover for LEF Magazine, 1924
Gelatin-silver print
24,2 x 17,9 cm
Private collection
© Rodchenko’s Archive /
2011, ProLitteris, Zurich

The career of Rodchenko draws inevitable comparison with that of the ingenious Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein.  Both seemed to have been obsessed with montage in their early work, both are idealists who put their work in the service of bringing about a political revolution, and both become disillusioned by that same revolution towards the end of their lives.

Alexander RodchenkoGirl with a Leica, 1934
Gelatin-silver print, Vintage print
45 x 29,5 cm
Private collection
© Rodchenko’s Archive /
2011, ProLitteris, Zurich

Ai Weiwei is another politically motivated artist, one who lives with the consequences of the victory of communism.  But unlike Rodchenko, instead of supporting the communist state, he has used his photos and film, in all their wonderful quirkiness, to attack the absurdity and hubris of state power.  The cost has been huge.  As part of this exhibition Ai Weiwei was supposed to give a talk in Winterthur last week - but as we all know by now, China's most internationally famous artist has disappeared into the Chinese labryint of oppression, having been arrested on April 3rd.

His "June 1994" must surely bring a smile to most faces, with the contrast between, on the one hand, the officials in uniform and the man standing stiffly for a photo outside the Forbidden City with its image of Chairman Mao, and, on the other hand, the pretty woman who faces us and raises her dress to give us a glimpse of her knickers. As I said, the irreverence will bring a smile to most, but certainly a scowl from the members of the Party.
Ai WeiweiJune 1994, 1994
C-print, 117,5 x 152 cm
© Ai Weiwei

And, as if to make sure that the message does not get lost, here is an image from his series "Study of Perspective":

Ai WeiweiStudy of Perspective – Tiananmen, 1995-2010
C-print, 32,5 x 43,5 cm
© Ai Weiwei

The most impressive part of this exhibition is when one steps into a large room to be surrounded by dozens a large coloured prints called "Provisional Landscapes".  These cityscapes are in transition (Provisional) because of the Chinese government's scorch-earth policy towards its own past and present. In its myopic drive towards the future and modernization it is willing to destroy entire neighbourhoods, an easy thing to do when the state owns all of the land.

Ai WeiweiProvisional Landscapes, 2002-2008
Diptych, Inkjet-prints, each 66 x 84 cm
© Ai Weiwei

This disregard for the past is captured by Ai Weiwei's self-portrait triptych "Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn":
Ai Weiwei
Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn, 1995
Triptych, C-prints, each 150 x 166 cm

I must admit to a sense of unease as I walked around this exhibition yesterday with my family. Having soaked in the images, we had lunch in the museum's Restaurant George.  The children bought a few souvenirs of the day. It was a wonderful way to spend Ascension Thursday. The unease came from knowing that Ai Weiwei has not been able to enjoy this. It is an outrage that, instead, he languishes in an unknown prison in China.


  1. Hello:
    As you say, inspirational programming to run these two very powerful exhibitions concurrently since each one offers so much more to the other and the sum is greater than the two parts.

    We have known of Alexander Rodtschenko's work from David King's wonderful book, 'Red Star Over Russia'. Such powerful images and, so sadly, conveying a Utopia which could not and did not materialise.

    And, what, of Ai Weiwei we all ask. One can only hope that through his work and the millions of his supporters worldwide that his situation will be resolved peacefully.

  2. Let us hope so. Thanks a lot Jane and Lance.

  3. The exhibit with both artists is a stroke of genius. Together they underscore the ongoing presence of tyranny much more than either alone could do.

    On a lighter note, a close friend when in art school adopted the constructivist style with a passion. I could probably mount my own exhibition with the constructivist gifts I received during the course of his education!

  4. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for your (pardon the pun) constructive comment.

  5. Good morning and many thanks for your interesting explanations and touching pictures concerning Alexander Rodtschenko and Ai WeiWei. I've just seen some sculptures of the latter in the Albertinum in Dresden. Enjoy your Sunday. Best regards Martina

  6. Thank you Martina. I visited Dresden way back in November 1989 - exciting times.

  7. Thanks for your answer. 1989 that was really the turning point. I think, however, that in the meantime a lot of work has been done, it's just amazing what they have managed to put up out of all that rubble. My husband and me rewatched the film of the bombardments in 1945 and it's very touching. Bye Martina

    1. I'll have to revisit Dresden and see it in its new splendour.