When did the Soviet avant-garde come to an end? For a long time it was assumed that the era of exciting experimentation in Russia was brought abruptly to a close in 1932, when the Central Committee abolished independent literary and artistic organisations and announced the establishment of consolidated creative unions. The new era of ideological conformity in the arts was supposedly cemented in 1934 with the inauguration of the doctrine of socialist realism at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers. By this time, the country’s most famous innovative poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, had shot himself in despair and the Suprematist pioneer Kazimir Malevich had been dropped from the first major retrospective of Soviet art in Moscow.
As scholarship in the last decades has laid bare, however, there was no simple and straightforward transition from pluralism to uniformity and regimentation. Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the modernist musical language of which was tempered only in the final act, played to packed houses for two years before its ‘formalism’ was savagely attacked in an infamous Pravda editorial in 1936. Other leaders of the Soviet avant-garde, particularly those active in the visual arts, continued to work prolifically throughout the worst years of the Stalinist purges. One of the most notable among a disparate group that included El Lissitzky, Eisenstein and the newly repatriated Prokofiev was Mayakovsky’s great friend and collaborator, the Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko.
In an important essay written in 1921, Rodchenko had defined the line as the ‘non-objective foundation of all forms’. It thus held the key to an artistic future of construction rather than representation, which would bring about the end of painting. The trajectory of Rodchenko’s career was far