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Constructing a new world

For Alexander Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova, the entire fabric of daily existence - from biscuit packe

Along with more sinister institutions nearby, the towering, crenellated Red October chocolate factory was one of the most celebrated landmarks of Soviet-era Moscow. Throughout the 20th century, its candies, cocoa and biscuits marked out the fortunes of the state - and, more bizarrely, those of its artists. When the factory was seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917 - and named first State Confectionery Factory No 1, then the more evocative Krasny Oktyabr - some of the finest artists of the revolutionary era were set to work decorating and promoting its products. Between 1923 and 1925, the avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, working together as "Mayakovsky-Rodchenko: Advertising Constructors", created more than 150 advertising and packaging designs for Red October and other state companies. In the bright dawn of the revolution, it seemed that even chocolate bars could be part of the new order: little packages of correct social values and radical aesthetics.

Red October still stands under its famous sign by the Moscow River, but its face has changed along with the city's. In 2007, the last workers were transferred to new factories in the suburbs and the factory was turned over to a $2bn luxury-flats development scheme, currently stalled by the credit crunch. But there are still artists around. Outside towers a retro-nationalist monument, erected in 1997: a 96 metre tall, breathtakingly ugly statue of Peter the Great by the wealthy Georgian-born sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, a close friend of the mayor of Moscow. Though Red October is largely empty - single bulbs illuminate cracked tile floors and rusting rows of workers' lockers - an upstairs floor is now given over to Baibakov Art Projects, a foundation run by Maria Baibakova, the US-educated, 23-year-old daughter of a former mining magnate. Baibakova, playing with a necklace from which dangles a single golden bullet, leads the way briskly through preparations for "invasion: evasion", her inaugural exhibition of contemporary Russian artists. One installation is a tangle of paint-stained stepladders and champagne flutes. "It's about what comes before and after the art, the preparation and the private view - it's about doing away with the art altogether," she explains.

The factory's latest incarnation could not be more out of step with the hopes of its revolutionary designers. Along with his friend and colla­borator Lyubov Popova, Rodchenko was one of the most influential avant-garde artists of early Soviet Russia. "Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism", opening at Tate Modern next month, traces their unfulfilled dreams for their country and their enduring impact on 20th-century art and design.

By 1917, the two artists, despite their different backgrounds - Rodchenko was from a working-class St Petersburg family, Popova the daughter of a wealthy Moscow industrialist who indulged her love of painting - were united by their fascination with new art and new ideas. Popova had spent much of the previous decade travelling and studying in Russia and Europe, absorbed first by the Orthodox icons in Russian monasteries, and then by the novel, striking and aggressive work of the cubists and futurists in France and Italy.

Then came the October Revolution. For progressive artists as much as political leaders, it was a uniquely exhilarating moment. Their work was no longer to be confined to the elite realm of galleries and studios. The entire fabric of everyday existence - from mass transport and housing projects to teacups and book jackets - was to be redesigned to serve a new vision of Russian life. The result was an explosion of creativity: from magazine covers to stage set designs, the work at the Tate crackles with intellectual excitement.

In addition to their utilitarian projects for the young state, Rodchenko and Popova continued to work out their artistic principles through drawing and painting. Between 1917 and 1921, they produced canvases, collages and sketches full of a rough-and-ready, kitchen-table energy. The work combines bold colours with geometric forms and rushing diagonal lines: rather than appearing a flat, static surface, the canvas became the arena for a succession of colliding forces barely kept in two-dimensional check. Popova produced her Painterly Architectonics sequence (1917-18), while Rodchenko worked on his Black on Black series (1918), a reaction to Kazimir Malevich's Black Square (1913) which, with its mechanically applied shades of black paint, attempted to achieve an industrial impersonality. He also experimented with "spatial constructions": brightly coloured mobiles and forms that bridged the gap between painting and sculpture. Popova's Spatial-Force Constructions (1921), which left areas of their plywood backboard bare and incorporated wood dust into the paint, stripped from the "canvas" the last remnants of conventional artifice and illusion.

In addition to their private practice, both artists had a public role to play. In 1918, the Bolshevik government began to buy avant-garde works for distribution to provincial museums, and Rodchenko was soon appointed director of the Museum Bureau and Purchasing Fund. Artists were no longer to be solitary creators engaged in self-expression, but useful employees of the state. At first, collaboration on revolutionary projects flourished: Rodchenko's famous photographs of his fellow artists show them gathered for tea with friends and family or examining work in each other's studios. However, arcane ideological differences soon divided the art world into a very Soviet chaos of competing working groups and institutions.

Despite their convictions, Rodchenko and Popova were pursued by anxieties about their two-dimensional work: could it justify its place in a communist society? Should the individual artist seek to express himself through an aesthetic object? Shouldn't artists involve the workers in any "art" they produced? In 1921, they announced the "last constructivist painting show", the "5x5=25" exhibition, in collaboration with the painters Alexandra Exter, Alexander Vesnin and Rodchenko's wife, Varvara Stepanova. Rodchenko's contributions included the movement's first monochromatic paintings: a triptych of "smooth boards" mechanically covered in a single pigment each - Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour and Pure Blue Colour (all 1921) - intended to do away once and for all with the individuality of artwork and artist. "I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow," he said. "I affirmed: this is the end of painting."

Painting thus despatched, the artists turned their attention to other media. Popova produced designs for theatre sets, furniture, book jackets and posters. With Stepanova, she worked at the First State Cotton-Printing Factory, designing dresses (though their severe lines proved unpopular with the stubbornly comfort-seeking proletariat) and beautiful, geometric-patterned fabrics, only fragments of which survive. "No single artistic success gave me such profound satisfaction as the sight of a peasant woman buying a piece of my fabric for a dress," wrote Popova of her work there. Rodchenko began to collaborate with Mayakovsky on both advertising projects such as their Red October chocolate campaigns and the Lef and Novyi Lef magazines of revolutionary criticism and poetry. His use of bold colours, clear shapes and block lettering laid the ground for much 20th-century graphic design. A particularly striking example is his fiercely unsentimental black-and-red catalogue for a retrospective held following Popova's early death from scarlet fever in 1924.

The death of Lenin, in the same year as Popova, marked the onset of hard times for her colleagues. From 1925, Rodchenko devoted himself increasingly to photography, focusing on new Soviet architecture and portraits of his friends. In 1932, Stalin banned independent artists' groups and several of the constructivists - Aleksei Gan, Boris Kushner, Gustav Klutsis and Nikolai Chuzhak - were shipped to their propaganda such as his beautifully composed series on Stalin's White Sea Canal, the construction of which claimed the lives of thousands of workers.

The constructivists' dream of a fairer, more beautiful Russia foundered. Many of their projects - such as Popova's designs for a vast street spectacle enacting "The Struggle and Victory of the Soviets" - never came to fruition. Rodchenko's famous model Workers' Club, created as a showpiece for the 1925 "International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts" in Paris, was never built in his own country. In central Moscow, six-storey billboards for Rolex, Bulgari, BMW and Toshiba have taken the place of his state advertising posters.

Only the slightest traces of the constructivists' utopia remain. At the Likhachev Palace of Culture, an austere concrete block not far from the Red October factory, workers eat fried eggs in a battered 1930s cafe designed by Popova's friend Viktor Vesnin. At the Tate show, you can see the blueprints for this future that never was.

"Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism" opens at Tate Modern, London SE1, on 12 February. For more details log on to:

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.