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ART REVIEWS : Politics and Warmth Focus of Soviet Photos

December 09, 1987|CATHY CURTIS

When the brave new world of Soviet Russia needed a brave new art, Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko set out to create it--with a Leica.

He acquired one of the new cameras in 1928, the year Stalin launched his first Five-Year Plan, and began snapping laborers in sawmills. Eventually, his big, high-contrast enlargements featured artist friends and family members, athletes and circus performers. A generous sampling of these photographs is one of two new exhibitions at the J. Paul Getty Museum; the other is a selection of Mannerist drawings.

The Rodchenko photos, on view through Jan. 31, reveal a highly personal blend of politico-Futurist dogma, human warmth and the finicky demands of an eye inspired by graphic design. Tilting the camera so doggedly that the resulting skewed views become something of a nervous tic, Rodchenko imposed a zealous enthusiasm on the dynamics of a demonstrating crowd or the pattern of vertical bars in a radio transmission tower. In his universe, a comely woman with a camera on her lap may serve mainly as a white shape within a plaid pattern of shadow and light ("Girl With a Leica").

Working during a shining moment of Soviet cinema--the era of Eisenstein's "Potemkin" and "Ten Days That Shook the World"--and well acquainted with leading film theorists, Rodchenko shared the prevalent hunger to capture the vitality of raw experience in single, static shots. What is it like to feel the dust rise from galloping horses right under your nose? How to tap the keenness with which a child listens to a voice coming through a radio headset? Is it possible to light paper cutouts of animals to suggest animation?

The artist pulled off some poster-worthy rhetorical flourishes: soldiers looking rigidly to the viewer's left below flags with a trilingual "Workers of the World Unite" slogan; a huge, dark, Buddha-like smiling workman's head; an eerie shot of Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky looking sharply upward to expose the whites of his eyes.

But he was equally intrigued by the potential of snapshot photography, believing that it could capture "densities of character." The best of this genre is an image of his little daughter bathing in her tub, her hands playfully clasped in front of one eye to imitate the I-am-a-camera stance of the man whose silhouette falls across the photograph.

If you stand with one arm wrapped pointlessly around your body, torso stretched, neck turned, fingers crooked and your gaze vaguely taking in the ceiling, you'll come close to imitating figures in Mannerist art.

A style that boiled up in Italy in the mid-1500s, then spread to northern lands, Mannerism was the gooey icing on the cake of Renaissance art, the extra flourish that turned perfection into preciousness. And yet, in the right hands, the Mannerist approach was uniquely equipped to mirror intense psychological states.

"Mannerist Drawings," at Getty Museum through Feb. 14, is a selection of 25 works by Italian, Flemish and Dutch artists--some famous, like Pontormo and Parmigianino--that embody both the ridiculousness and the profundity of this frankly decadent style.

In Federico Zuccaro's "View of St. Peter's," the delicate, high-strung line typical of Mannerist art becomes the instrument of a highly personal descriptiveness.

But Zuccaro hauled out the Mannerist heavy artillery in "The Submission of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to Pope Alexander III," a preparatory drawing for a painting in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

As if heeding some antique featherbedding law, he ushers the viewer into the scene combining forces of an ample posterior displayed by a bystander, a curious dog, a reclining nude with a sheathed sword and a mother and child. It takes a moment to find the wizened face of the Pope, surrounded by a Cecil B. de Mille crowd and overpowered by a towering, detailed architectural facade.

Mannerist single figures with nothing much to do but look decorative tend to activate all movable joints at once, giving them the restless, epicene look of Francesco Salviati's "Reclining Male Nude." Even committed to feats of derring-do, these folks may look delightfully unconvincing. Parmigianino's nobly profiled "David With the Head of Goliath" holds an airy, dancerlike pose, with an obliging curl of drapery winding behind him. The faintly rendered severed head in his left hand has a bewhiskered, grandfatherly air.

Pontormo's "Study for St. Francis," on the other hand, is believably awkward and angular, with a hunch in his shoulders, a prominent Adam's apple and a tenderly exposed jawline, straining with devout fervor.

The Dutch twist on all this was a curiously lubricious emphasis. A male nude in Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem's "Two Male Nudes" offers his weirdly dimpled back for public inspection. On his lap he holds a young naked boy, legs spread and face obscured by the man's head. Framed by softly billowing trees in the distance, this boldly impersonal yet oddly intimate scene is but one of myriad Mannerist riddles.

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