Alexander Rodchenko Life and Art Periods

"We had visions of a new world, industry, technology and science. We simultaneously invented and changed the world around us. We authored new notions of beauty and redefined art itself."

Alexander Rodchenko

ALEXANDER RODCHENKO SYNOPSIS

Alexander Rodchenko is perhaps the most important avant-garde artist to have put his art in the service of political revolution. In this regard, his career is a model of the clash between modern art and radical politics. He emerged as a fairly conventional painter, but his encounters with Russian Futurists propelled him to become an influential founder of the Constructivist movement. And his commitment to the Russian Revolution subsequently encouraged him to abandon first painting and then fine art in its entirety, and to instead put his skills in the service of industry and the state, designing everything from advertisements to book covers. His life's work was a ceaseless experiment with an extraordinary array of media, from painting and sculpture to graphic design and photography. Later in his career, however, the increasingly repressive policies targeted against modern artists in Russia led him to return to painting.

ALEXANDER RODCHENKO KEY IDEAS

Rodchenko's art and thought moved extremely rapidly in the 1910s. He began as an aesthete, inspired by Art Nouveau artists such as Aubrey Beardsley. He later became a Futurist. He digested the work of Vladimir Tatlin, and the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich. By the decade's end he was pioneering Constructivism. This experimental inquiry into the elements of pictorial and sculptural art produced purely abstract artworks that separate out the components of each image - line, form, space, color, surface, texture, and the work's physical support. Constructivism encouraged a new focus on the tangible and material aspects of art, and its experimental spirit was encouraged by a belief that art had to match the revolutionary transformations then taking place in Russian politics and society.
Rodchenko's commitment to the values of the Revolution encouraged him to abandon painting in 1921. He embraced a more functional view of art and of the artist, and he began collaborating with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky on a series of advertising campaigns. Their work not only introduced modern design into Russian advertising, but it attempted to sell the values of the Revolution along with the products being promoted. This particular union of modern design, politics, and commerce has occasionally inspired advertisers in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Photography was important to Rodchenko in the 1920s in his attempt to find new media more appropriate to his goal of serving the revolution. He first viewed it as a source of preexisting imagery, using it in montages of pictures and text, but later he began to take pictures himself and evolved an aesthetic of unconventional angles, abruptly cropped compositions, and stark contrasts of light and shadow. His work in both photomontage and photography ultimately made an important contribution to European photography in the 1920s.
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ALEXANDER RODCHENKO BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Alexander Rodchenko was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to a working class family. His father, Mikhail Rodchenko, was a theater props manager and his mother, Olga, a washerwoman. The family's social status did not provide much opportunity for the artistic education of talented Alexander. It is still unclear what training (if any) Rodchenko might have acquired as a child. The family moved to the city of Kazan in 1905. Two years later, Mikhail passed away, but they were able to allocate some of the family's scarce funds for Alexander's education.

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Early Training

Rodchenko enrolled in the Kazan School of Art, where he studied from 1910 to 1914 under Nikolai Feshin and Georgii Medvedev. The young artist quickly absorbed the basic principles of the academic training, earning high praise from his instructors. In 1914, he met Varvara Stepanova, a fellow student. They became life-long partners and artistic collaborators.

Kazan proved to be too small and stifling for Rodchenko's emerging vision. He and Stepanova journeyed to Moscow in 1915 to acquire more meaningful exposure to the nascent Russian modernism, permanently settling there in 1916. Rodchenko attended the Stroganov Institute, where he studied drawing, painting, and art history.

In Moscow, Rodchenko was influenced by the key figures of the Russian avant-garde movement, namely Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich. He executed his first abstract drawing, reminiscent of Malevich's Suprematist compositions, in 1915. But it was not only the avant-garde artistic milieu that influenced him. Through his acquaintances with liberal thinkers such as the Futurists David Burliuk and Wassily Kamensky, Rodchenko found himself in the heart of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Rodchenko's involvement with the Bolshevik cause was both ideological and aesthetic. As a working class young man, he witnessed firsthand the social injustice of Tsarist Russia. Rodchenko deeply believed in the power of art as a driving force of social transformation, as is detailed in many of his letters and diaries, which were only recently translated into English. Rodchenko embraced the emerging aesthetics of Russian Constructivism, becoming a leading member of the group.

Rodchenko's early years demonstrated his artistic talent and quest for innovation. From 1917 to 1918, he was mainly experimenting with flat geometric compositions. Then, in 1919, he created an entirely abstract series of Black on Black paintings, which might be read as a response to the spiritualism of Malevich's Black Square (1915). While Malevich's work seemed to herald the end of painting, it also touted a spiritualism that Rodchenko rejected. The Black on Black paintings, similarly reductive, though not as extreme as the Black Square, emphasized instead the material qualities of picture-making.

In the early years of the Soviet Republic, Rodchenko, alongside his friend and colleague Wassily Kandinsky, was actively engaged in the government reform of art collections and education. In 1917, he became secretary of the Professional Union of Artist-Painters, joining the Izo (Otdel Izobrazitel'nykh Iskusstv or the Section of Visual Arts), as one of the presiding officials the following year.

Alexander Rodchenko Biography

In 1920, he was appointed the Director of the Museum Bureau and Purchasing Fund, a newly created agency in charge of the immense art collections transferred by the Bolsheviks from the palaces of the rich into the public domain. During his tenure, Rodchenko acquired 1,926 works of modern and contemporary art by 415 artists and established 30 public museums in Russian provinces.

Mature Period

While organizing the provincial museums, Rodchenko trained artists to serve the Communist state at the Higher Technical Artistic Studios. He taught the same principles that shaped his own artistic discourse; he rejected illusory representation as an outdated form hindered by the capitalist visual agenda, denounced painting as a domineering visual genre, preferring design, which challenged the notion of a work of art as a unique commodity, and, even more radically, promoted the idea of an artist as an engineer, a key creative force at the service of the masses.

In 1921, Rodchenko joined the Productivist movement, a group of artists devoted to the idea of incorporating artistic forms into the daily lives of common people. As a member of the group, Rodchenko designed notable utilitarian objects, including furniture, various household items, and textile patterns. More importantly, he became involved in bringing Constructivist forms into the mass visual propaganda of the Bolsheviks. His posters, such as Books (1923), became an icon of the early Soviet state and its artistic fervor. These works are still considered a pinnacle of modern graphic design today.

The ideas of Wassily Kandinsky may have been an important influence on Rodchenko in the early Soviet years, since the two were closely associated. But while Kandinsky was interested in the expressive possibilities of art, Rodchenko was increasingly interested in its potential as a laboratory for design and construction. This difference is reflected in his interest in line as an elemental component of painting. However, his final statements in painting returned to the issue of color; in 1921, he exhibited the groundbreaking triptych Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color (1921) comprised of purely monochrome panels of those colors.

In 1921, Rodchenko took a decisive, although temporary, break from painting. Instead, he concentrated on creating three-dimensional models of design objects, architectural sketches, and photography. He also created sets for film and theatre and designed furniture and clothes. From 1923 to 1925, he collaborated with the great avant-garde poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, illustrating some of his books and magazines for progressive Soviet writers such as LEF and NOVYI LEF.

It was through photography that Rodchenko enjoyed the most success in the 1920s. Employed as a correspondent for a number of Soviet newspapers and magazines, his photographs were exhibited all over the world. He was universally praised for his avant-garde compositions and experimental approach to focus and contrast in his photographs.

Late Years and Death

By the middle of the 1930s, Rodchenko fell out of favor with the Communist Party. The regime's visual ideology was completely transformed when Joseph Stalin came to power. The free-spirited avant-garde aesthetic was now actively suppressed by the state. Rodchenko and his wife were lucky not to perish in Stalin's Great Purges that swept through the Soviet Union and exterminated many individuals who came to prominence at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. With Social Realism becoming the official art of the U.S.S.R., Rodchenko's paintings and designs were openly condemned by the authorities for so-called "formalism."

As such, Rodchenko turned to photojournalism. His photographic images epitomized the era of High Stalinism by depicting lavish parades, immense industrial undertakings, and the decisive transformation of agriculture. Naturally, Rodchenko was explicitly forbidden to capture the horrendous human toll of this sweeping modernization. In the 1940s, he returned to painting, executing a number of powerful abstract expressionist compositions. These works, however, were never to be seen by his contemporaries, for they openly contradicted the officially sanctioned aesthetics. He continued his work as a photographer throughout the Stalin years, until his death in 1956.

ALEXANDER RODCHENKO LEGACY

As a key figure of the Russian modernist movement, the art of Alexander Rodchenko helped redefine three key visual genres of modernism: painting, photography, and graphic design. In his paintings, the artist further explored and expanded the essential vocabulary of an abstract composition. His series of purely abstract proto-monochrome paintings were influential to artists such as Ad Reinhardt and the Minimalists of the 1960s. In the field of photography, he established unprecedented compositional paradigms, which in many ways still define the entire notion of modern photographic art. Rodchenko's involvement with the Bolshevik cause further propelled the appreciation of his art in the leftist circles of the American avant-garde.

Original content written by Ivan Savvine
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ALEXANDER RODCHENKO QUOTES

"In order to educate man to a new longing, everyday familiar objects must be shown to him with totally unexpected perspectives and in unexpected situations. New objects should be depicted from different sides in order to provide a complete impression of the object."

"Future is our only objective."

"We had visions of a new world, industry, technology and science. We simultaneously invented and changed the world around us. We authored new notions of beauty and redefined art itself."

"I am convinced that representation would never be back the way it was and that non-representation will die out in its own turn, paving the way for something entirely new, the beginning of which I am feeling right now."

"One has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same keyhole again and again."

"I want to take some quite incredible photographs that have never been taken before... pictures which are simple and complex at the same time, which will amaze and overwhelm people ... I must achieve this so that photography can begin to be considered a form of art."

Alexander Rodchenko

Alexander Rodchenko Influences

Interactive chart with Alexander Rodchenko's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Wassily Kandinsky
Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley was a nineteenth-century English illustrator and author. Beardsley's preferred medium was black ink, which he used to create highly erotic, grotesque and decadant drawings, much in the style of Japanese woodcuts. Beardsley's work was part of the Aesthetic movement, and was highly influential to the subsequent Art Nouveau movement of the early twentieth century.

Modern Art Information Aubrey Beardsley
Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin was a prominent Russian avant-garde artist and architect. He was one of the key figures of the Constructivist movement.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Vladimir Tatlin
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kazimir Malevich
Vladimir Mayakovsky
Vladimir Mayakovsky
Vladimir Mayakovsky was prominent in the Russian literary Futurism movement. He was deeply committed to the social as well as artistic reform of the Russian society.

Modern Art Information Vladimir Mayakovsky
David Burliuk
David Burliuk
David Burliuk was a Russian Futurist poet and painter. He was responsible for intensifying the debate on the primary function of fine art, believing deeply in the power of art as a reforming social force.

Modern Art Information David Burliuk
Lyubov Popova
Lyubov Popova
Lyubov Popova was an eminent Russian avant-garde artist, painter, and designer. Her work was important for several modern styles, including Cubism, Suprematism, and Constructivism.

Modern Art Information Lyubov Popova
Vasily Kamensky
Vasily Kamensky
Vasily Kamensky was a Russian Futurist poet and artist. He is credited with promoting the avant-garde aesthetics, both literary and artistic, among the Russian and then Soviet intellectual milieu.

Modern Art Information Vasily Kamensky
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Futurism
Futurism
Futurism was the most influential Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Futurism
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Suprematism
Productivism
Productivism
Productivism was an art movement founded by a group of Constructivist artists in Soviet Russia, promoting the idea of art as a practical, socially relevant endeavor with an emphasis on industrial production.

Modern Art Information Productivism
Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt was an American abstract artist whose monochromatic canvases show side-by-side rectangles painted in subtle variations of the same color. Very much part of the New York scene in the 1940s, he nonetheless scorned the label and gestural ethos of Abstract Expressionism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Ad Reinhardt
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Motherwell
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky was a Russian avant-garde painter, photographer, architect and designer. Along with his mentor Kazimir Malevich, Lissitzky helped found Suprematism. His art often employed the use of clean lines and simple geometric forms, and expressed a fascination with Jewish culture. Lissitzky was also a major influence on the Bauhaus school of artists and the Constructivist movement.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information El Lissitzky
Varvara Stepanova
Varvara Stepanova
Varvara Stepanova was the wife of Alexander Rodchenko. An artist herself, she devoted her life to the collaboration with her famous husband. Rodchenko's experimentation with geometry and abstraction was formative for her own pursuits in painting and design.

Modern Art Information Varvara Stepanova
Natalia Goncharova
Natalia Goncharova
Natalia Goncharova was a Russian Cubo-Futurist artist, who initially worked with the Suprematists and Constructivists. She fled Soviet Russia for France, where she promoted the principles of the Russian avant-garde as they were defined by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko.

Modern Art Information Natalia Goncharova
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constructivism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Monochrome Painting
Monochrome Painting
Monochrome painting is an influential modernist genre that aims at the exploration of one singular color and its various hues within a single pictorial surface. It has proven to be a durable idiom of contemporary art from the middle of the twentieth century onwards.

Modern Art Information Monochrome Painting
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was a movement that swept through the decorative arts and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generating enthusiasts throughout Europe, it was aimed at modernizing design and escaping the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. It drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms with more angular contours.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Art Nouveau
Dance. An Objectless Composition
Alexander Rodchenko: Dance. An Objectless Composition
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Title: Dance. An Objectless Composition (1915)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Rodchenko attended a lecture by Russian Futurists Wassily Kamensky, David Burliuk, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, in Kazan in 1912, and was immediately converted. He abandoned the Art Nouveau styling of some of his earlier work and began to fragment his forms to create dynamic compositions. Dance is perhaps his most Futurist painting, and it clearly resembles works by Italian Futurists such as Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini. However, Rodchenko soon grew disinterested in the style and, following this, he began to create even more abstract pictures, putting aside entirely the last suggestions of illusion that Dance creates.


Oil on canvas - The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Non-Objective Painting No 80 (Black on Black)
Alexander Rodchenko: Non-Objective Painting No 80 (Black on Black)
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Title: Non-Objective Painting No 80 (Black on Black) (1918)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Rodchenko was powerfully influenced by Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism, and particularly by works such as Black Square (1915), which reduced the components of the painting to a single black square that echoed the shape of the canvas. However, Rodchenko rejected the older man's spiritualism and strove instead to emphasize the material qualities of painting, in particular surface and texture (or "faktura" as the Russians called it). Non-Objective Painting No 80 is typical of this phase in his career and is part of a series of similar "Black on Black" paintings, which were exhibited alongside five white paintings by Malevich in Moscow in 1919. The exhibition was important in catapulting Rodchenko into the forefront of Russia's avant-garde.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Construction No. 127 (Two Circles)
Alexander Rodchenko: Construction No. 127 (Two Circles)
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Title: Construction No. 127 (Two Circles) (1920)

Artwork Description & Analysis: By 1920, Rodchenko no longer felt obliged to imbue his basic geometric figures with distinguishable layers of color. In this composition, two perfectly drawn circles intersect. The white circles on black canvas form a powerful juxtaposition liberating the line from any recognizable connotations. This balanced and precise geometric composition underlines Rodchenko's preoccupation with engineering and design that he maintained throughout his career. Rodchenko arrived at compositions such as these by progressively stripping away all that he considered unnecessary in the field of painting; after reducing color to black and emphasizing surface texture, he seized on line as the most important and elemental component of the medium. This development may have been influenced by Wassily Kandinsky's ideas, since the two artists were closely associated, though while Kandinsky stressed the expressive possibilities of line, Rodchenko emphasized its possibilities as a tool of construction.


Oil on canvas - The Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color
Alexander Rodchenko: Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color
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Title: Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color (1921)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Here Rodchenko reinterprets the iconic art form of the Western tradition - the triptych - which was traditionally reserved for the representation of religious scenes. The piece reflects Rodchenko's interest in Malevich throughout these years, but instead of pursuing Malevich's spiritualism, he stressed the physical, material properties of painting - in this case, color. Rodchenko regarded these pictures as his final statement on painting, famously writing, "I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it's all over. Basic Colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation." These monochrome experiments have been a crucial example for later generations of abstract artists, particularly Minimalists.


Oil on canvas - Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova Archive, Moscow

Maquette for the Advertisement of the Red October Bisquittes
Alexander Rodchenko: Maquette for the Advertisement of the Red October Bisquittes
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Title: Maquette for the Advertisement of the Red October Bisquittes (1923)

Artwork Description & Analysis: When Rodchenko abandoned painting in 1921, he also abandoned many of the traditional attitudes of the artist as a commentator on society and began instead to put his talents in the service of the Russian industry and the nascent revolution. This is an early example of his work for Russian industry, advertising Red October confectionary. Rigid geometry defines the composition through the juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical lines. The letters themselves are stylized. Both whimsical and visually arresting, Rodchenko's designs were an important influence on such key artistic laboratories as the Bauhaus in the Weimar Republic.


Gouache on paper - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Books (The Advertisement Poster for the Lengiz Publishing House)
Alexander Rodchenko: Books (The Advertisement Poster for the Lengiz Publishing House)
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Title: Books (The Advertisement Poster for the Lengiz Publishing House) (1924)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This poster arguably brought Rodchenko the most fame and appreciation from his patrons in the Soviet government. The composition is typical of his use of photomontage in the period (the combination of photography and text). And it also reflects the ways in which he updated Russian advertising, using geometric compositions and strident colors to trumpet modernity. While his designs are directed at promoting individual companies or products, they also - often explicitly - endorse the goals of political revolution.


Photomontage and Gouache on Paper - Private Collection

The Staircase
Alexander Rodchenko: The Staircase
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Title: The Staircase (1930)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This is one of Rodchenko's finest photographs. Often credited with devising the key principles of modern photography, Rodchenko is praised for his use of unusual angles and perspective. Here, he juxtaposes the motif of a woman with a child against the stern geometry of the man-made environment. The position of the camera at a peculiar angle provides for an innovative, yet carefully balanced and flowing composition. Compositions such as this were an important influence on New Vision, the modernist photography movement that gripped Europe in the 1920s and '30s.


Gelatin-silver print - Private Collection

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.