Summary of Constructivism
Constructivism was the last and most influential modern art movement to flourish in Russia in the 20th century. It evolved just as the Bolsheviks came to power in the October Revolution of 1917, and initially it acted as a lightning rod for the hopes and ideas of many of the most advanced Russian artists who supported the revolution's goals. It borrowed ideas from Cubism, Suprematism and Futurism, but at its heart was an entirely new approach to making objects, one which sought to abolish the traditional artistic concern with composition, and replace it with 'construction.' Constructivism called for a careful technical analysis of modern materials, and it was hoped that this investigation would eventually yield ideas that could be put to use in mass production, serving the ends of a modern, Communist society. Ultimately, however, the movement floundered in trying to make the transition from the artist's studio to the factory. Some continued to insist on the value of abstract, analytical work, and the value of art per se; these artists had a major impact on spreading Constructivism throughout Europe. Others, meanwhile, pushed on to a new but short-lived and disappointing phase known as Productivism, in which artists worked in industry. Russian Constructivism was in decline by the mid 1920s, partly a victim of the Bolshevik regime's increasing hostility to avant-garde art. But it would continue to be an inspiration for artists in the West, sustaining a movement called International Constructivism which flourished in Germany in the 1920s, and whose legacy endured into the 1950s.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Constructivists proposed to replace art's traditional concern with composition with a focus on construction. Objects were to be created not in order to express beauty, or the artist's outlook, or to represent the world, but to carry out a fundamental analysis of the materials and forms of art, one which might lead to the design of functional objects. For many Constructivists, this entailed an ethic of "truth to materials," the belief that materials should be employed only in accordance with their capacities, and in such a way that demonstrated the uses to which they could be put.
- Constructivist art often aimed to demonstrate how materials behaved - to ask, for instance, what different properties had materials such as wood, glass, and metal. The form an artwork would take would be dictated by its materials (not the other way around, as is the case in traditional art forms, in which the artist 'transforms' base materials into something very different and beautiful). For some, these inquiries were a means to an end, the goal being the translation of ideas and designs into mass production; for others it was an end in itself, a new and archetypal modern style expressing the dynamism of modern life.
- The seed of Constructivism was a desire to express the experience of modern life - its dynamism, its new and disorientating qualities of space and time. But also crucial was the desire to develop a new form of art more appropriate to the democratic and modernizing goals of the Russian Revolution. Constructivists were to be constructors of a new society - cultural workers on par with scientists in their search for solutions to modern problems.
Overview of Constructivism
Calling his Proun paintings "the station where one changes from painting to architecture," El Lissitzky's architectonic works became a bridge between the diverse disciplines within Constructivism.
Artworks and Artists of Constructivism
Tatlin's Counter-Reliefs were a vital part of his developing ideas, and they form a bridge between the influence of Cubism on his work, and the birth of Constructivism. It is typical of this development that Corner Counter-Relief conforms neither to the conventional format of painting or sculpture, because Constructivism would aspire to display those old fashioned forms. However, its placement in the corner of a room also echoed the traditional site of religious icons in a pious Russian household - hence Tatlin suggests that modernity and experiment should be Russia's new gods. The idea for the series may have come from the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912), a volume by the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni, in which he calls on sculptors, "Let's split open our figures and place the environment inside them." The way in which the object spans the corner changes the space of the room, and establishes a unique relationship to the surrounding environment. The diagonal wires are evocative of a musical instrument, and they were perhaps inspired by Tatlin's experience as a musical instrument maker.
Iron, copper, wood and strings - State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Design for the Monument to the Third International
Monument to the Third International, also sometimes known simply as Tatlin's Tower, is the artist's most famous work, as well as the most important spur to the formation of the Constructivist movement. The Tower, which was never fully realized, was intended to act as a fully functional conference space and propaganda center for the Communist Third International, or Comintern. Its steel spiral frame was to stand at 1,300 feet, making it the tallest structure in the world at the time - taller, and more functional—and therefore more beautiful by Constructivist standards—than the Eiffel Tower. There were to be three glass units, a cube, cylinder and cone, which would have different spaces for meetings, and these would rotate once per year, month, and day, respectively. For Tatlin, steel and glass were the essential materials of modern construction. They symbolized industry, technology and the machine age, and the constant motion of the geometrically shaped units embodied the dynamism of modernity. Although the tower was commissioned as a monument to revolution, and although it was given considerable prominence by the Bolshevik regime, it was never built, and it has continued to be an emblem of failed utopian aspirations for many generations of artists since.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color
Traditionally, color is used in art to describe the appearance of a particular object, or else to lend associations (the blue traditionally used to depict the Virgin Mary's robes in Renaissance paintings carried symbolic meanings). But Rodchenko's triptych focuses only on the material character of color, and it is considered the first artwork to do so. Here, red, blue, and yellow are used neither to describe an object nor to elicit certain associations; instead they are presented almost as a palette from which the artist can work. This is typical of the Constructivist attitude to materials, which was focused not on transforming them into art but on utilizing their properties in the most honest and effective ways possible. The triptych might be read as a rejection of the mysticism that seemed to tinge some work by Rodchenko's Suprematist contemporary, Kazimir Malevich. Rodchenko wrote of it, in 1921, "I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue, yellow. I affirmed: this is the end of painting. These are the primary colors. Every plane is a discrete plane and there will be no more representation."
Oil on canvas - The Rodchenko and Stepanova Archive, Moscow
Popova first emerged as an Impressionist painter, but she was later drawn into Constructivist and Suprematist circles. By 1921 she had abandoned painting to pursue the Constructivist ambition to leave behind traditional art forms and to make work for mass production. She concentrated on textile design, such as in this work, Popova uses repeating geometric patterns which were thought more appropriate to modern life and mass production than the floral designs that had previously been popular for such textiles. The intersecting circles and spacing of the stripes add tension and movement within the pattern, while also visually creating the effect of different textures. Popova's prominence within Constructivism is indicative of the significant role played by women in driving the movement's concerns; other avant-garde movements of the period were dominated by men.
Pencil and ink on paper - Private Collection
Constructed Head No. 2
Gabo was never fully accepted into the Russian Constructivist circle due to his continuing devotion to the category of art, and his disinterest in making utilitarian objects. His devotion to modernity, however, is reflected in his choice of materials, which often lent his forms the quality of a machine. Although this Head is made from iron, its composition is remarkably similar to Picasso's sculptured heads of his mistress, Fernande.
It also betrays a more traditional approach to composition and form than that pursued by most Constructivists, since it uses materials to depict a figure, rather than using them to reveal the qualities of the materials themselves. In Gabo's work, the materials are merely a vehicle; their presence recedes as we begin to imagine the object they depict. Gabo was ultimately more influential outside Russia, bringing Constructivist ideas to Germany, Britain and, later, the United States.
Galvanized iron - Private Collection
Lissitzky was in many respects closer to the Suprematist movement than to Constructivism, yet he reflects the ambitions of the latter by introducing more political ambitions into the abstract and formal concerns of Suprematism. He was also important in exporting Constructivist ideas to Germany. This room was constructed at the Grosse Berliner Ausstellung, where he assisted with the design of the exhibition areas. It marks the first time he had expanded ideas from painting into three dimensions. This is among a series of works from the early 1920s that Lissitzky entitled Prouns, an acronym for the Russian words "Project for the Affirmation of the New". Although the elements of this Proun work are hung flatly against the wall, the contrast of light and dark, as well as the combination of different materials, give the illusion of objects floating in space. The geometric forms and their dynamic arrangement evoked the modern transformations that Russian society was then undergoing, and which the artists wished to celebrate. Installed on all sides of a room, Lissitzky's environment conveys the idea of Constructivism as a way of life, and the hope that these geometric figures might soon inform the everyday objects that surrounds us.
Beginnings of Constructivism
Vladimir Tatlin is often hailed as the father of Constructivism. A contemporary of the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, he had collaborated on the preceding Cubo-Futurist movement. But his interests fundamentally shifted during a visit to Paris in 1913, where he saw a series of wooden reliefs by Picasso. Tatlin appreciated that the reliefs were not carved or modeled in a traditional manner but composed in an entirely different way (indeed they could be said to be 'constructed'), put together from pre-formed elements. On his return to Russia, Tatlin began to experiment with the possibilities of three-dimensional relief, and to use new types of material with a view to exploring their potential.
By 1919, both Malevich and Tatlin had achieved some prominence as representatives of different paths for the Russian avant-garde. They came together at "0.10, the Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting" (1915-16), in which Malevich exhibited Suprematist paintings and Tatlin unveiled his Corner Counter-reliefs. The latter were suspended in air across a corner of the room, instead of being attached to the flat surface of a wall, and their abstract forms defied the traditional idea that relief should depict a figure or an event. Instead, the Reliefs allowed the viewer to focus on the types of materials used, and how forms were arranged in relation to each other. Although Picasso and the Cubists had already been working with constructions and collage, Tatlin's work was important in emphasizing both the character of the materials used to fabricate the art object, and the fact that the completed artwork was itself a conventional physical object - not something that seemed to offer a window on to a different reality.
However it was not until Tatlin exhibited his model for the Monument for the Third International (1919-20) that Constructivism was truly born. More commonly known as Tatlin's Tower, the unusual spiral-shaped building was designed as a government office building. Planned to rise higher than the Eiffel Tower, this triumphant commemoration of the Russian Revolution was to be at once modern, functional and dynamic. The project proved an inspiration to the artist's contemporaries, who quickly came together to debate its consequences, and hence Constructivism came to life. The First Working Group of Constructivists was established in 1921, and included Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and others.
Although Constructivism fostered work in the traditional modes of high visual art, such as painting and sculpture, the movement's ambitions to enter mass production also encouraged artists to explore the decorative and applied arts. Hence the Higher Technical Artistic Studios (Vkhutemas) began to train its students in the applied arts, which reawakened interest in textiles and ceramics. In particular, Ilya Chashnik produced special ceramics that featured abstract planar forms, and Stepanova explored textile design, using repeating bold abstract patterns that evoked the virtues of mass production. El Lissitzky and Rodchenko were both well known for their graphic design and typography, which made use of bold lettering, stark planes of color, and diagonal elements.
Constructivism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Constructivism developed side by side with Suprematism, the two major modern art forms to come out of Russia in the 20th century. But unlike Suprematism, whose concerns with form and abstraction often seem tinged with mysticism, Constructivism firmly embraced the new social and cultural developments that grew out of World War I and the October Revolution of 1917. Concerned with the use of 'real materials in real space', the movement sought to use art as a tool for the common good, much in line with the Communist principles of the new Russian regime. Many of the Russian Constructivist works from this period involve projects in architecture, interior and fashion design, ceramics, typography and graphics.
Many of the pioneers in Constructivism had also studied Suprematist ideas, but they increasingly experimented with three-dimensional designs. They also began to attack traditional forms of art, which it was thought Constructivism could supplant: painting was officially declared "dead" at the '5 x 5 = 25' exhibition, where Aleksandra Ekster, Lyubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and Alexander Vesnin each presented five works. Paintings were included, but Popova declared that they should only be considered as designs for eventual constructions. Rodchenko's Black on Black series of paintings, however, made a statement. Directly confronting Malevich's White on White, which was meant to be the ultimate representation of a new reality, Rodchenko's black paintings announced the end of an era - "Representation is finished; it is time to construct."
Later Developments - After Constructivism
El Lissitsky was important in spreading Constructivism beyond Russia. In 1922, he co-organized the Düsseldorf Congress of International Productive Artists, with Hans Richter and Theo van Doesburg of the Dutch group De Stijl, and here the International Constructivist movement was officially launched. The artists at the Düsseldorf Congress released a manifesto that claimed art as a "tool of progress," turning Constructivism into a symbol of the modern era. Although the International movement did not highlight functionality, it expanded on the idea of art as object, and used new materials to highlight advances in technology and industry.
Germany became the center of the new movement due to the presence of El Lissitzky, who spent time in Berlin working on exhibitions at the Van Diemen Galerie and the Grosse Berliner Ausstellung in the early 1920s. He also collaborated on several publications. Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters, were both attracted to the modern, technological qualities of Constructivism despite their involvement in the more anarchic movement Dada. Lissitzky's Proun forms also influenced the work of László Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus, who developed an interest in technology and the machine. With the added presence of Van Doesburg, who also came to teach at the Bauhaus, the popularity of Constructivism quickly overshadowed Expressionism in Germany, and spread throughout Europe.
The movement gained ground in England when Moholy-Nagy, Naum Gabo and others took refuge in London following the German invasion. Echoes of Constructivism came to be seen in modern sculpture, even in the work of Henry Moore, who was also inspired by natural forms. The movement also had an impact in the United States, where the sculptor George Rickey became the first to write a comprehensive guide to Constructivism, in 1967. Today, the legacy of Russian Constructivism flourishes in the graphic arts and advertising. Street artists, such as Shepard Fairey, have also gained recognition by employing the propagandistic style of the Russian Constructivists in their work.
Useful Resources on Constructivism
- The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946By Victor Margolin
- The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in RevolutionOur PickBy Maria Gough
- Art of the Avant-Garde in Russia: Selections from the George Costakis Collection (1981)Our PickGuggenheim Exhibition Catalogue / By Margit Rowell, Georgi Costakis, Angelica Zander Rudenstine
- Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian ConstructivismBy Christina Kiaer
- Russian ContructivismBy Christina Lodder
- Rodchenko & Popova: Defining ConstructivismBy Margarita Tupitsyn