Progression of Art
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.