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Constructivism

1. Russian

Source: Oxford University Press

(i) Formation, 1914–21

The technique of constructing sculpture from separate elements, as opposed to modelling or carving, was developed by Pablo Picasso in 1912, extending the planar language of Cubism into three dimensions. This method was elaborated in Russia, initially by Vladimir Tatlin from 1914 onwards and then by his many followers, who, like him, made abstract sculptures that explored the textural and spatial qualities of combinations of contemporary materials such as metal, glass, wood and cardboard, as in Tatlin’s Selection of Materials (1914; untraced) and Corner Counter-Relief (1914–15; untraced; see Lodder, figs 1.12–13).

Russian artists did not begin to call their work ‘constructions’ and themselves ‘constructivists’ until after the Revolution of 1917. Coining the latter term, the First Working Group of Constructivists, also known as the Working Group of Constructivists, was set up in March 1921 within Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture) in Moscow. The group comprised Aleksey Gan (1893–1942), Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Konstantin Medunetsky, Karl Ioganson (Karel Johansen; c. 1890–1929) and the brothers Georgy Stenberg and Vladimir Stenberg. These artists had come together during theoretical discussions concerning the distinction between composition and construction as principles of artistic organization, which were conducted within the Working Group of Objective Analysis at Inkhuk between January and April 1921. ‘Construction’ was seen to have connotations of technology and engineering and therefore to be characterized by economy of materials, precision, clarity of organization and the absence of decorative or superfluous elements.

In order to give their work the quality of ‘construction’, the artists increasingly renounced abstract painting in favour of working with industrial materials in space. This was epitomized by the Constructivists’ contributions to the Second Spring Exhibition of Obmokhu (Society of Young Artists), also known as the Third Exhibition of Obmokhu, which opened on 22 May 1921 (see Lodder, figs 2.15–16). The sculptures they showed displayed a strong commitment to the materials and forms of contemporary technology. The Stenbergs, for instance, created skeletal forms from materials such as glass, metal and wood, evoking engineering structures such as bridges and cranes, as in Georgy Stenberg’s Spatial Construction/KPS 51 NXI (1921; untraced; reconstruction, 1973; Cologne, Gal. Gmurzynskabeginend). Rodchenko showed a series of hanging constructions based on mathematical forms; they consisted of concentric shapes cut from a single plane of plywood, rotated to create a three-dimensional geometric form that is completely permeated by space, for example Oval Hanging Construction (1920–21; New York, MOMA).

In their programme of 1 April 1921, written by Gan, the Constructivists emphasized that they no longer saw an autonomous function for art and that they wished to participate in the creation of a visual environment appropriate to the needs and values of the new Socialist society: ‘Taking a scientific and hypothetical approach to its task, the group asserts the necessity to fuse the ideological component with the formal component in order to achieve a real transition from laboratory experiments to practical activity’ (1990 exh. cat., p. 67). They envisaged their work as ‘intellectual production’, proclaiming that their ideological foundation was ‘scientific communism, based on the theory of historical materialism’. They intended to attain what they termed ‘the communistic expression of material structures’ by organizing their work according to the three principles of tektonika (or tectonics, which derives from the principles of Communism and the functional use of industrial material, i.e. the politically and socially appropriate use of industrial materials with regard to a given purpose), konstruktsiya (or construction, the process of organizing this material), and faktura (the choice of material and its appropriate treatment). They also proposed to establish links with committees in charge of manufacturing and to conduct an intensive propaganda campaign of exhibitions and publications.

This artistic attitude was a product of the Utopian atmosphere generated by the Revolution and the specific conditions of the Civil War period (1918–21). After 1917, industry and the machine came to be seen as the essential characteristics of the working class and hence of the new Communist order. In practical terms, industrial development was also regarded by the state authorities as the key to political and social progress. Hence, the machine was both metaphor for the new culture under construction and the practical means to rebuild the economy as a prelude to establishing Communism. Moreover, the government fostered the debate concerning the role of art in industry, i.e. Production art (Rus. proizvodstvennoye iskusstvo; also known as Productivism), to which critics such as Osip Brik and Nikolay Punin contributed, arguing that the bourgeois distinction between art and industry should be abolished and that art should be considered as merely another aspect of manufacturing activity. The artists themselves had been encouraged to believe they had a wider public role to play by their participation in the many official commissions to execute such propaganda tasks as decorating Russian cities for the Revolutionary festivals and designing agitational and educational posters. During the chaotic Civil War period, the avant-garde had also helped to run artistic affairs on behalf of the government and seemed to have become a vehicle for expressing the Communist Party’s political objectives. The utilitarian ethos of Constructivism was a logical extension of this close identification between avant-garde art and social and political progress.

The Constructivists’ experiments were more directly stimulated by Tatlin’s extraordinary model for a Monument to the Third International, exhibited in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) in November 1920 and in Moscow in December 1920 (destr.beginend). The monument was conceived as a working building, an enormous skeletal apparatus a third higher than the Eiffel Tower, enclosing three rotating volumes intended to house the executive, administrative and propaganda offices of the Comintern. Resembling a huge functioning machine made of iron beams and glass, the tower demonstrated the power of the machine aesthetic as a symbol of revolutionary objectives. Tatlin declared that he was restoring the essential unity of painting, sculpture and architecture, ‘combining purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions… The fruits of this are models which give rise to discoveries serving the creation of a new world and which call upon producers to control the forms of the new everyday life’ (Bann, p. 14).

(ii) Achievements, 1922 onwards

In 1922 Constructivism was consolidated, with the first practical realizations of the Constructivists’ impulse to extend the formal vocabulary of earlier artistic experiments into concrete design projects. Other artists embraced the group’s ideas, including Lyubov’ Popova, Gustav Klucis, Anton Lavinsky (1893–1968), the painter and architect Aleksandr Vesnin and the architect moisey Ginzburg. Moreover, Gan elaborated and disseminated the Constructivist programme in his book Konstruktivizm (Tver’, 1922) and in various articles. Initially, the theatre served as a crucible for developing an appropriate visual environment to express the new way of life. The first Constructivist stage set was Popova’s design for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s production of Fernand Crommelynck’s farce The Magnanimous Cuckold, which opened on 25 April 1922 (see Lodder, figs 5.30, 31, 33). The mill in which the action is set became a multi-levelled skeletal apparatus of platforms, revolving doors, ladders, scaffolding and wheels that rotated at differing speeds at particularly intense moments during the play. The traditional costumes were replaced by overalls or production clothing ( prozodezhda) devised to facilitate the actors’ movements, which were based on biomechanics (a combination of acrobatics and stylized gestures inspired by robots and the commedia dell’arte). This event was followed by Stepanova’s set for Meyerhold’s production of Sukhovo-Kobylin’s Smert’ Tarelkina (‘The death of Tarelkin’; 24 Nov 1922), comprising a series of separate apparatuses constructed from standard-sized wooden planks, painted white, and by Vesnin’s set for the Kamerny Theatre’s production of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who Was Thursday on 6 December 1923, which was a far more complex and architectural skeletal construction, evoking the modern city through its incorporation of specific urban elements such as scaffolding, conveyor belts, lift-shafts, steps, posters and neon signs.

The urge to create three-dimensional objects of direct social utility resulted in a number of designs for temporary agitational structures, such as portable and sometimes collapsible kiosks (e.g. Klucis’s propaganda stands of 1922, Gan’s folding street sales stand of c. 1922–3 and Lavinsky’s sales kiosk for the State Publishing House, 1924). The use of bold colours and simple geometric forms in such projects foreshadowed Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, made for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925 and perhaps the most complete expression of the Constructivists’ design methodology. Workers’ clubs were seen as important new institutions, on political grounds (for inculcating the new values of Communism) as well as educationally, culturally and socially (replacing the traditional role of the Church). Rodchenko standardized the component elements of the furniture and observed strict economy in terms of space, material and production methods. The chairs, for example, comprised three uprights (two rods in front and a wider plank behind) attached at the top by an open semicircular band to provide arms, in the middle by a solid semicircular seat and at the base by three rods. Made of wood, a cheap and plentiful material in Russia, the furniture answered the problems of contemporary cramped living conditions, so that certain items were space-saving and collapsible for easy storage (e.g. folding tribune, screen, display board and bench).

The Constructivists produced some of their most innovative work in graphic design. Rodchenko, for example, conceived striking layouts and covers for avant-garde magazines such as Kino-fot (1922), Lef (1923–5) and Novy Lef (1927–8), for cinema posters and magazines and for advertising images of wider circulation, such as his poster Books for Every Field of Knowledge (1925; Moscow, Rodchenko Archv). These were often photomontages, combining bold typography and abstract design with cut-out photographic elements. As the product of a mechanical process, the photograph complemented the Constructivists’ commitment to technology, while conforming to the Communist Party’s stated preference for realistic and legible images accessible to the masses.

Generally, however, practical implementation of Constructivist ideas was very slow and sporadic. Industry had been decimated following almost seven years of conflict, and those factories that had survived were not sufficiently progressive to accommodate the new type of designer. In addition, the small-scale private enterprises set up under the provisions of NEP (New Economic Policy), implemented in 1921, were run by entrepreneurs known as Nepmen, who tended to be hostile to the geometric austerity of Constructivist designs. The government was keen to harness art to improve the quality of industrial production, but it encouraged the more traditional approach of applied art while sponsoring a return to realism in painting and sculpture. Constructivism was thus spurned by the Party, the working class and the new Soviet bourgeoisie (the Nepmen), who alone had the financial potential to become art patrons. The only area in which the Constructivists did establish a productive working relationship with any specific industrial enterprise was in the field of textile design. Popova and Stepanova produced many designs that were mass-produced by the First State Textile Printing Factory between late 1923 and 1924. They rejected traditional floral patterns in favour of economical combinations of one or more colours and simple geometric forms, as in Popova’s Textile Design (1924; priv. col., see Lodder, plate X).

The extension of Constructivist ideas into the area of architecture was primarily the work of the Vesnin brothers (Aleksandr, Leonid, and Viktor) and of Moisey Ginzburg, who in order ot promote their ideas set up Osa (Association of Contemporary Architects; 1925–30) in December 1925 and the journal Sovremennaya arkhitektura. The Vesnins’ Palace of Labour project (1922–23) for Moscow and their design for the Leningrad Pravda building (1924) established a distinct architectural vocabulary that had become subsumed within that of the International Style by the time its first buildings, such as Ginzburg’s Gosstrakh appartment block for Moscow (1926), were erected.

Alongside these practical activities, the Constructivists formulated and elaborated their design methodology within VkhUTEMAS (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops), set up at the end of 1920 to train highly qualified master artists for industry. Of particular importance for developing Constructivist ideas were the basic course and the woodworking and metalworking faculty, the latter directed by Rodchenko. The teaching staff also included Stepanova, Vesnin, Klucis, Tatlin and El Lissitzky, whose work took on a more Constructivist character following his return from the West in 1925. At the school, a new generation of artists were being trained to be engineer-constructors or artist-constructors, who would fuse artistic skills with a specialized knowledge of technology.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, the period of Stalin’s five-year plans, the Constructivists suffered from the increasingly centralized control of art in Russia that led to the eventual imposition of Socialist Realism. They continued, however, to be particularly active in typographical, poster and exhibition design, areas in which photomontage was seen as an effective propaganda weapon (e.g. Klucis’s We Will Repay the Coal Debt to the Country, 1930; and Lissitzky’s design for the Pressa exhibition in Cologne, 1928; see Lodder, plate XV and figs 6.13a–b and 6.14). In 1931 Klucis stated, ‘One must not think that photomontage is merely the expressive composition of photographs. It always includes a political slogan, colour and purely graphic elements. The ideologically and artistically expressive organization of these elements can be achieved only by a completely new kind of artist—the constructor’ (1990 exh. cat., p. 116). Nevertheless, in an increasingly repressive political climate, official requirements for potent propaganda imagery tended to take priority over compositional invention, as is evident from issues of the internationally disseminated USSR in Construction that Rodchenko and Lissitzky designed in the later 1930s (e.g. by Lissitzky: USSR im Bau, No. 9, 1933). Constructivism may have been inspired by the early idealism of the Revolution, but it subsequently fell victim to the actual political system that emerged.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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