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Constructivism

2. International

Source: Oxford University Press

As a selfconscious movement, International Constructivism was initiated in May 1922 at the Düsseldorf Congress of International Progressive Artists, when the International Faction of Constructivists was organized by Theo Van Doesburg (representing the journal De Stijl ), Hans Richter (representing ‘the Constructivist groups of Romania, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Germany’) and El Lissitzky (representing the editorial board of Veshch’-Gegenstand-Objet). The faction’s declaration, later published in De Stijl (no. 4, 1922), emphasized their opposition to subjectivity, ‘the tyranny of the individual’, their dedication to the ‘systematization of the means of expression’, and their view of ‘art as a method of organization that applies to the whole of life’ and as ‘a tool of universal progress’. In September 1922 the group issued the Manifesto of International Constructivism, which was also signed by the Belgian Karel Maes (1900–50) and the German Max Burchartz (1887–1961).

During the 1920s the principal focus of activity was Germany, and knowledge of both De Stijl and recent Russian developments proved catalysts. Theo van Doesburg had been active in Berlin and at the Bauhaus since 1920 in promoting De Stijl aesthetic and Utopian ideals. The input from De Stijl was reinforced by the dissemination of information about Russian art through such émigrés as El Lissitzky, who arrived in Germany in late 1921, and through exhibitions, notably the Erste russische Kunstaustellung, which opened in Berlin in October 1922. Although the Russian Constructivists had already begun to implement their rejection of art in favour of utility, there was little to distinguish their works from the constructions of Naum Gabo, who settled in Germany in 1922 (e.g. Construction in Relief; c. 1921; untraced, see Lodder, above, pl. 1.52), or from the approach inspiring Lissitzky’s paintings, such as Proun G 7 (1923; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein-Westfalen). Both Gabo and Lissitzky opposed the Russian Constructivists’ denial of an independent role for art but aspired, through pure abstract form, to express progressive social values and the scientific and technological possibilities for transforming the inner and outer world. Constructivism in the West was influenced by the example of such artists because of their presence there, and because their approach corresponded closely to the ideas of De Stijl.

Among the leading protaganists of Constructivism in Germany were Hungarian artists and theorists such as László Moholy-nagy, László Peri, Ernő (Ernst) Kállai, Lajos Kassák and Alfréd Kemény (1895–1945). Inspired by Utopian ideals, they had fostered contacts with Moscow after the short-lived Hungarian Revolution of 1919; Kemény, for instance, had participated in the Constructivists’ debates in Moscow in 1921. Exploring the potential of the new materials, Peri produced his first Constructivist coloured cement reliefs in 1921. In contrast, Moholy-Nagy’s abstract paintings, with their bold colours, interpenetrating geometric planes and interest in transparency, were close to Lissitzky’s Prouns. Moholy-Nagy also vividly demonstrated the new repudiation of subjectivity when in 1922 he dictated to a professional sign painter, by telephone, the colours and composition of two paintings, using a colour chart and a piece of squared paper (e.g. Em 2, 1922; New York, MOMA). Moreover, his Light Prop, designed in 1929 (Cambridge, MA, Busch-Reisinger Mus.), epitomized the Constructivists’ interest in exploring new technological possibilities for the arts (for illustration see Moholy-nagy, László).

Given its Utopian dimension, the new style provided an affirmative alternative to the nihilism of Dada and influenced the work of former Dadaists such as Hans Richter, who edited the journal G (1923–6), advertised in De Stijl as ‘the organ of the Constructivists in Europe’. Kurt Schwitters, too, converted to a more Constructivist idiom, working alongside such figures as friedrich Vordemberge-gildewart, César Domela and carl Buchheister to establish ‘die abstrakten Hannover’. The confluence of Constructivist and De Stijl influences became apparent at the Bauhaus, the principal centre in the West for Constructivism. The proselytizing of van Doesburg in Weimar and in his courses (1920–22), the subsequent formation of the KURI (Konstruktiv, Utilitär, Rational und International) student group in late 1921 under the stimulus of van Doesburg and of Hungarians such as Farkas Molnár, and the appointment of Moholy-Nagy in 1923 to run the Foundation Course signalled a decisive aesthetic shift away from Expressionism in favour of a more positive attitude towards the machine and industry. The change was epitomized by Gropius’s slogan of 1923: ‘Art and Technology—A New Unity’. The practical results were such classics of modern design as Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel furniture (for illustration see Breuer, Marcel) and Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s lamps.

By the mid-1920s Constructivist views had become the common currency of groups in Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In Czechoslovakia, Constructivism was first expounded in December 1922 in the second issue of the magazine Život (Life) published under the banner ‘New Art—Construction—Intellectual Activity’ and illustrating the work of Jaromír Krejcar, Josef Šíma and karel Teige. Subsequently the movement was embraced by Devětsil (1920–31), which aimed to destroy the boundaries between art and life and embraced practitioners of all the arts, including photographers, architects, writers and musicians.

In Poland, Mieczysław Szczuka, wŁadysŁaw Strzemiński, Teresa Żarnower, Katarzyna Kobro and Henryk Stażewski were the key figures in the Block Group, a Constructivist movement centred on the magazine Blok (1924–6). Their programme emphasized ‘the inseparability of the problems of art and the problems of society’ but recognized the need for ‘disinterested creation in art’. Within these general principles there was considerable diversity. At one extreme, Szczuka and Żarnower expounded a utilitarianism based on Russian Constructivism and called on artists to dedicate themselves exclusively to industrial production in the service of the social and political revolution. Szczuka, allied with the Polish Communist Party, devoted himself to architecture, typography and photomontage. More in line with International Constructivism, Strzemiński and Kobro emphasized the autonomy of the work of art and the need to systematize artistic elements. Kobro’s sculptures focused on the movement of form in space, as in Hanging Construction 1 (1921–2; Łódź, Mus A.startend). Strzemiński, who had experimented with making reliefs, subsequently produced paintings influenced by Suprematism that emphasized the unity of ground and image in accordance with his formalist doctrine of Unism enunciated in 1927.

After the 1920s it becomes even more difficult to disentangle Constructivism from the wider history of non-objective art. As the totalitarian governments of Russia and Germany became increasingly intolerant of modernism, Paris became the refuge for experimental artists such as Gabo and Domela and the dominant centre of activity for abstract painters and sculptors. New organizations were formed there, such as Cercle et carré, Art Concret (1930) and the more significant Abstraction-création, a notably international and comprehensive grouping. Art Concret, organized by van Doesburg, was limited in its aim to unite those committed to a scientifically based art, and it included Jean Hélion, Otto Carlsund and Leon Tutundjian (1906–68).

In the 1930s London became the refuge for Constructivist émigrés such as Gropius, Breuer and Moholy-Nagy from the Bauhaus, followed by Gabo in 1936 and Piet Mondrian in 1938. Their presence reinforced British avant-garde experiments such as Ben Nicholson’s White Reliefs (e.g. 1935; London, Tate), Barbara Hepworth’s simplified carvings and the ‘Constructivist Fabrics’ project of 1937 by Alastair Morton (1910–63), which represented a continuation of the ideal of applying the new artistic language to everyday design. A more lasting monument to what is sometimes termed English Constructivism was Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art (1937), edited by Gabo, Nicholson and the architect Leslie Martin. The book contained work and writings by virtually all the leading architects and artists of the international ‘constructive trend’. Nevertheless, for all its optimism, Circle was in a sense the swansong of the earlier Utopianism, and the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 marked the end of International Constructivism as a movement.

After World War II Constructivism was rediscovered by another generation that was less ideologically and aesthetically radical than its forebears but which, nevertheless, was involved with developing an artistic language based on science and mathematics. Charles Biederman’s Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge (1948) played a vital role in the re-awakening of interest in the earlier movement and in the promotion of the constructed relief as a prime art form among such American and British artists as George Rickey and Anthony Hill. In Europe, artists such as Max Bill, who developed the concepts of Concrete art and Cold Art, Joost Baljeu and Victor Vasarely, as well as the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris, kept the notion of Constructivism alive, although in a far more aesthetically confined form.

Christina Lodder
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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