Russian Art

Who Were the Constructivists?

By Christian House

Several works in the Russian Pictures sale on 5 June in London hark back to the heyday of the Constructivists, an early-20th century artistic movement that linked creative output to progressive societal structures. Of particular note is a work by Vasily Dmitrievich Ermilov, the leading exponent of the Ukrainian avant-garde who was heavily influenced by Constructivism. The architecture in this work – Design for a recreation room in the Kharkov palace of pioneers and Octobrists – shows this influence, but is enhanced by decorative elements and classical statues.

Beginnings: Tatlin’s Tower

The 20th century began with the demolition of realism in artistic representation: after Cubism came Futurism, Suprematism and Rayonnism (all three prominent in Russia). And then, with a proposed 1,300ft monument designed by Vladimir Tatlin, came Constructivism. Tatlin, a Russian artist and architect, planned to build Monument to the Third International – a vast would-be folly to be erected in Petrograd to celebrate the Bolshevik’s embrace of Modernism. Conceived in 1919 as a gigantic experiment in geometry, it was to be constructed in steel, iron and glass, with a twin helix as it’s main feature.

The tower, which distilled the several years worth of theorising by Tatlin, was to be a bold statement and purposeful to the Communist cause: it was intended to house a communications centre for state messaging and act as the headquarters of the Comintern. Viktor Shklovsky, a prominent Soviet cultural critic, described it as an amalgamation of “steel, glass and revolution”.

The tower was never built. There were serious doubts about its structural safety. The foundations, however, had been laid for an artistic and architectural movement driven by Socialist philosophy and Modernist aesthetics.

Not the old, not the new, but the necessary.
Vladimir Tatlin, 1920

A Total Manifesto

Constructivism threw out flights of fancy, arguably taking subtlety and individualism in its slipstream: this was the antithesis of Surrealism and Expressionism. But it was certainly wide reaching. Following in Tatlin’s wake, Russian artists, architects and designers, such as Alexander Rodchenko, Naum Gabo, El Lissitsky and Lyubov Popova, ran with the baton. Constructivism touched a huge number of spheres – graphic design, sculpture, ceramics, photography, poetry, cinema, theatre design. The pursuit of uniformity and purpose was its mantra.

 In 1923 a manifesto published in the Russian art journal LEF, underscored the movement’s key principles:

"The material formation of the object is to be substituted for its aesthetic combination. The object is to be treated as a whole and thus will be of no discernible ‘style’ but simply a product of an industrial order like a car, an aeroplane and such like. Constructivism is a purely technical mastery and organisation of materials."

Framed in Red

The aim of the Constructivists was, literally and metaphorically, to help build a new society in Russia. And their patron in power was Leon Trotsky, who remarked: “Insurrection is an art”. The idea was to redefine the role of art and the artist, who was to become a kind of social mechanic. Industrial production was in; the easel was out.

The Constructivist’s Red mission was twofold: some figures, such as Lissitzky, Rodchenko, and the Stenberg Brothers, produced “agitational propaganda” posters: works that blended sharp geometry, primary colours and slogans delivered in heavy sans-serif fonts.  These sheets were fervent, dynamic, impersonal and misleading in their promotion of everything from state airlines to media and health schemes. There was an element of fantasy in the movement – post-Revolution Russia couldn’t bankroll the utopian visions illustrated.

The second observance to the cause was the inclusive nature of Constructivism. The viewer was to be an active participant in the creative process, particularly in the realms of theatre and cinema.

By the end of the 1920s, however, things were looking ominous. Stalin hated the avant-garde. The Constructivist’s days were numbered.

Art can no longer be merely a mirror, it must act as the organiser of the people’s consciousness.
El Lissitzky, circa 1920s

The Machine in Exile

This was art for the machine age. And, like machines, its advocates were a complicated assortment of parts and counter-parts. Just as the Russian Revolution proved to be an echo chamber of competing factions – Bolsheviks, Bundists, Mensheviks – so did the art movement most connected to the upheaval. Splits formed between those willing to bend to Moscow’s mandarins and those whose loyalty lay in the purity of compositions.

Predictably, the movement’s influence in Russia was short-lived: they fell out of favour by the 1930s, along with Trotsky who was by then living in exile in Turkey.

Constructivism’s future lay elsewhere. Its tendrils reached many other countries, aided by émigrés like Naum Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner, and its central theory morphed, adapted and altered to national tastes and requirements. In particular, they would inspire the Bauhaus in Germany and the spin-off “Constructionism” movement in Britain during the 1950s.

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