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Art Movements in Art History - Constructivism

Art Information > Art Movements > Constructivism

Constructivism*

The term "Constructivism" describes both an art and an attitude towards life and art that
originated in Russia. Strictly speaking, Constructivism describes post-Revolutionary work
with a utilitarian, ideological and social basis as well as work executed within a particular
historical period (c 1918-1922). However, the word is applied rather more broadly and with
a certain lack of clarity and precision in the literature. Constructivism, in this broader
application, includes the works of Gabo and Pevsner, as well as works showing a Russian
influence in Germany (Bauhaus). The work of El Lissitsky and Laslo Moholy-Nagy may also
be included in this category, as may De Stijl art in Holland.

The early abstract, nonutilitarian constructions of Tatlin are described either as
Constructivist or as "non-utilitarian constructions" and any discussion of
Constructivism generally begins with them. These constructions not only provided a useful
basis for any description of Constructivism; they also provided a formal language which
could ultimately be exploited for more utilitarian ends. Tatlin's earliest constructions were
made from materials such as wood, metal and glass - a result of his visit to Paris in the
winter of 1913/1914 and his encounter with Picasso's collages and assemblages. Not only
was the technique of collage revolutionary in the fine arts context, but the materials
themselves were "non-art", useless, disposable junk. Materials used in both Cubism and
Constructivism may be seen to contain and express other values precisely because of these
qualities. The use of the collage technique, however, besides being predominantly Cubist,
may be found in other Russian sources such as the Russian Futurist movement, Russian
Cubist movement and Russian icons. Icons were constructed from mixed
materials; the frames in particular frequently containing semiprecious stones. Tatlin and
Rodchenko, among others, made constructions from found and ready-processed materials,
that is from what has been described as real materials. These works both in principle and
practice led to Constructivism proper and were influential in Tatlin's credo of the "Culture
of Materials".

Not all Constructivist and pre-Constructivist art is three-dimensional. Malevich's
Suprematism questioned the new pictorial realism and he answered it in "reductive" terms.
Black Square is elementary. It is a single image, frontal, parallel to the picture plane and
centrally placed. It is the essence of a pictorial language: shape, colour and placing. It is
simple and direct. This work was strongly criticised at the time, being, as it was, so stark as
to defy any form of conventional interpretation. "It was intended', writes Milner,
"as a full stop in the History of Art". Despite the reductive terms, this series of works by
Malevich (there is a Black Cross and Black Circle) both reflect and comment on culture.
Illusionism and association were rejected in favour of the simplest facts. It is the
"replacement of representation by presentation. It is not a painting of a square, it is a
square".

The brothers Gabo and Pevsner are generally regarded in the West as Constructivists.
This attribution is based on Gabo's early abstract works and reinforced by Pevsner's study
in Paris. However, given the previous definition of Constructivism, with its utilitarian and
political emphasis, the classification of Gabo and Pevsner as Constructivists should be
examined. Such an examination may shed further light on Constructivism.

The brothers received their higher education in Western Europe, but returned to Russia
after the February 1917 Revolution and remained there during the critical Constructivist
period. Pevsner became a professor at the Moscow Free State Art Studio with Gabo as an
unofficial assistant. In 1923 they both left Russia. Earlier, during World War I, Gabo had
made three-dimensional constructions while living in Scandinavia. Constructed Head, no. 1
was the first occasion on which he used his stereometric method. This is a system which
pxplores intersecting internal planes as a means of representing volume. The following is an
abbreviated interpretation in diagrammatic form which accompanied an article in Circle in
1937.

Although these objects by Gabo may be viewed as falling into the category of
"nonutilitarian constructions", there are essential differences between Gabo's and Tatlin's
approach to materials. One may also see these differences as to some extent distinguishing
Gabo from the Constructivist approach. Tatlin was interested in materials and their
juxtaposition and interaction in space. Gabo, on the other hand, investigates the structure of
form and its internal spatial implications - a primarily artistic preoccupation. Further-
more, as a contribution to the ideological battles about art which were raging in Moscow at
the time, Gabo published "The Realist Manifesto" on 5 August 1920. It was signed by
Pevsner, although his actual contribution was minimal. The manifesto is concerned with
sculptural ideas and transcendental (rather than factual) reality. Gabo used the word
prostroenie to describe his method. This word could be translated into English as
"construction", and this may account for the confusion surrounding Gabo's affiliation to
Constructivism proper. Gabo, in any case, preferred the word constructive to constructivist.
In view of this, it seems unlikely that Gabo and Pevsner would have used
the term constructivist to describe their work at the time. Nevertheless, despite its use,
correctly or not in this context, their work formed an essential part of those sculptural
developments and methods which were decisively influencing Russian art during the
formative phase of Constructivism. Milner accepts that Gabo is a Constructivist on the
ground of his involvement with particular kinds of engineering construction.

The work that epitomised the material concept and style of post-Revolutionary Russia is
Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. The artist described it as "a union of purely
artistic forms (that is, painting, sculpture and architecture) for a utilitarian purpose". It
became a symbol of Utopia. The project was commissioned early in 1919 by
the Department of Fine Arts, and Tatlin made a model in metal which was exhibited in
Moscow during December 1920.

It was conceived on a grandiose scale. The completed work was intended to be 400
metres high (Tatlin's model was approximately 6 metres) and was to have straddled the
River Neva in the centre of Petrograd. Formally, it was conceived as two separate spirals
moving in the same direction and diagonally angled for dynamism: "The spiral was the ideal
expression of liberation" according to Puni. Although probably inspired
by the Eiffel Tower, which Tatlin must have seen on his visit to Paris, it makes a very
different kind of statement. It was intended as a monument, although emphatically rejecting
the conventional traditions of monumental form. Its ambitious aim was to change
consciousness, as well as the face of the city, by functioning as a source of agitation and
an instrument of propaganda. Nothing "old" or "static", such as museums or libraries,
would be housed in it.

Technological expertise was to be used, not merely as an ingredient in its construction,
but also to advertise contemporary advances in political and cultural life. So, plans were
made to house in the monument a telephone exchange; a radio station capable of
transmitting around the world; a projector able to project images and messages on to
clouds; and a printing shop - as well halls, an information centre and offices.

Response to the monument was varied; it was not totally accepted by the Bolshevik
hierarchy. It was regarded as being impossible to build, and was criticised by Trotsky for its
impracticality, revolutionary romanticism and symbolism. Yet it has
become legendary as the grandest concept yet to embody the unification of artistic forms in
the service of an ideology. Apart from this, the monument also reflects the excitement
generated by the Revolution and affirms that the Revolution provided the necessary impetus
for change.

After the Revolution, artists were given greater freedom in running cultural affairs and
the institutions in which they worked. Despite the disruption caused by the civil war from
1918 onwards, artists remained excited and active. Lodder discusses certain advantages
which emerged out of the activities of this period. First, artists gained experience in
agitation (the artist as agitator); "second, ... artists could run their own affairs ([the] artist
as [the] transmittor of [a] specialist idea); third, the Revolution provided an ideal, that of
Marxist materialism ([the] artist as [a] unifying link between artistic, economic and political
evolution;" - a new socialist reality. The important post-Revolutionary
art institutions were Vkhutemas and Inkhuk (the Institute of Artistic Culture) in Moscow and
the Petrograd Free Studios.

Tatlin and Rodchenko accepted official positions - not only because they were
sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause but also because such positions provided an
opportunity to explore the socialisation of art. Tatlin worked in the Moscow Department of
Fine Arts and Rodchenko became the Director of the Museum bureau.
Teaching programmes were developed that contained aspects of Suprematism, Russian
Futurism and Russian Cubism, as well as Tatlin's "Culture of Materialism", and
Kandinsky's theories.

Kandinsky's affiliation with official programmes was short-lived, primarily because his
theories were based on the concept of the artist as an intuitive, "artistic" and creative
individual. Kandinsky's ideas were ultimately more fully realised in the Bauhaus in
Germany, to which he was invited by Gropius. Constructivism was more concerned with
new art, new objects and a new society, and this meant that traditional forms of
individualism and self-expression must be expunged. The public (or collective) as opposed to
the private (or individualist) was venerated. The streets and the factories became the source
of inspiration, the venue of art, and conditioned the response of artists. This sentiment was
made explicit by the Revolutionary poet Mayakovsky: "The streets are our brushes, the
squares our palettes".

The new programme was a mixture of the ideal and the concrete, and occupied a ground
between creativity and society. Prior to the Revolution the aims of each
individual were defined in terms of self-interest. After the Revolution the key word was
culture, redefined no longer in "purely aesthetic terms but in relation to the material
demands of politics" . The creative person necessarily had to exemplify a
defined social role. This individualism was discouraged in the overwhelming ideological
drive to express the imperatives to the new revolutionary society.

In the context of such a programme it was inevitable that those artists who were
concerned to preserve a special or individualistic approach would feel alienated. Others,
however, willingly abandoned pre-Revolutionary individualism and embraced the new
ideological dictates - a process which led ineluctably to the designing of practical products.
Tatlin and Stepanova designed clothes, Malevich decorated plates and designed crockery,
and Rodchenko made posters and designed bookcovers. These artists no longer called
themselves Constructivists, but Productivists.

These changes were accompanied by a shift in the political power base when Trotsky
lost influence and Lenin consolidated his power. Lenin was hostile to modern art and denied
commissions and positions to the Russian avant-garde, so that by 1922 artists who were
unwilling to redirect their energies as required were without work and forced to leave
Russia. However, for a short time, there was in Russia an ideal state which "posited an
entirely new relationship between the artist, his work and society" and
resulted in an art expressed mainly in abstract terms. It constituted an attempt to fuse the
artistic and the technological means of production.

* Drawn from notes compiled by R. Becker for the University of South Africa




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