Constructivism was a movement that was active from 1913 to the 1940’s. It was a movement created by the Russian avant-garde, but quickly spread to the rest of the continent. Constructivist art is committed to complete abstraction with a devotion to modernity, where themes are often geometric, experimental and rarely emotional. Objective forms carrying universal meaning were far more suitable to the movement than subjective or individualistic forms. Constructivist themes are also quite minimal, where the artwork is broken down to its most basic elements. New media was often used in the creation of works, which helped to create a style of art that was orderly. An art of order was desirable at the time because it was just after I World War that the movement arose, which suggested a need for understanding, unity and peace. Famous artists of the Constructivist movement include Alexander Rodchenko, Liubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin, Olga Rozanova, Alexandra Exter, Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Antoine Pevsner, Kasimir Malevich and Alexander Vesnin.
Constructivism, Russian Konstruktivizm, Russian artistic and architectural movement that was first influenced by Cubism and Futurism and is generally considered to have been initiated in 1913 with the “painting reliefs”—abstract geometric constructions—of Vladimir Tatlin. The expatriate Russian sculptors Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo joined Tatlin and his followers in Moscow, and upon publication of their jointly written Realist Manifesto in 1920 they became the spokesmen of the movement. It is from the manifesto that the name Constructivism was derived; one of the directives that it contained was “to construct” art. Because of their admiration for machines and technology.
Tatlin's most famous piece remains his "Monument to the Third International" (1919-20, Moscow), a 22-ft-high (6.7-m) iron frame on which rested a revolving cylinder, cube, and cone, all made of glass which was originally designed for massive scale. After the 1917 Revolution, Tatlin (considered the father of Russian Constructivism) worked for the new Soviet Education Commissariate which used artists and art to educate the public. During this period, he developed an officially authorized art form which utilized 'real materials in real space'. His project for a Monument of the Third International marked his first foray into architecture and became a symbol for Russian avant-garde architecture and International Modernism.
The constructivists believed art should directly reflect the modern industrial world. Tatlin was crucially influenced by Picasso's Cubist constructions (Construction 1914) which he saw in Picasso's studio in Paris in 1913. These were three-dimensional still lifes made of scrap materials. Tatlin began to make his own but they were completely abstract and made of industrial materials. By 1921 Russian artists who followed Tatlin's ideas were calling themselves Constructivists and in 1923 a manifesto was published in their magazine Lef: '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 organization of materials.' Constructivism was suppressed in Russia in the 1920s but was brought to the West by Naum Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner and has been a major influence on modern sculpture.
Other painters, sculptors, and photographers working during this time were usually involved with industrial materials such as glass, steel, and plastic in clearly defined arrangements. Because of their admiration for machines and technology, functionalism, and modern mediums, members were also called artist-engineers.
Constructivism rejected the idea of autonomous art in favor of art as a practice directed towards social purposes. Constructivism had a great deal of effect on developments in the art of the Weimar Republic and elsewhere, before being replaced by Socialist Realism. Its motifs have sporadically recurred in other art movements since.
The term Construction Art was first used as a derisive term by Kazimir Malevich to describe the work of Alexander Rodchenko in 1917. Constructivism first appears as a positive term in Naum Gabo's Realistic Manifesto of 1920. Alexei Gan used the word as the title of his book Constructivism, which was printed in 1922. Constructivism was a post-World War I outgrowth of Russian Futurism, and particularly of the 'corner-counter reliefs' of Vladimir Tatlin, which had been exhibited in 1915. The term itself would be coined by the sculptors Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo, who developed an industrial, angular approach to their work, while its geometric abstraction owed something to the Suprematism of Kasimir Malevich. The teaching basis for the new movement was laid by The Commissariat of Enlightenment (or Narkompros) the Bolshevik government's cultural and educational ministry headed by Anatoliy Vasilievich Lunacharsky who suppressed the old Petrograd Academy of Fine Arts and the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1918. IZO, the Commissariat's artistic bureau was run during the Russian Civil War mainly by Futurists, who published the journal Art of the Commune. The focus for Constructivism in Moscow was VKhUTEMAS, the school for art and design established in 1919. Gabo later stated that teaching at the school was focused more on political and ideological discussion than art-making. Despite this, Gabo himself designed a radio transmitter in 1920 (and would submit a design to the Palace of the Soviets competition in 1930).
Constructivism as theory and practice derived itself from a series of debates at INKhUK (Institute of Artistic Culture) in Moscow, from 1920–22. After deposing its first chairman, Wassily Kandinsky for his 'mysticism', The First Working Group of Constructivists (including Liubov Popova, Alexander Vesnin, Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and the theorists Alexei Gan, Boris Arvatov and Osip Brik) would arrive at a definition of Constructivism as the combination of faktura: the particular material properties of the object, and tektonika, its spatial presence. Initially the Constructivists worked on three-dimensional constructions as a first step to participation in industry: the OBMOKhU (Society of Young Artists) exhibition showed these three dimensional compositions, by Rodchenko, Stepanova, Karl Ioganson and the Stenberg Brothers. Later the definition would be extended to designs for two-dimensional works such as books or posters, with montage and factography becoming important concepts.
Art in the service of the Revolution
As much as involving itself in designs for industry, the Constructivists worked on public festivals and street designs for the post-October revolution Bolshevik government. Perhaps the most famous of these was in Vitebsk, where Malevich's UNOVIS Group painted propaganda plaques and buildings (the best known being El Lissitzky's poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)). Inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky's declaration 'the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes', artists and designers participated in public life throughout the Civil War. A striking instance was the proposed festival for the Comintern congress in 1921 by Alexander Vesnin and Liubov Popova, which resembled the constructions of the OBMOKhU exhibition as well as their work for the theatre. There was a great deal of overlap in this period between Constructivism and Proletkult, the ideas of which concerning the need to create an entirely new culture struck a chord with the Constructivists. In addition some Constructivists were heavily involved in the 'ROSTA Windows', a Bolshevik public information campaign of around 1920. Some of the most famous of these were by the poet-painter Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vladimir Lebedev.
As a part of the early Soviet youth movement, the constructivists took an artistic outlook aimed to encompass cognitive, material activity, and the whole of spirituality of mankind. The artists tried to create works that would take the viewer out of the traditional setting and make them an active viewer of the artwork. In this it had similarities with the Russian Formalists' theory of 'making strange', and accordingly their leading theorist Viktor Shklovsky worked closely with the Constructivists, as did other formalists like Osip Brik. These theories were tested in the theatre, particularly in the work of Vsevolod Meyerhold, who had set up what he called 'October in the theatre'. Meyerhold developed a 'biomechanical' acting style, which was influenced both by the circus and by the 'scientific management' theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Meanwhile the stage sets by the likes of Vesnin, Popova and Stepanova tested out Constructivist spatial ideas in a public form. A more populist version of this was developed by Alexander Tairov, with stage sets by Aleksandra Ekster and the Stenberg Brothers. These ideas would go on to influence German directors like Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, as well as the early Soviet cinema.
Tatlin, 'Construction Art' and Productivism
The canonical work of Constructivism was Vladimir Tatlin's proposal for the Monument to the Third International (1919) which combined a machine aesthetic with dynamic components celebrating technology such as searchlights and projection screens. Gabo publicly criticized Tatlin's design saying Either create functional houses and bridges or create pure art, not both. This had already led to a major split in the Moscow group in 1920 when Gabo and Pevsner's Realistic Manifesto asserted a spiritual core for the movement. This was opposed to the utilitarian and adaptable version of Constructivism held by Tatlin and Rodchenko. Tatlin's work was immediately hailed by artists in Germany as a revolution in art: a 1920 photo shows George Grosz and John Heartfield holding a placard saying 'Art is Dead – Long Live Tatlin's Machine Art', while the designs for the tower were published in Bruno Taut's magazine Fruhlicht.
Tatlin's tower started a period of exchange of ideas between Moscow and Berlin, something reinforced by El Lissitzky and Ilya Ehrenburg's Soviet-German magazine Veshch-Gegenstand-Objet which spread the idea of 'Construction art', as did the Constructivist exhibits at the 1922 Russische Ausstellung in Berlin, organized by Lissitzky. A 'Constructivist international' was formed, which met with Dadaists and De Stijl artists in Germany in 1922. Participants in this short-lived international included Lissitzky, Hans Richter, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. However the idea of 'art' was becoming anathema to the Russian Constructivists: the INKhUK debates of 1920–22 had culminated in the theory of Productivism propounded by Osip Brik and others, which demanded direct participation in industry and the end of easel painting. Tatlin was one of the first to answer this and attempt to transfer his talents to industrial production, with his designs for an economical stove, for workers' overalls and for furniture. The Utopian element in Constructivism was maintained by his 'letatlin', a flying machine which he worked on until the 1930s.
Constructivism and Consumerism
In 1921, a New Economic Policy was set in place in the Soviet Union, which reintroduced a limited state capitalism into the Soviet economy. Rodchenko, Stepanova, and others made advertising for the co-operatives that were now in competition with commercial businesses. The poet-artist Vladimir Mayakovsky and Rodchenko worked together and called themselves "advertising constructors". Together they designed eye-catching images featuring bright colours, geometric shapes, and bold lettering. The lettering of most of these designs was intended to create a reaction, and function on emotional and substantive levels – most were designed for the state-run department store Mosselprom in Moscow, for pacifiers, cooking oil, beer and other quotidian products, with Mayakovsky claiming that his 'nowhere else but Mosselprom' verse was one of the best he ever wrote.
In addition, several artists tried to work in clothes design with varying levels of success: Varvara Stepanova designed dresses with bright, geometric patterns that were mass-produced, although workers' overalls by Tatlin and Rodchenko never achieved this and remained prototypes. The painter and designer Lyubov Popova designed a kind of Constructivist flapper dress before her early death in 1924, the plans for which were published in the journal LEF. In these works Constructivists showed a willingness to involve themselves in fashion and the mass market, which they tried to balance with their Communist beliefs.