Constructivism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Constructivism
Vladimir Tatlin is often hailed as the father of Constructivism. A contemporary of the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, he had collaborated on the preceding Cubo-Futurist movement. But his interests fundamentally shifted during a visit to Paris in 1913, where he saw a series of wooden reliefs by Picasso. Tatlin appreciated that the reliefs were not carved or modeled in a traditional manner but composed in an entirely different way (indeed they could be said to be 'constructed'), put together from pre-formed elements. On his return to Russia, Tatlin began to experiment with the possibilities of three-dimensional relief, and to use new types of material with a view to exploring their potential.
By 1919, both Malevich and Tatlin had achieved some prominence as representatives of different paths for the Russian avant-garde. They came together at "0.10, the Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting" (1915-16), in which Malevich exhibited Suprematist paintings and Tatlin unveiled his Corner Counter-reliefs. The latter were suspended in air across a corner of the room, instead of being attached to the flat surface of a wall, and their abstract forms defied the traditional idea that relief should depict a figure or an event. Instead, the Reliefs allowed the viewer to focus on the types of materials used, and how forms were arranged in relation to each other. Although Picasso and the Cubists had already been working with constructions and collage, Tatlin's work was important in emphasizing both the character of the materials used to fabricate the art object, and the fact that the completed artwork was itself a conventional physical object - not something that seemed to offer a window on to a different reality.
However it was not until Tatlin exhibited his model for the Monument for the Third International (1919-20) that Constructivism was truly born. More commonly known as Tatlin's Tower, the unusual spiral-shaped building was designed as a government office building. Planned to rise higher than the Eiffel Tower, this triumphant commemoration of the Russian Revolution was to be at once modern, functional and dynamic. The project proved an inspiration to the artist's contemporaries, who quickly came together to debate its consequences, and hence Constructivism came to life. The First Working Group of Constructivists was established in 1921, and included Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and others.
Although Constructivism fostered work in the traditional modes of high visual art, such as painting and sculpture, the movement's ambitions to enter mass production also encouraged artists to explore the decorative and applied arts. Hence the Higher Technical Artistic Studios (Vkhutemas) began to train its students in the applied arts, which reawakened interest in textiles and ceramics. In particular, Ilya Chashnik produced special ceramics that featured abstract planar forms, and Stepanova explored textile design, using repeating bold abstract patterns that evoked the virtues of mass production. El Lissitzky and Rodchenko were both well known for their graphic design and typography, which made use of bold lettering, stark planes of color, and diagonal elements.
Constructivism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Constructivism developed side by side with Suprematism, the two major modern art forms to come out of Russia in the 20th century. But unlike Suprematism, whose concerns with form and abstraction often seem tinged with mysticism, Constructivism firmly embraced the new social and cultural developments that grew out of World War I and the October Revolution of 1917. Concerned with the use of 'real materials in real space', the movement sought to use art as a tool for the common good, much in line with the Communist principles of the new Russian regime. Many of the Russian Constructivist works from this period involve projects in architecture, interior and fashion design, ceramics, typography and graphics.
Many of the pioneers in Constructivism had also studied Suprematist ideas, but they increasingly experimented with three-dimensional designs. They also began to attack traditional forms of art, which it was thought Constructivism could supplant: painting was officially declared "dead" at the '5 x 5 = 25' exhibition, where Aleksandra Ekster, Lyubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and Alexander Vesnin each presented five works. Paintings were included, but Popova declared that they should only be considered as designs for eventual constructions. Rodchenko's Black on Black series of paintings, however, made a statement. Directly confronting Malevich's White on White, which was meant to be the ultimate representation of a new reality, Rodchenko's black paintings announced the end of an era - "Representation is finished; it is time to construct."
Later Developments - After Constructivism
El Lissitsky was important in spreading Constructivism beyond Russia. In 1922, he co-organized the Düsseldorf Congress of International Productive Artists, with Hans Richter and Theo van Doesburg of the Dutch group De Stijl, and here the International Constructivist movement was officially launched. The artists at the Düsseldorf Congress released a manifesto that claimed art as a "tool of progress," turning Constructivism into a symbol of the modern era. Although the International movement did not highlight functionality, it expanded on the idea of art as object, and used new materials to highlight advances in technology and industry.
Germany became the center of the new movement due to the presence of El Lissitzky, who spent time in Berlin working on exhibitions at the Van Diemen Galerie and the Grosse Berliner Ausstellung in the early 1920s. He also collaborated on several publications. Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters, were both attracted to the modern, technological qualities of Constructivism despite their involvement in the more anarchic movement Dada. Lissitzky's Proun forms also influenced the work of László Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus, who developed an interest in technology and the machine. With the added presence of Van Doesburg, who also came to teach at the Bauhaus, the popularity of Constructivism quickly overshadowed Expressionism in Germany, and spread throughout Europe.
The movement gained ground in England when Moholy-Nagy, Naum Gabo and others took refuge in London following the German invasion. Echoes of Constructivism came to be seen in modern sculpture, even in the work of Henry Moore, who was also inspired by natural forms. The movement also had an impact in the United States, where the sculptor George Rickey became the first to write a comprehensive guide to Constructivism, in 1967. Today, the legacy of Russian Constructivism flourishes in the graphic arts and advertising. Street artists, such as Shepard Fairey, have also gained recognition by employing the propagandistic style of the Russian Constructivists in their work.