Christina Kiaer has described the main aim of the constructivist movement as ‘to mass produce transparent utilitarian things for use in everyday life’. How adequate is this description? Constructivism is primarily an art movement that was based in Russia in the early 20th century. It had a considerable link to the Russian Communist Revolution. They merged the arts with modern technological rationalism for political and ideological uses, being essentially a form of Soviet propaganda.
The theory of constructivism was a departure from Russian Futurism that sought to break and destroy traditions, but is also derived from Russian Suprematism, Dutch De Stijl and the German Bauhaus. The artists did not believe in abstract ideas, rather they tried to link art with concrete and real ideas. Early modern movements around WWI were idealistic, seeking a new order in art and architecture that dealt with social and economic problems. They wanted to renew the idea that art does not revolve around “fine art”, but rather emphasized on “practical art” while combining man and mechanization1.
Constructivism was an invention of the Russian avant-garde that found ‘followers’ across the continent. They depicted art that was mostly three dimensional, and they also often portrayed art that could be connected to their Proletarian beliefs. The group of artists and designers involved in constructivism (including Rodchenko, Vesnin, Popova… ) had political as well as artistic ambitions. Christina Kiaer has described the main aim of the constructivist movement as “to mass produce transparent utilitarian things for use in everyday life”.
We can ask ourselves: how adequate is this description? We will examine the constructivist’s involvement on Bolshevik public relations campaigns and propaganda and even be seen as a tool for social reform, underlining their role in the revolution; whereas secondly discussing the group’s main aims like to help stimulate industry and mass-production, and make art more accessible to the average working man. Firstly, constructivism first started out as an art in the service of the revolution.
At the start of the Soviet Reign, during the civil war of 1918-1921, the constructivists who, at the time were known as the futurists, were set in charge of decorating and re-thinking the open spaces in major cities2. On the occasion of the first anniversary of the revolution in 1918, architect Nikolai Kolli exhibited his “Red Wedge”3, a totally abstract monument which represented a red wedge breaking through a white block, symbolising the conflict and more importantly, the domination of the Red Army.
Some more rural parts of Russia were also importantly linked with the constructivist movement. Perhaps the most famous is the small provincial town of Vitebsk, where the Unovis group (led by Kazimir Malevich) displayed many propaganda plaques and buildings4. The pure geometrical and simplistic forms used in poster such as “Lengiz”5. Books on all the branches of knowledge” created by Russian artist, sculptor, photographer and graphic designer Alexander Rodchenko (1924) represented the main characteristics of constructivism.
Working on public festivals and street designs allowed the constructivists to work in parallel with the political, social and economical changes installed by the new Soviet government. Vladimir Tatlin, who is considered the father of constructivism, was very involved in helping to spread the doctrine of the successful, conquering Bolsheviks6. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, he was appointed to work on a new building that would change the landscape of Petrograd. The “Monument to the Third International” or simply “Tatlin’s Tower”, was a monumental building, to be built from the main industrial materials: iron, glass, and steel.
It was envisioned to be an impressive and supreme symbol of modernity in materials, shape and function: The investigation of material, volume, and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions. An example is the project for a Monument to the Third International. (Vladimir Tatlin)7.
The monument was eventually never built, due to housing shortages and political turmoil at the time, although it is generally perceived more as the defining work of architectural constructivism. Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky is said to have called it a monument “made of steel, glass and revolution”8. Tatlin’s desire was to erase what was considered as the classical use and representation of art. He contemplated a new, more practical function for art, which worked in unison with his ambition to put art at the service of the revolution.
Furthermore, he was also extremely implicated in the instruction of the public, while working for the new Soviet Education Commissariate which used artists and art to inform and educate the public9. In addition, the constructivists were heavily involved in Soviet propaganda. The first form being in the style of graphic patriotic street bulletins known as the Rosta Windows that Lenin launched in 191810. Rosta Windows were stencil-replicated propaganda posters created by artists and poets within the Rosta system, under the supervision of the Chief Committee of Political Education during 1919-21. The main topics were current political events.
Some of the most famous of these were by the poet-painter Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vladimir Lebedev. They were usually displayed in windows (hence the name), which made them accessible to all. The design contained graphical simplicity which was suitable for viewing from distance and often used sequences of pictures according to some plot. The posters were not printed but rather painted with cutout stencils made from cardboard. Next were the works that used geometric shapes with dynamic angles and view points, but also photomontage and cinema. The constructivists also experimented with abstract uses of light and contrast11.
Once again, the aim was to inform the Russian people of major political changes and events. The best example of this is “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”12 by El Lissitzky in 1920. In the poster, the intrusive red wedge symbolises the bolsheviks, who are defeating their opponents, the white army, during the Russian Civil War. Finally there was Social Realism that became the main form of propaganda during the regime of Stalin up until the collapse of the USSR13. A good early example of Soviet Social Realism is Gustav Klutsis’s work that used photomontage while still incorporating the modernist geometric forms that the constructivists used.
In his “Worker Men and Women: Everyone Vote in the Soviet Elections”14 (1930), the eye catching communist red superimposed with a black and white photo montage of hands increasing in scale was representative of the merge between constructivism and social realism. By putting their art at the service of the revolution, the constructivists took an artistic outlook aimed to encompass material activity and political events. 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.
However the central aim of the Constructivists was instilling the avant-garde in everyday life. The constructivists themselves considered their early work as a precursor to going into the factories and producing useful objects15. The intention was to move from the utopian to the quotidian. Again, in every way the artists developed their art specifically according to how useful it might be for socialism. During 1921, the New Economic Policy was established in the Soviet Union, which reintroduced a limited state capitalism in the Soviet economy.
Rodchenko, Stepanova, and others made advertising for the co-operatives that were now in competition with commercial businesses; they called themselves “advertising constructors”. Together they designed eye-catching images featuring bright colours, geometric shapes, and bold lettering that were intended to create a reaction, and function emotionally. Most were designed for the state-owned department store Mosselprom in Moscow16. Several artists tried to work with clothes design: Varvara Stepanova designed dresses with bright, geometric patterns that were mass-produced, although they mainly remained prototypes17.
The painter and designer Lyubov Popova designed what she called a Constructivist flapper dress in the early twenties, the plans for which were published in the journal LEF. In these works Constructivists showed a willingness to involve themselves in fashion and especially the mass market, while still trying to balance it with their Communist beliefs. Additionally, The 1925 international Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry in Paris was an opportunity for the Soviet government to showcase its cultural achievements on an international stage.
The exhibits included a selection of Popova’s textiles, and Rodchenko and Melnikov’s design for a Workers’ Club: a collective leisure space, in which bourgeois comfort was replaced by geometric functionalism18. The proletariat was encouraged to spend their time productively by the presence of bookcases and spaces to read, and by instoring what was known as the ‘Lenin Corner’, a place devoted to study materials related to the former Soviet leader.
The new forms of the Constructivists began to symbolise the project for a new everyday life of the Soviet Union, then in the mixed economy of the New Economic Policy. Workers’ clubs, communal housing and factories all had to be redesigned with an industrious proletariat in mind. Ginzburg’s communal house (1928) help to free women from the domestic and move them into industry by having a separate children’s block and kitchens. In addition, new textile factories and bakeries also catered to this shift, with new technologies for mass production19.
In conclusion, constructivism was an invention of the Russian avant-garde that found adherents across the continent. The artists mainly consisted of young artists trying to engage the full ideas of modern art on their own terms. Constructivist art is committed to complete abstraction where themes are often geometric, experimental and rarely emotional and with a devotion to modernity. Architecture is said to be the most successful domaine of constructivism.
What was destined to be used in ‘everyday life’ (fashion, objects…) was much more ineffective and unsuccessful. In addition, by the 1930s, it was losing ground, as the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR) promoted ‘heroic realism’ to glorify workers and peasants through easel painting and monumental sculpture. In the years to come, artists like Rodchenko were increasingly marginalised and Socialist Realism was endorsed as the sole approved artistic style of the Soviet Union.