A geometric, abstract style founded in the early twentieth century in Russia by Vladimir Tatlin. The movement reflected the machine age through its use of new technology and materials and applied its theories to architecture and design as well as fine art. Exiled artists such as Naum Gabo helped to spread Constructivist ideas into the West.
Origins of the Style: The Productivists
In 1915 a legendary exhibition of avant-garde Russian art took place in St Petersberg, titled The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0, 10. The display demonstrated a prevalence for abstract, geometric styles of art in Russia as influenced by European Cubism and Futurism. It was here that sculptor Vladimir Tatlin exhibited the earliest examples of Constructivist art - a series of angular painted relief sculptures and corner panels ‘constructed’ from industrial materials including metal, glass, wood and plaster. In the years that followed Tatlin amassed a group of like-minded artists pursuing similar goals, setting out to capture the brave new spirit of the mechanical age through geometric forms and industrial materials, including Naum Gabo, Anton Pevsner, Alexander Rodchenko, and Varvara Stepanova, initially calling themselves the Productivists.
Kasimir Malevich launched his one-man movement titled Suprematism at around the same time, as a ‘pure’ geometric abstraction. Visually there were many overlaps between Productivism and Suprematism, but conceptually they were at odds – where Malevich believed art should exist on a separate, spiritual plane from ordinary experience, Tatlin and his colleagues felt real, industrial materials from everyday life should be integrated into works of art and that art should have a social function, purpose or message, with Tatlin asserting his famous maxim: 'Art into life!'.
The Bolshevik Revolution
In 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution promoted a new regime, opening up possibilities for artists to consider their roles in a new Communist Society. Tatlin’s iconic Monument to the Third International was commissioned by the Revolutionary Department of Fine Arts in 1919 - although it was never actually built, Tatlin’s models revealed his plans for a site to house the Third International Communist Congress, to be held in Moscow in 1921. His building embodied the Productivist spirit and the utopian political climate of the time, conveying an idealistic vision of art, engineering, technology and politics fused together as one single vision. Tatlin described his tower as the “union of purely artistic forms for a utilitarian purpose.”
Abstraction versus Engineering
In 1920 divisions began to appear within the Productivist group. Not all members were committed to Tatlin’s ardent, Socialist programme and Gabo even criticised Tatlin’s monument for its lack of deeper, artistic meaning, dismissing it as 'merely an imitation of the machine'. Gabo and Pevsner broke away from the original group to form their own abstract faction that was closer in line with Malevich’s Suprematism. In their Realistic Manifesto, Gabo and Pevsner argued that art forms should embrace space and time through constructed planes and kinetic rhythms. In response, Tatlin, Rodchenko and Stepanova published their Programme of the Productivist Group, outlining the importance of the artist as engineer, an outlook suited to the Russian Communist regime.
In the following years the two rival groups both began to call themselves Constructivists, but eventually those supporting pure abstraction left Russia, including Gabo and Pevsner, taking their new ideas with them to the West where they continued to develop Constructivist ideas and influence European and American artists, as seen in Gabo’s revolutionary use of perspex in Construction through a Plane, 1937 and Spiral Theme, 1941.
The Rise of Soviet Constructivism
In Russia, Tatlin’s socialist strand of Constructivism became known as Soviet Constructivism and gathered pace, with new members joining ranks, including Rodchenko, Stepnova, Liubov Popova, Alexander Vesnin, Alexandra Exter and El Lissitsky. The spare geometry, simplistic colours and graphic language of Soviet Constructivism became the defining style of the Communist state. Lissitsky created a new type of artwork which he called Proun, an acronym for 'project for the affirmation of the new', producing works of art in painting and print, including the elegant print series Kestnermappe Proun. Popova produced a series he referred to as 'painterly architectonics', artworks which suggested movement, pattern and architectural design.
Together the group staged the exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 in 1921 in Moscow, with each contributor submitting five artworks and a series of essays announcing their dedication to 'production art' which merged technology and engineering, calling for the death of easel painting. Alexei Gan, a graphic artist and designer, became the main theorist of the group, helping to promote Constructivist theory with a series of slogans such as, 'Down with Art! Long live technology!' A series of manifestos were also published in the journal Lef (Left front of the arts) and its successor Novyi Lef (New LEF).
Throughout the 1920s the group rose to prominence, with Russian artists following the production art model through designs in furniture, typography, ceramics and costumes, integrating an abstract, geometric language into practical, ordinary items. The style also spread into architecture, defined by modern materials, transparency of function and solid construction, integrating together bold, geometric designs. Although many designs never reached actualisation, their ideas would lead the way for the International Style in the following decades.
By the late 1920s, the political climate in Russia had shifted and Socialist Realism took over as the dominant, Communist style. However, the influence of Russian Constructivism was far-reaching. Lissitsky helped to spread ideas into Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands where he collaborated with artists on publications and exhibitions, leading the way for De Stijl and the Bauhaus, while their merging of art with engineering and production was an ethos which would persist throughout the twentieth century and beyond.