History, Characteristics of Russian Abstract Art Movement.

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Russian Constructivism (c.1914-1932)


What is Constructivism?
History & Development
Constructivist Artists
Constructivist Works

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Abstract Paintings: Top 100.
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see: Abstract Art Movements.

What is Constructivism? - Characteristics

Half politics, half aesthetics, the style we now call Soviet Constructivism was an artistic, design and architectural movement that began in Russia from about 1914 onwards, which favoured applied art with a social purpose (design, architecture) rather than "art for art's sake," and which (not unlike Futurism) exalted the "machine" as the source of universal progress. In both its content and aims, Constructivism was hugely influential among progressive artists and designers across Europe, including architects like Le Corbusier (1887-1965).

It was one of several avant-garde movements of Russian art which sprang up during the first two decades of the 20th century: others included Russian Futurism (c.1912-14) started by Russian artists like Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Rayonism (1912-15) invented by Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and his partner Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962); and Suprematism (c.1915-1921) founded by Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935).


Example of Art

Monument to the Third International
(1920) Museum of Modern Art,
Stockholm. By Vladimir Tatlin.
See also Russian Sculpture.


Constructivism, a modern art style of assemblage art or sculpture, conceived initially by Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), combined the dynamism of Futurism and the geometry of Cubism. In Constructivist ideology, structure - a three-dimensional concept - is seen as more important: presumably because of its design and functional implications. Constructivism flourished in the 1920s before being replaced by Socialist Realism. Soviet authorities later slammed "Konstruktivizm" for its bourgeois qualities.

History and Development

The term "Construction Art" was first used by Kasimir Malevich as an impolite way of describing the work of Alexander Rodchenko in 1917. However, Constructivist ideas were first expressed by Vladimir Yevgrafovich Tatlin (1885-1953) who, after visiting Picasso in his Paris studio, returned to Russia and began producing his Relief Constructions (1913-17), a series of sculptures made from an assortment of junk and other "found" materials, in an imitation of similar works by his Spanish host. These Relief Constructions culminated in Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (an unfinished wooden prototype, the full-size version of which was intended to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris, designed by Gustave Eiffel), exhibited in 1920, which was a symbol of the Constructivist movement. Although not himself a member of the Russian Futurist movement, Tatlin - like most progressives - agreed with Futurists in the liberating value of technology, and also strongly believed in socially useful art.

Meantime, following the Bolshevik takeover, the arts had come under the control of the Institute of Artistic Culture INKHUK (Institut Khudozhestvennoi Kulturi) and its chief Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). However, Kandinsky's ideas were not deemed sufficiently proletarian and he was sacked, whereupon a row had broken out between two groups of influential Muscovite abstract painters about how to proceed. The first group - which included the brothers Naum Neemia Pevsner (Naum Gabo) (1890-1977) and Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962) - preferred to adhere to 'pure art' (viz, concrete art) in accordance with the Pevsners' Realistic Manifesto, while the second group - which included Tatlin, Rodchenko (1891-1956), his wife Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), Lyubov Popova (1889-1924), El Lissitzky (1890-1941), and Alexei Gan (1889-1942) - considered that traditional fine art was dead, and opted in favour of utilitarian and propaganda work (Agitprop). The latter group, who gained the upper hand, became known as "Constructivists" or "artist-engineers". In 1922, a Constructivist Manifesto, was issued by Alexei Gan, the movement's theorist.

Their victory was immediately hailed by influential left-wing German artists, and by the Soviet-German arts magazine Veshch-Gegenstand-Objet which spread the idea of 'Construction art', as did the Constructivist works on show at the 1922 Russische Ausstellung in Berlin. At the same time, INKHUK introduced the Theory of Productivism formulated by the art critic Osip Brik (1885-1945) which banned easel art and obliged painters and sculptors to switch to industrial designwork. Many artists, who were not prepared to give up fine art, left Russia for the West. Naum Gabo, for instance lived in Germany, France, Britain and America, while his brother spent the rest of his life in Paris. Gabo later published his International Survey of Constructive Art (1937). Creativity for those who remained was rigidly controlled. By the late 1920s, in line with Stalin's drive to increase industrial production, a new modern art movement was beginning to take shape, called Socialist Realism, which was designed to exalt the value of work and the heroic Soviet worker. In order to appeal to the masses, Socialist Realist imagery was entirely naturalistic. Meanwhile, abstract art, like all avant-garde styles, was condemned as subversive.

Important Constructivist Artists

Vladimir Yevgrafovich Tatlin (1885-1953)
Politically flexible, conceptual founder of Constructivism and key member of the Russian avant-garde. An exhibitor with the Donkey's Tail group in 1912, he staged The Store exhibition in 1916. Best known for his unfinished Monument to the Third International.

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956)
Painter and photographer. Invented the term "non-objective art", referring to geometric abstraction. Exhibited constructivist drawings at The Store exhibition; became the leader of the First Working Group of Constructivists in 1921; one of the first Russian artists, along with Tatlin, to switch to industrial design. Also known for his photographs of Soviet Russia.

Lyubov Popova (1889-1924)
One of Russia's earliest abstract painters, known for her wholly abstract pictures known as Painterly Architectonics (1916-20). Her pioneering work was shown at later Knave of Diamonds exhibitions. Turned to photography, photomontage and set design, before her tragic death from scarlet fever.

El Lissitzky (1890-1941)
Painter and illustrator and follower of Suprematist Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) before become an adherent of constructivism. Known for his Prouns series of abstract pictures (1919-24). At the Bauhaus, he introduced Constructivist ideas to the architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).

Konstantin Medunetsky (1899-1935)
Pupil of Tatlin and Rodchenko at VKHUTEMAS (Higher Technical-Artistic School) and member of OBMOKHU (Society of Young Russian Artists) who exhibited designs involving the spiral form in the 1920 OBMOKHU exhibition. Also created paintings called Colour Constructions.

Important Constructivist Works

Due to official disapproval of easel painting, most constructivist works appear in the form of designs (textile or set designs, architecture, or industrial designs). Famous paintings by constructivists include:

White Circle (1918, State Russian Museum St Petersburg) - Rodchenko
Painterly Architectonic (1918, Tretyakov Gallery) - Popova
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) - Lissitzky
Monument to the Third International (1919, Pompidou Centre Paris) - Tatlin
Colour Construction No 7 (1920, Tretyakov Gallery) - Georgy Stenberg
Study for Globetrotter in Time (1921, Menil Collection, Houston) - Lissitzky
Space-Force Construction (1921, Private Collection) - Popova

Constructivist-designed buildings include: Lenin's Mausoleum by Shchusev and the Izvestia building by Barkhin.

• For biographies of modern Russian artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about painting and sculpture in Russia, see: Homepage.

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