Soviet Constructivism – The Revolutionary Development Of Artists As Constructors Or Engineers

Vladimir Tatlin, Alexsandr Rodchenko, El Lissitsky, Alexi Gan,Varvara Stepanova, Olga Rosanova, Natalie Goncharova And Gustave Klucis – 1913-1922

By Laurence Humphries, February 16, 2015


View the article including a number of pictures at https://humphries346.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/soviet-constructivism/


Soviet Constructivism was very much an art movement influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when the working class took power in Russia. Many of the revolutionary movements associated with Constructivists was how Art could be translated into practical help for the emerging Proletariat in Russia. Technology including many different materials like glass, iron and glass were used to reflect the new developments for the growing Industrial Economy and Artists were to be transformed into constructors or Engineers to aid the rapidly involving Industrial Revolution which was taking place in the Soviet Union.

Nicholas Tarabukin explains the role of the machine “But consciously ignoring themselves as painters, The Russian Constructivists have declared their approach against Art in its typical museum forms and have collaborated with Technology and Industry” .[1].

“The constructivists have remained figurative artists to a far greater degree than their predecessors ,The suprematists because their structure of Construction the plane of the canvass was nothing other than the representation of constructive system or building”.[2].

Vladimir Tatlin one of the early founders of Constructivism constructed  ‘A Monument to the Third International”. It was a revolutionary design composed of different materials. Tatlin’s report of the section for Materials Cultures and research work in 1924 reported “the Synthetic forming of new materials as a result of such a formation the constructive of standards for new experiences”. [3].

As Christina Lodder comments Tatlin was an inspirational leader “The emergence of a self styled constructivist movement in 1921 on the other hand owed more to the inspiration of Vladimir Tatlin and his work with real materials”.[4].

Commenting on Tatlin’s tower which composed and was to be used as a major communication device broadcasting important speeches and meetings and producing materials which would aid and help the revolution spread to other countries. “This extraordinary structure was exhibited in November 1920 in Petrograd and then in Moscow the following Month”.[5]. “The tower would combine the geometric quality of the new abstract art with Industrial materials and technology synthesing the principle of architecture ,sculpture and Painting”.[6].

Nicholas Punin in 1920 wrote about Tatlin’s tower explain its design and layout and showing what could be artistically achieving using glass and Iron .”The model of the monument is composed of three large glass spaces elevated by a complex system of vertical pivots and spirals”. This was to be the start of how constructivism could be used , rather than a concept of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ , this would be used to consolidate and win over elements who are not convinced by the Bolsheviks. Many of the peasants were not sure of the Revolution and had some doubts on whether to support it or not. Punin now describes the real task of Tatlin’s tower “Here Conferences of the  International would take place. The next space is the form of a pyramid revolves on its axis at a speed of one revolution per month and it is intended for executive commiserat of the International. finally the upper cyclinder  is intended for centres of information , newspapers , pamphlets and a manifesto , in short all the mass media for the International Proletariat”.[7[.

“Lenin himself suggested early in 1918 that towns should erect propaganda monuments to the World Heroes of the revolution”.[8]

Alexi Gan explained some of the fundamental programmatic ideas of Constructivism in 1922 “We should not reflect ,depict reality but should build practically and express the planned objectives of the new actively the working class-the proletariat which is building the foundation of future society”.[9].

Gan further commented on the specific role of the constructivists in alliance with the working class. “And further the Iron paths to a culture organised on the great plan of social production , that the master of colour ,line all must become constructors , that would fufill the demands of communist culture”.[10].

Boris Arbatov in Art and class of 1923 explains succinctly the role of constructivist art. “The constructivists have declared that the creative processing of practical materials is the basic even the sole aim of art”.[11].

Alexsandr Rodchenko was another Constructor who was responsible for revolutionary designs and together with Tatlin a major influence in the development of Soviet Art.  “Tatlin and the ardently communist Rodchenko insisted that the artist must become a technician , that he must learn to use the tools and materials of modern production in order to offer his energies directly for the benefit of the Proletariat”.[12].

Lodder  comments about how Rodchenko used mathematical and geometrical ideas to develop much of his art work. “More clearly mathematical in inspiration were Rodchenko’s hanging constructions which investigated the internal spatial structure and dynamic potential of the basic forms of Euclidean Geometry”.[13].

Camilla Gray shows how constructive art was a departure for many of these Constructivists, rather  than just Producing aesthetic art that is pleasing to the viewer they felt the need to be builders in a practical way to help the Revolution. “The intuitive need of these artists to be active builders, first indicated in Tatlin’s constructions in real materials and real space was now to be given an opportunity to be expressed”.[14].

Rodchenko developed a Workers club which was a practical way of showing workers how constructive art was a particular source of practical help for the proletariat. “Rodchenko’s conception of the objects he designed for the Workers Club as comrades embodying a desire for Communism that the constructor used commodity desire to produce objects for the benefit not of Capitalism but of the new communist culture”. [15].

Varvara Stepanova  and Lyubov Popova and others had ventured into Props and designs for the Soviet theatre and Cinema. They were expert in designs and much of the sets are influenced by Constructive designs, Tatlin and Rodchenko designed chairs and Coats. “By 1922 the artists had come to share the constructivists objectives .Popova and Stepanova convinced that a cotton print is as much a product of artistic culture as a painting”.[16].

Photomontage and posters came  to be recognised as a way of showing and depicting the Revolution and the immense gains that workers had achieved. Artists like Lissitsky and Klucis represented that tradition.

Commentators like Bucholh and Boris Groys have suggested that Constructivism was a contributive factor in the development of Socialist Realism under Stalin. There is no doubt as I have argued in my other article on Socialist realism that the Idea of Proletarian art was taken up by Stalinism to enforce its rigid dogma and control. Rodchenko , Gan , Tatlin and Klucis were Revolutionary artists who made a huge contribution to the development of Art in the Soviet Union. Their artistic endeavour was for Revolutionary Communism and not Counter Revolutionary Stalinism. They did not produce art to order or glorify the great leader as Stalin became known as. If you look at Rodchenko and Tatlin you see spatially and geometric designs, they have nothing to do with Socialist Realism.

The weakness of the Constructivist movement was that similar to other Art movements in the Prolecult and LEF they argued for a pure Proletarian art with the slogan ‘Death to Bourgeois Art’. This was a weakness that both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky criticised for its one sided view of art.

Lenin submitted a resolution to the Prolecult conference on 8th October 1920  “The All Russian Prolecult congress rejects in the most resolute manner as theoretically unsound and practically harmful all attempts to invent own particular brand of culture to remain isolated in self contained organisations or to set up a Prolecult autonomy”.[17].

Leon Trotsky in Art and Revolution argued against  those Bolsheviks and Communists who argued for a Proletarian Culture “The formless talk about Proletarian Culture in antithesis to Bourgeois  culture feeds on the extremely uncritical identification of the Historic destinies of the Proletariat with those of the Bourgeois “. [18]. Further on Trotsky states there is no Revolutionary Art. “There is no Revolutionary art, there are the elements of this art. revolutionary art which inevitably reflects all the contradictions of a revolutionary Social system should not be confused with socialist art for which no basis has yet been made”.[19].

In this article on Soviet Constructivism I have sought to show the Revolutionary aspects of Constructivism  and how it was reflected in the early days of the Soviet State. Communism Offered Revolutionary Artists a role in the new social order that was being built in the emerging Soviet Union.

NOTES

1) MODERN ART AND MODERNISM NIKOLAI TARABUKIN PG.138

2) DITTO PG.138

3) ART IN THEORY 1900-2000 PG.352

4) CHRISTINA LODDER RUSSIAN PAINTING OF THE AVANT GARDE PG.19

5) DITTO PG.20

6) DITTO

7) NICHOLAS PUNIN TATLINS TOWER 1920 PG.15

8) CAMILLA GRAY THE RUSSIAN EXPERIMENT IN ART 1913-1922 PG.224

9) ALEXI GAN 1922 CONSTRUCTIVISM PG.38

10) DITTO  PG.39

11) BORIS ARBATOV ART AND CLASS 1923 PG.44

12)CAMILLA GRAY THE RUSSIAN EXPERIMENT IN ART 1913-1922 PG.247

13)AT OF THE AVANT GARDE OU TEXT BOOK CHRISTINA LODDER SOVIET CONSTRUCTIVISM PG.367

14)CAMILLA GRAY THE RUSSIAN EXPERIMENT IN ART1913-1922 PG.220

15) ART OF THE AVANT GARDE OU TEXT BOOK CHRISTINA LODDER SOVIET CONSTRUCTIVISM PG. 385

16) CHRISTINA LODDER RUSSIAN PAINTING OF THE AVANT GARDE PG.20

17) ART IN THEORY 1900-2000 PG.403

18) LEON TROTSKY ART AND REVOLUTION PG.45

19  DITTO PG. 63.