Thursday, 9 January 2014


Alexander Rochencko (1891-1950) Cover for El Lissitsky's book 'The isms of Art' 1921

Doing this sketchbook exploration of scaffolding has been reminding me of constructivist images I have seen, like the one above, so I thought it was worth looking into the movement in a bit more detail than I have before.

Constructivism was an artistic movement in Russia which started just before the Revolution, but flourished after it with the full support of the Bolsheviks. It followed artistic experiments in other countries such as cubism, futurism, and suprematism in Russia. It contributed to many important subsequent movements in European art in the 20th Century including Kandinski and the Bauhaus in Germany.

The principle of the constructivists was that art was to have a social role. 'Tatlin's that the spiritual revolution of his creativity should act as directly and powerfully on actual everyday life as does the political revolution.' This quote, and much of my understanding of the constructivists, is from a PhD thesis by Wendy Bark (1995) Constructivist costume, textile and theatre design 1917-1934; a study of contructivism set in the social, cultural, political and historical context of post-revolutionary Russia' 

Model of Tatlin's 'Monument to the Third International 1920
This building, which was intended to be larger than the Eiffel Tower, and contain 3 blocks inside to house a political centre, was never built. It was not designed with engineering principles in mind, but a much more artistic vision with the spiral being a visual representation of the 'revolution'.
The model of this tower exhibited in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2011 was my introduction to Constructivism, and the accompanying exhibition of architecture inspired me with the excitement of the architects starting afresh. It reminded me of the way dress designers in the 1960s starting making very geometric designs and bright strong colours (and for some of the same reasons), and led to the exploration outlined in this blog.

Many sources quote Tatlin's idea as "Not the old, not the new, but the necessary", which to modern Western ears sounds as if he were trying to make the purely functional, a sort of anti-Art. Whereas in fact, he argued against the 'tyranny of forms born by technology without the participation of artists.'. According to the website Cabinet//Tatlin, or, Ruinophilia, his own slogans, 'Art into Life' and 'Art into Technology!', are not only about putting art in the service of life, but about 'opening the horizons of the imagination' to making art itself the medium of social revolution. He is quoted as having believed that his artistic movement was in some way a necessary precursor of the Bolshevic revolution.

A corner detail of a residential block in the Narkomfin development, 1931.
An experiment in communal housing. Photo by MA Ilyin/ Schusev State Museum of Architecture

Marxism encompasses the idea that 'the environment determines consciousness'. It isn't surprising, therefore, that many of Tatlin's followers happily became propagandists for the new regime with their 'contempt for literary and artistic idols and passion for formal innovation'.

This movement followed a period of revitalising of the folk crafts and an increase in prestige for the applied arts in Russia, for example through the journal Mir Iskusstva. And this background can be traced through into Tatlin's respect for the qualities of the materials he used, and the introduction of unusual materials into art works, the legacy of which can be traced through 20th century sculpture.
Self portrait of Alexander Rodchenko 1933 showing his wish to show images from all sides at once, as if walking round a sculpture.
taken from

Other committed Constructivists include Alexander Rochenko; his wife Varvara Stepanova (1989-1924), and Liupov Popova (1889-1924).
Varvara Stepanova 1923 in sports clothes she designed to be functional yet attractive, deliberately moving away from fashions
designed in Paris in a bourgeois capitalist culture.
Textile design was thought to be a particularly good way to communicate socialist principles to the masses, who might otherwise have little exposure to them. The design process was effectively restricted to 5 centres after the revolution. Designs were expected to avoid over luxuriousness or bourgeois   sentimentality, and this can be seen in the use of flat colour, and the lack of embroidery or rich fabrics. 

Popova's Painterly Architechtonics 1918-19
Photo: State museum of contemporary art copied from Guardian website, which comments: 'It is a strange idea, both arrogant and naive, that compositions in oil paint might shape cities.'

Rodchenko collage 1919
From max.mmlc.northwestern.educ/

Rodchenko cover for Marietta Shaginan's 'Novyi byt and Art' 1923

How I respond to these images and ideas:

While I am not a communist, I can definitely relate to the idea that design of environment can have an important effect on the ideas you have. And while it is naive to think that you could teach socialism to the masses by the design of textiles, or by making a play, its scenery and its costumes in one coherent whole, it is an idealistic hope that appeals to me.

I am enough of a socialist to want everyone to feel able to be part of the same human race, and not excluded from the hub of things by distribution of wealth or accident of birth. I have some sympathy for the idea that pastel colours and prettiness is middle-class sentimentality, which can make being a crafty middle-aged white woman rather an uncomfortable place for me at times. 

What do I see in this style of art? It's all very flat - even the architecture! With very little in the way of textural variation, except where the photographs bring it in. The colours are clear and strong and simple. The lines are strong and their interest is in their relationship to each other. The mood is positive, forward-looking, hopeful and excited about the possibilities.

And rightly so, at least in artistic terms, in view of the huge influence these ideas have had on art and architecture in the following century. 

I think that is what I like most about this style - that feeling that creativity is being given its freedom and art might even lead to a better society for everyone.

Paper dress, Dispo (Meyersohn & Silverstein Ltd), 1967, London.
From Victoria and Albert Museum no. T.181-1986
An example of a 1960s dress design which gave me a similar feeling of hope and creative freedom.

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