Constructivism Brought the Russian Revolution to the Art World

Laura Hillegas
Jan 4, 2019 7:37PM

One of the 20th century’s most influential movements amounted to nothing less than an attack on art. In 1922, a Russian artist named Aleksei Gan penned a manifesto that began with words in glaring uppercase: “WE DECLARE UNCOMPROMISING WAR ON ART!” The Russian Revolution had taken place five years earlier, in 1917. The country was in the process of freeing itself from the grips of a powerful ruling elite; now it would revolutionize Russia’s cultural life, too, and put art to work in service of a new, Communist society.

Gan and his artistic compatriots—including Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, considered the founders of the movement known as Constructivism, as well as Varvara Stepanova, Liubov Popova, El Lissitzky, and others—sought new art forms and modes of making art to serve the masses. Art, they believed, had no place in the hermetic space of the artist’s studio. Instead, it should reflect the modern, industrial world; be formulated in laboratories and factories; and be deployed as an active agent in the broader Communist revolution. Together, the Constructivists would seek “to find the Communist expression of material construction,” Gan wrote, “to establish a scientific base for the approach to constructing buildings and services that would fulfill the demands of Communist culture.”

What is Constructivism?

Alexander Rodchenko
Hanging Spatial Construction No. 9, Original work 1920-1921 / Edition 1993

Olivier Malingue

The movement emphasized building and science, rather than artistic expression, and its goals went far beyond the realm of art. The Constructivists sought to influence architecture, design, fashion, and all mass-produced objects. In place of painterly concerns with composition, Constructivists were interested in construction. Rather than emerging from an expressive impulse or an academic tradition, art was to be built.

A new, Constructivist art would look toward industrial production; approach the artist as an engineer, rather than an easel painter; and serve the proletariat. Constructivists used sparse, geometric forms and modest materials. From paintings to posters to textiles, they created a visual language out of forms that can be drawn with utilitarian instruments like compasses and rulers. They placed visual culture under the microscope, analyzing materials like wood, glass, and metal, to judge them for their value and fitness for use in mass-produced images and objects.

Influenced by and closely associated with the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Naum Gabo, as well as Cubism, Futurism, and Suprematism—the latter being the Russian avant-garde movement pioneered by Kasimir Malevich, famous for his iconic Black Square (1915)—the Constructivists sought to break art down into its most fundamental parts, challenge the legitimacy of established traditions, and create an art form relevant to a rapidly changing world.

Boris Arvatov, an important Constructivist theorist associated with Moscow’s Institute of Artistic Culture, where abstract painting pioneer Kandinsky also taught, suggested that modern art developed along an axis that could be pegged to three groundbreaking artists: Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Tatlin.

The icons of Constructivism

Vladimir Tatlin
Painterly Relief, 1914-1916
"In Search of 0,10 - The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting" at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen

Constructivism began with Vladimir Tatlin, a Russian artist who was profoundly impacted by a visit to Picasso’s studio in 1913. There, he saw the artist’s experimentations with collaged objects. In 1915, Tatlin demonstrated the influence of the Spanish artist in his own abstract, three-dimensional collages made of metal and wood, which he showed alongside Malevich’s Suprematist paintings at what was called the “Last Futurist Exhibition” of that year.

By 1917, during the first throes of the Russian Revolution, Tatlin had begun to conceive of a monument to the seismic social changes that were taking place. Two years later, in 1919, he began developing a design for the Monument to the Third International, known simply as “Tatlin’s Tower.” A wooden curvilinear model spiraling upwards, it became an icon of Constructivism even in its own time, and was intended to host The Third International, an organization that advocated for global Communist revolution. Though never built, Tatlin’s tower made waves in the sculpture, architecture, and design communities, and came to be considered an icon of utopian design that has inspired (and been quoted in) several films.

Russian artist El Lissitzky’s Proun Room (1923), another exemplary work of the Constructivist movement, is an installation of dynamic abstract forms—primarily rectangles—that appear to float, propelling the viewer around the space. Lissitzky and other Constructivists sought to “activate” the viewer, thereby awakening a mass consciousness. Similarly, Lissitzky’s Abstract Cabinet (1927–28), made for the Landesmuseum of Hannover, Germany, but destroyed in World War II, was a modular space that actually responded to the viewer’s participation. The walls, constructed of a series of vertical laths, would change in appearance as the viewer walked by, from dark to light and back again.

Alexander Rodchenko would craft objects from a similar impulse, such as his “Spatial Constructions” (1918–21), which consist of concentric geometric shapes. When suspended from the ceiling, the “Spatial Construction” transforms from a flat, two-dimensional artwork into a kinetic sculpture responsive to its environment.

This kind of experimentation with activating a viewer—and, by extension, the masses—would go well beyond the space of the art museum. Constructivism made leaps and bounds in the field of graphic design, primarily at the hands of Rodchenko, who advocated for the incorporation of avant-garde art activity into everyday life. Rodchenko’s bold designs, using stark geometric forms and striking diagonal lines, were used in propaganda posters, such as his famous Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge poster, made in 1924. The photograph of a woman shouting the titular cry appears within a frame of crisp, linear forms that extend outward, giving the artwork a sonic dimension.

Kasimir Severinovich Malevich
Suprematist Composition, 1915
"In Search of 0,10 - The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting" at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen

The Constructivists harnessed form and design to advance concrete social and political goals, a phenomenon that came to be known as “agitprop”—a combination of the words “agitation” and “propaganda.” Between 1919 and 1922, the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) published more than 1,500 original posters to be placed in vacant windows, a project that came to be known as “ROSTA Windows.” Artists like Rodchenko, Valentina Kulagina, and Viktor Koretsky used photomontage techniques to create posters that would speak to the social and political concerns of citizens, both locally and globally. Kulagina’s posters mobilized workers, particularly women workers, with bright and bold forms and text.

Textile designers Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova, meanwhile, were, as art historian Christina Kiaer has written, “the only Constructivists to see their designs for everyday, utilitarian things actually mass-produced and distributed in the Soviet economy.” Both artists had started out as painters, and Popova herself joined Malevich’s Suprematist group in 1916. Though Popova and Stepanova have different backgrounds—Popova was born into a wealthy family in Moscow, while Stepanova, five years younger, came from peasant origins—both artists ended up working at the First State Cotton-Printing Factory in Moscow.

The same flat, geometric forms in their paintings can be seen in their textile designs, which are characterized by their regularity and formal simplicity. Creating Constructivist textiles meant that Popova and Stepanova were making avant-garde art within the very means of production that served the masses. A 1924 photograph of Stepanova wearing a dress made with her own fabric design, taken by her fellow Constructivist and life partner Rodchenko, shows just how livable avant-garde design could be. Relaxed and casual in her shift dress, paired with sandals, Stepanova exemplifies the artist as producer.

Why does Constructivism matter?

In keeping with its global aims for Communist revolution, Constructivism was taken up by artists in other countries, too, especially in Germany—where László Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus felt its influence—and in Latin America. Though Constructivism as a historical movement had ended by the 1930s, when avant-garde activity became increasingly distasteful to the Communist regime, its influence could be felt throughout much of the 20th century.

Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, for example, are well-known for their neo-Constructivist works of the 1950s and ’60s. Though their works share many formal similarities with Constructivism, such as flatness, geometry, and a system-based approach to artmaking, their affinities run much deeper. Clark and Oiticica’s later work would commit itself to making participants out of its viewers, activating them with pieces that could be rearranged or even worn performatively, as in Oiticica’s “Parangolés” (1964–79).

Constructivism radically reimaged the role of the artist as an engineer with tools, rather than an academy painter with a brush. The Constructivists conceived of artworks as part of a greater visual program of awakening the masses toward revolution, and an awareness of class divisions and other social inequalities. Its ripple effects on art of the 20th century can be seen not only in movements like Brazilian neo-Constructivism, but also in Minimalism, which sought to further reduce form down to its most essential elements.

Laura Hillegas

Portrait of Gustav Klutsis by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.