Constructivism was the last and most influential modern art movement to flourish in Russia in the 20th century. It evolved just as the Bolsheviks came to power in the October Revolution of 1917, and initially it acted as a lightning rod for the hopes and ideas of many of the most advanced Russian artists who supported the revolution's goals. It borrowed ideas from, and , but at its heart was an entirely new approach to making objects, one which sought to abolish the traditional artistic concern with composition, and replace it with 'construction.' Constructivism called for a careful technical analysis of modern materials, and it was hoped that this investigation would eventually yield ideas that could be put to use in mass production, serving the ends of a modern, Communist society. Ultimately, however, the movement foundered in trying to make the transition from the artist's studio to the factory. Some continued to insist on the value of abstract, analytical work, and the value of art per se; these artists had a major impact on spreading Constructivism throughout Europe. Others, meanwhile, pushed on to a new but short-lived and disappointing phase known as , in which artists worked in industry. Russian Constructivism was in decline by the mid 1920s, partly a victim of the Bolshevik regime's increasing hostility to avant-garde art. But it would continue to be an inspiration for artists in the West, sustaining a movement called International Constructivism which flourished in Germany in the 1920s, and whose legacy endured into the 1950s.
|Tatlin, Relief, 1914. Relief, 1914|
Constructivists proposed to replace art's traditional concern with composition with a focus on construction. Objects were to be created not in order to express beauty, or the artist's outlook, or to represent the world, but to carry out a fundamental analysis of the materials and forms of art, one which might lead to the design of functional objects. For many Constructivists, this entailed an ethic of "truth to materials," the belief that materials should be employed only in accordance with their capacities, and in such a way that demonstrated the uses to which they could be put.
Constructivist art often aimed to demonstrate how materials behaved - to ask, for instance, what different properties had materials such as wood, glass, and metal. The form an artwork would take would be dictated by its materials (not the other way around, as is the case in traditional art forms, in which the artist 'transforms' base materials into something very different and beautiful). For some, these inquiries were a means to an end, the goal being the translation of ideas and designs into mass production; for others it was an end in itself, a new and archetypal modern style expressing the dynamism of modern life.
The seed of Constructivism was a desire to express the experience of modern life - its dynamism, its new and disorientating qualities of space and time. But also crucial was the desire to develop a new form of art more appropriate to the democratic and modernizing goals of the Russian Revolution. Constructivists were to be constructors of a new society - cultural workers on a par with scientists in their search for solutions to modern problems.
is often hailed as the father of Constructivism. A contemporary of the , he had collaborated on the preceding movement. But his interests fundamentally shifted during a visit to Paris in 1913, where he saw a series of wooden reliefs by . Tatlin appreciated that the reliefs were not carved or modeled in a traditional manner but composed in an entirely different way (indeed they could be said to be 'constructed'), put together from pre-formed elements. On his return to Russia, Tatlin began to experiment with the possibilities of three-dimensional relief, and to use new types of material with a view to exploring their potential.
By 1919, both Malevich and Tatlin had achieved some prominence as representatives of different paths for the Russian avant-garde. They came together at "0.10, the Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting" (1919), in which Malevich exhibited Suprematist paintings and Tatlin unveiled his Corner Counter-reliefs. The latter were suspended in air across a corner of the room, instead of being attached to the flat surface of a wall, and their abstract forms defied the traditional idea that relief should depict a figure or an event. Instead, the Reliefsallowed the viewer to focus on the types of materials used, and how forms were arranged in relation to each other. Although Picasso and the had already been working with constructions and collage, Tatlin's work was important in emphasizing both the character of the materials used to fabricate the art object, and the fact that the completed artwork was itself a conventional physical object - not something that seemed to offer a window on to a different reality.
However it was not until Tatlin exhibited his model for the Monument for the Third International (1919-20) that Constructivism was truly born. More commonly known as Tatlin's Tower, the unusual spiral-shaped building was designed as a government office building. Planned to rise higher than the Eiffel Tower, this triumphant commemoration of the Russian Revolution was to be at once modern, functional and dynamic. The project proved an inspiration to the artist's contemporaries, who quickly came together to debate its consequences, and hence Constructivism came to life. The First Working Group of Constructivists was established in 1921, and included , and others.
Although Constructivism fostered work in the traditional modes of high visual art, such as painting and sculpture, the movement's ambitions to enter mass production also encouraged artists to explore the decorative and applied arts. Hence the Higher Technical Artistic Studios (Vkhutemas) began to train its students in the applied arts, which reawakened interest in textiles and ceramics. In particular, produced special ceramics that featured abstract planar forms, and Stepanova explored textile design, using repeating bold abstract patterns that evoked the virtues of mass production. and Rodchenko were both well known for their graphic design and typography, which made use of bold lettering, stark planes of color, and diagonal elements.