Tatlin Tower. Model of the Monument to the Third International
Constructivism was an artistic and architectural movement in Russia from 1914 onward (especially present after the October Revolution), and a term often used in modern art today, which dismissed “pure” art in favour of art used as an instrument for social purposes, namely, the construction of the socialist system. The term Construction Art was first used as a derisive term by Kazimir Malevich to describe the work of Alexander Rodchenko in 1917. Constructivism first appears as a positive term in Naum Gabo’s Realistic Manifesto of 1920.
The movement was formed by Vladimir Tatlin, and later prominent constructivists included Manuel Rendón, Joaquín Torres García, Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo. The basis for the new movement was laid by People’s Commissar of Education Anatoliy Vasilievich Lunacharsky with the suppression of the old Petrograd Academy of Fine Arts and the Moscow College of Painting in 1918. The focus for Constructivism in Moscow was VKhUTEMAS the school for art and design established in 1919. Gabo later stated that teaching at the school was focused more on political and ideological discussion than art making.
Kazimir Malevich also worked in the constructivist style, though he is better known for his earlier suprematism and ran his own competing group in Vitebsk. The movement was an important influence on new graphic design techniques championed by El Lissitzky.
As a part of the early Soviet youth movement, the constructivists took an artistic outlook aimed to encompass cognitive, material activity, and the whole of spirtuality of mankind. The artists tried to create art that would take the viewer out of the traditional setting and make them an active viewer of the artwork. Most of the designs were a fusion of art and political commitment, and reflected the revolutionary times.
The artists of the movement were influenced by, and used materials from, industrial design such as sheet metal and glass. Often these materials were used to create geometric objects.
The canonical work of Constructivism was Tatlin’s proposal for the Monument to the Third International (1920) which combined a machine aesthetic with dynamic components celebrating technology such as searchlights and projection screens. Gabo publically criticized Tatlin’s design saying Either create functional houses and bridges or create pure art, not both. This led to a major split in the Moscow group in 1920 when Gabo and Pevsner released the Realistic Manifesto that asserted a spiritual core for the movement. This was opposed to the utilitarian and adaptable version of Constructivism held by Tatlin and Rodchenko. The Constructivists main political patron was Leon Trotsky but after 1921 his support began to decline – the Communist Party could not afford to support a pure art movement, and as early as 1918 Pravda had complained that government funds were being used to buy works by untried artists. To distance themselves from Gabo, Tatlin and Rodchenko began to use the term Productivism.
In 1921, a New Economic Policy was set in place in the Soviet Union, and Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and others made advertising for commercial enterprises. The poet-artist Vladimir Mayakovsky and Rodchenko worked together and called themselves “advertising constructors”. Together they designed eye-catching images featuring bright colors, geometric shapes, and bold lettering. The lettering of most contructivist designs is intended to create a reaction, and function on emotional and substantive levels.
A number of Constructivists would teach or lecture at the Bauhaus, and some of the VKhUTEMAS teaching methods were taken up and developed there. Gabo established a version of Constructivism in England in the 1930s and 1940s that was taken up by architects, designers and artists after World War II (see Victor Pasmore). Joaquin Torres Garcia and Manuel Rendón were monumental in spreading the Constructivist Movement throughout Europe and Latin America. The Constructivist Movement had a enormous impact on the modern masters of Latin America such as: Carlos Merida, Enrique Tábara, Theo Constanté, Oswaldo Viteri, Anibal Villacis, Estuardo Maldonado, and Carlos Catasse, just to name a few.
In the 1980s graphic designer Neville Brody used styles based on Constructivist posters that sparked a revival of popular interest.
Deconstructivist architecture by architects Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and others takes constructivism as a point of departure for works in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Zaha Hadid in her sketches and drawings of abstract triangles and rectangles evokes the aesthetic of constructivism. Though formally similar, the socialist political connotations of Russian constructivism are de emphasized in Hadid’s deconstructivism. Rem Koolhaas’ projects recall another aspect of constructivism. The scaffold and crane-like structures represented by many constructivist architects, return in the finished forms of his designs and buildings.