Russian Constructivism Essay
Russian Constructivism or Avant Garde is the artistic expression of Bolshevik ideology. It challenges the foundations of so called “Borgeous” art with its art for the sake of art nature. As testimony to the early socialist era the movement represents an artistic expression of the practical application of art in everyday life. This is characterized by the application of design and artistic expression into the creation of everyday objects such as worker clothing, posters, etc. Two of the movement’s most prominent representatives are the photographer, painter and graphic designer Alexander Rodchenko, and El Lissitzky who was involved in architecture and typography as well as in photography and design. Both Rodchenko and El Lissitzky believed that art had the power to influence and prompt a change in society and should be used as a powerful and practical tool.
The work and life of these two artists has been the object of study and analysis. They are amongst the most prominent representatives of the unique concept that is Constructivism (Encyclopaedia Britannica), the concept of a utopian state in which equality and cooperation reign over individualism and material supremacy. To understand the essence and significance of the two artists as well as of Constructivism as a whole we will examine two studies of their work. One is the work of Victor Margolin entitled “The Struggle for Utopia” and the other one is “Imagine No Possessions” by Christina Chiaer. Both writers offer a comprehensive analysis of the constructivist philosophy.
In his work “The Struggle for Utopia” Victor Margolin focuses on the work of Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Moholy-Nagy. The book is a collection of essays which analyse issues connected with one or more of the artists. The writer stresses that the study aims to provide a better understanding of the issues included in the book. He does not provide a conclusion of the artistic and political choices and practices of the artists analysed (Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia,4). According to Margolin the ideology of the three artists is based on the beliefs that artists are at the forefront of driving social change and as such should make the characteristics of utopian society apparent, that art is not an isolated practice, and that visual statements should be based on precise and objective forms (Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia,5). The reality of the artists is without a doubt inspired by their time. This is cause for ideological similarities and a somewhat common range of messages incorporated into their work. “The Struggle for Utopia” tries to distinguish and characterise each of the representatives of the constructive era with their own particular style and ideas while stressing that the ideology of the soviet avant garde was often subject to revision due to the severity of reality during Bolshevik rule. The book offers an overview of the epoch beginning with the initial euphoria caused by the transition to socialism in the Soviet Union which empowered many artists to search for ways in which to expand the area of influence of their art. There is an essay dedicated to El Lissitzky’s experience in the much less revolutionary reality of German Constructivism, where it was up to the artists themselves to define the degree of social influence their art would have on society: “At issue was the question whether Constructivism was to revolutionise social relations as a whole or to operate on the terrain of art” (Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia,45). This branch of the constructivist movement was one o Another focus of the book is Rodchenko’s work and his declination of painting in favour of design and his later interest in photography via which he approached reality through any angle, except the conventional one.
Another portion of the book deals with the introduction of further measures of limitation for the artists after the introduction of the five year plan in 1929. This measure provided a new set of difficulties and constraints for Rodchenko and El Lissitzky the latter of which returned to the Soviet Union at that time (Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia,6). As opposed to the focus on the overall career of artists and the meaning of their life’s work which “The Struggle for Utopia” provides, Christina Kiaer’s “Imagine No Possessions” takes a closer look at the purely utilitarian activities of the constructivists. She analyses the idea that objects should be viewed as “comrades”, associates in the struggle toward a socialist ideal, rather than as an object to be possessed and used. Kiaer states that the pleasure of possession of items should not be replaced with austerity and renunciation, but by incorporating “the material object as an active, almost animate participant in social life” (Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions,1).This belief is central to Rodchenko’s philosophy and to that of all constructivist artists. The author of the book affirms that the role of constructivists is rather one of production designers who adapted their production to the modern historical conditions by giving art a practical expression applicable to reality.
The author presents objects produced by artists of the constructivist era. She examines Rodchenko’s packaging and advertisements as well as his design of a worker’s club (Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions, chapter 4). Rodchenko is also represented as a designer of clothes. Reference is made to a photo of him posing in his designer worker clothes which are in unison with the message of the usefulness and partnership between objects and workers. (Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions,chapter 1). A chapter in the book is dedicated to Rodchenko’s work in Paris. He was the arranger of the Soviet part of the International Exhibition of Decorative and industrial art. As such he was to reconcile Paris’s commodity world with its overload of sights and sounds with the constructivist alternative of “the object as comrade” (Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions,chapter 5).
El Lissitzky’s work is also featured in the book by Kiaer. He is referred to as Russia’s most highly regarded modernist constructivist artist of Russia (Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions,chapter 5). Although his work does not have a central part in the study reference is made to his stage and costume designs, photography, and his work “Beating the Whites with the Red Wedge”, among other works. El Lissitzky’s philosophy and the focus of his work is represented by his work “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”. This lithography gives a sharp idea of constructivist art’s role. The representation of the workers penetrating the white circle of capitalist materialism is one of the symbols of the constructivist idea included in the book.
El Lissitzky’s stage designs, particularly that for the play “I Want a Child” are also mentioned in the book. The play by Tretyakov is about a cultural education worker (Milda) who decides to have a child. The costume for Milda as well as the stage design are a work of El Lissitzky. The main character being an embodiment of female Bolshevism the play serves the purpose of classic constructivist ideas, which makes the design of props a domain of constructivist art (Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions, page 36).
“Imagine No Possessions” is a journey through the world of the object in constructivist art. It provides an overview of the material representation of design, advertisement, and other forms of “applying” art to everyday life. It looks primarily at the output of artists and provides a very strong graphical example of art forms. Both books are concerned with the area of Constructivism in art. They give a different view in terms of the arguments and examples which they provide. While “The Struggle for Utopia” focuses on the work of three artists and provides a strong ideological background, while “Imagine No Possessions” is a visual as well as an ideological journey through the subject with a focus on the works of many artists. Constructivism suggests that there is a necessity for art to be a part of social life not only in itself and for its beauty, but rather as a tool for driving social change. This is supposedly the natural position of art in society, especially in the controlled environment of socialism. There was a necessity for the movement in its time. Social forms were on their way to change and artists expressed their support of the new ideas in a practical form. As is usually the case with major artistic movements, there was a need for art as an expression of values and ideas representing the new socialist order. However art is an ever evolving and changing form which cannot be limited to the design of purely utilitarian objects. In all its forms art is meant to make us feel, to produce a certain strong reaction, which means that it should be free to use all possible “language” no matter what the message it is looking to express is. While a workers uniform is a very strong manifestation of a specific ideology, the texture and feel of it are unlikely to provide its user with an emotional response. People are inclined to add meaning to the purely material, but it is hardly appropriate to limit art to it or to any one form in particular.
The constructivist movement is a call to action toward art. It is an attempt to add a new dimension of social impact to the previously “Bourgeois” artistic world. The Constructivists were undoubtedly captured by the idea of a new social order in which art would be an invaluable helper for the establishment of a better world. This seems to be a common desire within humanity and especially for those of us concerned with the creation of beauty. It is natural for an artist to be inspired by the proposition of a better world, and perhaps if the Constructivists had been allowed to freely develop their ideas instead of being limited by the system they might have succeeded in having the social role of change drivers that they so desired.