Constructivism presents a particular problem for contemporary artists who must produce art within capitalism. The entire meaning of Constructivism is bound up with the period of socialist construction (such as it was) in the USSR. Without the revolution Constructivism was not possible. This explains why contemporary anti-capitalist artists tend to look to different models — Brecht, Dada, Heartfield, Fluxus, Situationism, Godard, Fo, Hip Hop, punk, folk music, Surrealism, the Mexican muralists, etc. We have no socialist world in which to construct our art. Moreover, the ideological origins of Constructivism, between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, are problematic for an over-determined “Marxist” conception of art. Many of the artists who gave birth to the most important art movement in Marxist history were essentially mystics.
Those artists, however, rallied around the Bolshevik revolution. As academic hacks fled in the wake of February and October, avant-garde artists took the reigns of Russian cultural institutions. Most rejected (in theory) the concept of artistic subjectivity. But they remained largely free actors constructing images, objects, events and propaganda in support of the revolution; seeking a decidedly modernist fusion of concept, form and content. Most of all they attempted to fuse art and everyday life (although it must be said they conceived of their own role as a relatively privileged one in that dynamic). They planned monuments, public art and workers’ lounges: new forms for the new world.
It seemed as if dreams could become real, even when they couldn’t (see Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International).
It was revolution that transformed the “laboratory experiments” of Vladimir Tatlin into a (sometimes) haltering fusion of the modernist avant-garde and social life. It was revolution that translated Kazimir Malevich’s abstract Suprematism into a (potentially) mass visual language.
The Russian avant-garde, in the years between the 1905 revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution, bore many similarities to other early 20th century European modern art movements. There was a tension between (a sometimes positivist) futurism and (a sometimes obfuscating) mysticism. There were new abstract gestures, new materials, the mining of supposedly primitive or more pure artistic forms (Russian icon-painting in particular). But, in Russia, the avant-garde was given unprecedented influence, an influence born of its support for the workers’ revolution — until Stalinism eclipsed both the political and cultural gains of October.
The history of “serious” Russian art until the middle 19th century was of opposition between provincial icon painting and “classical” easel painting connected to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg (founded by Catherine the Great in her attempt to westernize the empire). The first modern Russian art movement, the Wanderers, broke from the Academy in the 1860s. Similar in content to French realism, but not as innovative in form, the Wanderers (or Itinerants) aimed to produce art about “real life” in provincial Russia. They did not, however, aim to incorporate the more popular Russian art forms (icon-painting and wood block prints) into the work itself.
Russia in the early 20th century was a hotbed of political and intellectual innovation. The underlying catalyst was Russia’s revolutionary crises, growing working-class and socialist movement. The Wanderers reflected the cultural attitudes of 19th century Christian socialism (Tolstoy, etc.) and the impulses that produced Narodnism. As serfdom was abolished and as Russia industrialized, albeit under an anachronistic absolutism, Russian modernism struggled to find voice and audience. Russian artists borrowed from western avant-garde experiments, producing Russian variations like cezannism. The Russian bourgeoisie, however, was too small and too provincial (a few notable collectors aside) to support modern art.
If the most important factor in the Russian avant-garde was the revolution itself, the second most important factor was its combined and uneven development.
As Rachel Lever put it:
Like Russian industry and the Russian labor movement, Russian painting found its whole development telescoped. Learning quickly from French impressionism and its multifarious preceding and succeeding movements, but keeping their own identity by virtue of their passionate involvement with the national tradition, the most swiftly advancing groups and individuals found that they were ready for a revolutionary breakthrough, that they were no longer following their comrades in the west, but leading them.
Combined and uneven development, in fact, is useful in understanding the constant fusion of futurism and the “primitive” in modernist painting more generally. Specifically, it helps explain why the often mystical and philosophical work of Kazimir Malevich could inspire and shape an art movement that saw itself as constructing a new universe through technological innovation (and proletarian revolution). Malevich’s Suprematism was rooted in Russian icon-painting, but aimed to produce a kind of futurist cosmology, in geographies and fields of color: black, white, red. Russian art’s main aesthetic contradiction, rooted in its social conflicts (easel painting vs. icon painting / anachronistic aristocracy vs. the peasantry) was sublimated into new forms (one is temped to make the aside: revolutionary proletariat). Malevich’s motives, however, were decidedly “cosmic”:
At present, man’s path lies across space — across suprematism, the semaphore of color in its fathomless depths… I have conquered the lining of the colored sky, I have plucked the colors, put them into the bag I have made, and tied it with a know. Sail on! The white, free depths, eternity, is before you. (Kazimir Malevich, “Suprematism,” Catalog of the Tenth State Exhibition, 1919)
Malevich is most often noted in modern art history surveys for being among the first to arrive at the “zero” of painting: that the increasing abstraction of the painting surface in modernism moved from painting as “a window” to painting as “a thing in itself.” Malevich’s reduction of color to shape and field was an “endgame” in that process. In this way his Black Square foreshadowed Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings and John Cage’s 4’33. Rauschenberg’s white canvas’s became whatever shadows were cast on them, just as John Cage’s 4’33, a composition of instrumental silence, captured the random noises around the orchestra. Malevich, Rauschenberg and Cage’s gestures were all products of avant-garde evolution (particular to a historical process of capitalist development), but also products of mystical and spiritual philosophies (famously, for Cage, the influence of Zen Buddhism). Just as 4’33 and the White Paintings exposed the “autonomous” art object and opened a floodgate of art and music beyond the canvas and orchestra, Malevich’s zero had a similar effect. But Malevich’s work came in the midst of war and revolution. What existed beyond the art object was, for a moment at least, “the self-emancipation of the working-class.”
Other (often more politically didactic) artists borrowed from Malevich’s endgame and produced a new language. They also took from western cubism and Russian-icon painters. The aim, however, was less philosophical and cosmological (although there were often overtures to such things, even from figures like Tatlin). It was Malevich who coined “Constructivism,” as a partially critical term for the work of artists who would become most closely associated with the Bolshevik avant-garde: El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Strepanova and Vladimir Tatlin. This does not mean that Malevich represented the past while Constructivism represented the future. Malevich also dreamed of machines propelling humanity into the cosmos. The situation was fluid and dynamic. The revolution, after all, was made by a coalition of the urban proletariat and rural peasants. In its bones the revolution combined the past (in cultural terms, think of the icon and the popular woodcut) and the future (the scientific Marxism and the machinery that was to make socialism possible).
Tatlin’s “corner reliefs” and Rochenko’s assemblages in the mid-to-late 1910s pioneered what would become Constructivism. Tatlin’s creation of “non-utilitarian constructions” took the Cubist idea of montage and fused it with industrial material (concrete, glass, metal, etc.). Unfortunately, most of Tatlin’s personal notes from this period were lost, as were most of the small-scale constructions he produced. While Stalinism conspired to destroy his notation, Tatlin’s disregard for the art object meant he took little care to preserve his work. He considered these experiments to be experiments—a research based approach to art in a new industrial age. Like Malevich, Tatlin had experimented with two dimensional collage inspired by icon painting and folk art. Tatlin then turned toward the materials of an industrializing Russia. In 1918, Alexander Rodchenko, whose abstract two-dimensional work had been labeled the year before as “constructivist” by Malevich, created a series of three dimensional assemblages using industrial materials that “folded and unfolded” in space.
While there was inherent in Tatlin and Rochenko’s early constructivist work a gesture towards the proletarianization of material and the “pragmatic” possibilities of art (an art fused with everyday life), it remained in the realm of the “rarefied” art object.
Rodchenko’s notes are frequently a hodge-podge of quotations, the aesthetic and philosophical notes one would expect from a young artist:
“As the basis of my cause I have placed nothing.” M. Stirner
“Colors disappear — everything merges into black.” A. Kruchenykh
“Muscle and pluck forever!
What invigorates life invigorates death,
And the dead advance as much as the living advance!” Walt Whitman.
Rodchenko’s own thoughts betray little historical modesty or materialist perspective:
The downfall of the "isms" of painting marked the beginning of my ascent.
Whatever ideas they had, it was revolution that allowed their art to gain a purchase on everyday life. The storming of the Winter Palace was, at least for Constructivism, the most important event in art history, offering “the possibility of integrating art with society and bringing an end to its use as a mere market commodity which was enjoyed by at most a small elite” (Lever).
The results appeared almost overnight; from being hungry experimenters, artist of the avant-garde suddenly found themselves in positions of power and influence—as heads of art colleges, leading members of the Commissariat for People’s Education (NARKOMPROS), the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKHUK) and IZO, which had the task of reorganizing the country’s museums. (Lever)
What occurred, in terms of visual art, was most of all a changing of the cultural guard. To be sure, the new guards wanted a democratic proletarian culture, but there was no blueprint for how to achieve such a thing. Civil war and economic crisis undermined the material basis for socialism, producing bureaucratic tendencies within the soviet system. At first people committed to socialism ran these bureaucratic forms, hoping against hope for the revolutions in the west to save the besieged soviet state. A similar pattern developed within the arts. A layer of artists, many from precarious middle-class backgrounds and almost all enthusiastic supporters of the revolution, took control of the Russian cultural apparatus.
In 1918, Rodchenko, Tatlin and other Constructivists were put in charge of organizing museums for IZO. Within three years they launched 36 new museums. These gave primacy to new, often political, forms; although each museum also had a “historical” section in which classic work was displayed. Art students, led by both Constructivist and Suprematist artists, painted the military trains of the civil war with revolutionary propaganda. Constructivist street decorations and performances were conducted in the major cities celebrating the early anniversaries of the revolution. For a moment the entire Soviet world echoed Mayakovsky’s notion that the streets themselves were the brushes of the new art.
But in terms of the transformation of the political economy of art itself, the results were more mixed and all the more temporary. Rejecting academic art IZO reopened the Petrograd Academy as the Svomas (Free Studios), “whose program allowed the entrance of anyone over the age of 16 at anytime of the year, with the right to elect the professors of their choice,” Lever writes, but “this soon led to chaos and the Svomas were abolished in 1921.” They were re-opened on a (somewhat) more traditional basis under a plan developed by Wassily Kandinsky. The experience of the Svomas was not dissimilar to the free university of Joseph Beuys decades later.
Dozens of artists’ organizations were formed in the wake of the revolution. It was within these organizations that the famous debates, like Leon Trotsky’s fight with the Proletcult group, occurred.
Art was dislodged from its commodity status. Access to “high culture” was opened up for large numbers of urban workers. But access to production of art was still limited, more so by the objective crises of revolutionary Russia than the designs of either the Bolsheviks or the avant-garde. How does one create a completely free, open and democratic art academy in a city stalked by famine and surrounded by fascist armies? One can dream Tatlin’s immense revolving tower; building it is something entirely different.
This is not to minimize achievements. The production of textile patterns was given over to artists like Stepanova. Working with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Rodchenko designed new packaging of everyday products (like cookies) with art and poetry. This is not even to mention theater and architecture.
Throughout, Constructivists worked hand in hand with more avowedly “spiritual” artists, like Malevich and Kandinsky. El Lissitzky (whose work this journal is named after) produced his “prouns” as an offshoot of Malevich’s Suprematicism. The two worked together as instructors, and Lissitzky maintained his ongoing interest in the artwork of Jewish religious and mystical texts.
All this, of course, was wiped away by the Bolshevik Thermidor. The grand plans of the Russian avant-garde could not be realized. Today’s radical artists face an inverted problem. We have an overgrowth of the material necessary for constructing socialism, but a paucity of revolutionary imagination. The tragedy of Constructivism was that its dreams outpaced material reality. Our tragedy is that material reality outpaces our dreams. The revolutionary artists of the 21st century need, most of all, to believe.
- John Bowlt, editor, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde 1902-1934 (Thames and Hudson: London and New York), 1988
- Magdlena Dabrowki, Leah Dickerman and Peter Galassi, Alexander Rodchenko (Museum of Modern Art: New York), 1998
- Rachel Lever, “Art and the Russian Revolution,” written in 1966/67, republished in 1989, Workers Liberty, pdf online: http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2010/12/29/art-and-russian-revolution
- Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism (Yale University Press: New Haven and London), 1983
- Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image (Verso: London and New York), 2007
- Elizabeth Valkenier, Russian Realist Art (Colombia University Press: New York), 1989
Adam Turl is an artist, writer and socialist currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge and is an MFA candidate at the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes the "Evicted Art Blog" at Red Wedge, which is dedicated to exploring visual and studio art.