Modernism and Russian Constructivism

Modernism is a distinct historical movement born post-world war one. It is known for its radical change in aesthetics and cultural values. Breaking away from the rigid principles of impressionist and classic art, modernists rejected realism, concentrating on the aesthetics through the use of symbolism and abstract art. The movement believed in progress, and embarked on a mission to build a free and fair society based on rational principles. Its reflected changes in society such as industrialisation, political revolutions and the war – especially early Modernism.

I have always had a keen interest in the history of politics, both world wars and particularly the Russian revolution. The revolution occurred in 1917 due to the unfair treatment of peasants throughout Russia, who where fed up of living an oppressed lifestyle at the hands of a harsh and unwilling Czar government. Ordinary people seized power, with leader Lennon wanting to create a paradise for all – where wealth was distributed equally.

Constructivism was not produced to serve as art, but created for social purpose – practical in its nature. Whether it be a propaganda poster, architecture or film, constructivism was influenced by the industrialisation and technological advancements within society. Influenced by the reduction of abstract form and geometric language by Supermatism’s El Lissitzky, constructivists created pieces of work which consisted of elements such as order, symbolism and propaganda. The Western Europe movement blossomed in the very political and economic state it strived to eliminate. It vision was based up the future and ideology of progress – which spread across Europe influencing many movements such as De Stijl and Bauhaus.

The first Constructivist figure to materialise the “life is art” motto was Vladimir Tatlin. His ‘Monument to the Third International’ (1920) was a combination of concepts and materials which became the emblem of the new movement. It was not only a complex physical structure but was conceptually and politically complex.

Vladimir Tatlin’s concept for the never built Monument to the Third International

Vladimir Tatlin’s concept for the never built Monument to the Third International

All forms of everyday life, morals, philosophy and art must be recreated on communist principles. Without this the further development of the communist revolution is not possible.

Iskusstvo Kommuny vol. 1 (1918-19), no. 8;quoted in Lodder, Russian constructivism, p.279

Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, 1919

Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, 1919

However my personal interests are in their propaganda posters. The use of geometric shapes, composition and symbolism work to great effect. The most prominent colours used where black, red and white. One of the most famous of these posters was ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’by El Lissitzky in 1919 (above). The red wedge symbolises the Bolsheviks lead by Lenin, whereas the white represents the imperial regime. The poster uses order and composition to show the communists supremacy over the tsar goverment. This lead the oppressed people to believe the had strength over their oppressors, filling them with hope and optimism. A huge success meant other constructivists followed in his footsteps, applying the same visual language to advertisement, architecture and film. This style was never seen before, collaging colour, typogrpaghy and photograpghy.

Furthermore constructivist such as Rodchenko and the Stenberg Brothers were eager to broadcast their ideas and concepts to a greater audience. This was at a time when more than half of the soviet union population were illiterate. Motion pictures and cinema prevailed as a great means of communication, not only in terms knowledge but also propaganda. This was exciting times, with methods used that had never been seen before including the collage of photography, typogrpaghy and geeometic shapes. These posters were symbolic in their nature, with each visaul telling the story whether literate or illiterate.

Georgii & Vladimir Stenberg, The Man with the Movie Camera (1929).

Georgii & Vladimir Stenberg, The Man with the Movie Camera (1929).

Dobrolet, Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1923

Dobrolet, Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1923
offset lythograph

Although the movement has technically finished, the influences on modern design are clearly evident. Ranging from album covers to furniture design to architecture; “Constructivism: the ism that just keeps givin’“, Patrick Burgoyne, 7 August 2008, creative review.

Example of constructivism influenced work;

Franz Ferdinand, You can have it so much better, 2005

Franz Ferdinand, You can have it so much better, 2005

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961-9, woodcut on paper, Tate collection

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961-9, woodcut on paper, Tate collection



A movement seen as the birth of Modernism, Impressionism destroyed the boundaries of the traditional realism. Originating in capitol of France during the 1860’s, impressionists challenged the traditional rules of painting, by applying new techniques, compositions and subject matters.Traditionally painters where restricted to representation, limiting their inner creativity and unique style.

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully.

             Vincent Van Gogh,1888

Artists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh where leading figures for a new and radical way of painting, focusing on colour and light to depict a moment in time – often outdoors. In contrast, traditional Realist painter would paint indoors in their studios, unable to capture nature’s short-lived moments. As expected impressionists came under attack from fellow critics and artists, after all this was a period in history where change was frowned upon. Often focusing on the effect sunlight had on their scene, the impressionist would avoid the usual dull blacks, grey and earthy colours, opting for more vibrant colours. Probably the most recognised change from traditional painting to impressionism was the technique of applying the paint. As the painter’s objective was to capture a moment in time, this meant they had to be quick – often completing a piece in one sitting. Using swift, broken and directional brush strokes, leaving an unfinished feeling. Equally as important was the composition. Although artists such as Claude Monet didn’t use great detail in their work, the composition was perfected – in a way improving the paintings overall emotions. It was in actual fact Monet’ painting, “impression, sunrise” that gave this modern movement its name, a movement which ran for almost 2 decades up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet, 1873.

Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet, 1873.

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry night over the Rhone, 1888

Edgar Degas - “The Entrance of the Masked Dancers”, 1884

The “Impressionist” Fine Art movement at the end of the 19th century was not only recognized as the birth of modernism but also revolutionized the way in which artists painted. Technological advances such as photography took much meaning away from the traditional realist paintings, forcing artists to experiment with new styles, techniques, and vibrant colours. Impressionism focused on the effects of light and movement, captured fleeting moments. Although the movement was a major stepping-stone for Modernism, Impressionism rarely exists today as it did back then. For example 21st century painters do not often employ Claude Monet’s small, single coloured brush strokes. However most Contemporary painters have adopted the impressionist outlook on the importance of light and movement.

I collected several paintings by Scottish Landscape artist Cara McKinnon Crawford, whose work reflects these important factors. Combined with fine use of brushstrokes, composition and vibrant colours, makes it evident that today’s practicing artists have been influenced to a certain degree. As part of her unique collection “21st Century Clyde”, Crawford has attempted to capture over 200 paintings, all of which capturing different aspects of the clyde through its regeneration.

Up River" Erskine Bridge and Glasgow.

Up River” Erskine Bridge and Glasgow.

"Mighty Crane" Govan, Glasgow, Cara Mckinnon Crawford


We all enter life with our own unique identities. We are biologically divided into 2 categories, male and female, however this does not have to categorize our gender – This arrives over time. This may be the result of social and environmental interactions and developments, with an ever-growing list of genders. To be honest I don’t know what half of them are, for instance just last week, I overheard someone calling themselves a pansexual. My friend Google had to explain; often referred to as “gender-blind”, pansexual are attracted to all genders, regardless of their sex. That’s just greed.

I am in no way shape or form Homophobic. In my opinion you are born gay or straight, and through time characteristics begin to indicate your gender. These ‘indications’ can arise from a very young age. For example I have a young cousin, still at primary school, who is really feminine. This applies to many things such as his clothes, his choice of toys and his friends. Although I feel it’s wrong to compress ones natural feelings, I do feel that it is the parent’s duty to at least contain them until a decent enough age where they can deal with the pressure of society. Homosexuality may be widely accepted in today’s society; however young children can be nasty, especially in the playground.

On the other hand, these early ‘indications’ can merely be part and parcel of the young child’s curiosity. As a toddler I messed around in my mother’s 6 inch heels, as did my brothers. This is a common occurrence in young children. A great example which represents this perfectly is a series of sculptures by Liz Peden in the area which I grew up. Based upon a series of photographs captured by Oscar Marzaroli in 1963, the installation shows three young boys playing in the street, wearing their mother’s heels.

Gorbals Boys

Gorbals Boys, 1963, Oscar Marzaroli

Gorbals Boys

Gorbals boys, Liz Peden, 2008


You may not be the next JK Rowling or Shakespeare; however we are all born with the natural gift of storytelling. From an early age our imagination is constantly expanding. For example when I was younger, my siblings and I would often transform our living room into a wild ocean. We would use cushions as stepping-stones across the room, protecting us from the ‘sharks’. This and similar made-up situations would get through those dull, rainy days. Although it may not be a Hollywood blockbuster, it does have structure, imagination and defining of roles/characters.

Adults and children tell stories about events that they see present in the world around them, about events that they have experienced in the past, and about events that take place in their imagination. In all cases, stories impose structure on those events such that listeners (including the storyteller) can understand them, and thereby gain some particular perspective on the events.

Cassell, J & Smith, J, (1999) Space for Voice: Technologies to Support Children’s’ Fantasy and Story Telling

Although there are many types of narratives which include imagery, type and sound, In my opinion word alone is the most powerful. There are no boundaries; there are no limits to the imagination. Each reader defines and constructs both scene and characters using their imagination. Opinions are formed, and readers gain emotional attachments towards fictional characters. The most recent example of this is the “50 shade of grey” series. Women are obsessed! They not only fall in love with this character but have also used the book to improve their sex-life. These are powerful qualities which could not be portrayed through other, restrictive mediums.

Furthermore, the transition of novels to screen often fails to impress. Of course it’s down to personal opinion, but whenever one of my favourite books has been cinematised, I have been disappointed. Working with budgets and time restraints, films are often rushed, cropped and watered down. Also with the pressures of today’s audience the true story is often lost in translation, sacrificed for expensive visuals and over-the-top action. Plots are changed, characters are altered.

A prime example of this is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Since the classic novel published in 1818, there has been many adaptations – Most notably the Hollywood version directed by James Whale, 1931. Based upon the original book,The differences are clear to see – especially the characterisation of ‘the monster’. The character appears to be dumb and brainless, unable to speak or carry out normal human actions. However in the novel, ‘the monster’ is extremely agile and articulate. The only similarities are that of his ugly complexion. This in my opinion did not justify the novel, sacrificing the intense imagery and complex story to attract Hollywood’s target market.

Frankenstein, 1931, directed by James Whale

Frankenstein, 1931, directed by James Whale

Frankenstein, 1931, directed by James Whale

 Recently I have been given the chance to remake this classic into an interactive book for the Ipad. It granted me the opportunity to reflect upon the images in which I had created in my head after reading the novel. In my opinion my illustrations capture the character far more effectively than the Hollywood blockbuster.The experience is more powerful due to the interactive qualities, combined with image and text brings the novel to life.

Ryan McGinley - Frankenstein Interactive novel

Ryan McGinley – Frankenstein Interactive novel

Post Modernisn and Op Art

Post modernism distanced itself from the previous scientific values which represented people as a whole; whether that be cultures, race or religion. Instead the movement focused on individual interpretation of the world. Each person has their own mind, the power to construct reality within, instead of following assumptions made by previous rational movements. Its aim was to regain the faith lost due to the overuse of human reasoning.

The movement acted as a catalyst to breaking down social barriers, concentrating on individuality while ignoring class and work. Post Modernism considered age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, region. This in turn redefined male and female roles, destroying dated views and opinions. It also helped globalise the world, bringing together of many cultures, due to the increase in information and communication technologies. There objective shifted towards ‘consumer culture’, creating individual identities.

Although seen by many as impossible to define, Post modernism turned an ordered world on its head. A perfect example of this was the explosion of the swinging 60’s. It was a major turning point in the 20th century, shaping the world wee see today. Recognised as the decade of revolution and experimentation, post-war Britain lacked enthusiasm. Post modernism broke down traditional barriers and offered a new and exciting way of life. The 60’s offered freedom, rejecting the established sexual and gender norms. Homosexuals expressed themselves through the gay culture, considered the largest sexual subculture of the 20th century. Also the introduction of ‘the pill’ enabled woman to be more sexually active and open to experimentation.

At a time when social class and division was at a high, groups known as subcultures and counter cultures where formed. These where like-minded individuals who disregarded these traditional social views, gaining their own unique identity no matter their background. This was achieved through medium such as music, fashion, art and film.

hippies, 1960

Hippies, 1960, Love not War protest  

Mods, 1960's

Mods, 1960’s

These subcultures included Mod, Rockers and Hippies. They each made a mark on society, affording youths the chance to break free from strict traditions and live life the way they want. As well as music, Fashion played a vital part in people lifestyle. Leading figures contributing to fashion were Mary quant (mini-skirt) and Vidal Sassoon(hairdresser) – Influenced by the optical illusions of Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. Known as the ‘mother of Op Art’, Riley placed emphasis on the perception of ones eye. The use of black and white abstract geometric shapes and lines, stimulated the senses and created movement.

I couldn’t get near what I wanted through seeing, recognizing and recreating, so I stood the problem on its head. I started studying squares, rectangles, triangles and the sensations they give rise to… It is untrue that my work depends on any literary impulse or has any illustrative intention. The marks on the canvas are sole and essential agents in a series of relationships which form the structure of the painting.

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley in the mid- 1960s - Photo: John Goldblatt

Bridget Riley in the mid- 1960s – Photo: John Goldblatt

Movement in squares - Bridget Riley 1961 - Tempera on board 122x122

Movement in squares – Bridget Riley 1961 – Tempera on board 122×122

“I regard the five-point cut as the finest cut I have ever created – the geometric design in its purest, most classical form.

Vidal Sassoon

Vidal Sassoon cutting the hair of fashion designer Mary Quant. Photograph: Ronald Dumont/Getty Images

Vidal Sassoon cutting the hair of fashion designer Mary Quant. Photograph: Ronald Dumont/Getty Images

Op Art still from the film "Qui etes-vous Polly Maggoo?" designed by William Klein, 1966

Op Art still from the film “Qui etes-vous Polly Maggoo?” designed by William Klein, 1966

Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dresses.

Mary Quant, talking about her new Boutique, Bazzar 1955-67

Mary Quant, Mini-Skirt, 1960's

Mary Quant, Mini-Skirt, 1960’s

There is more than meets the eye

Everyone has their own attitude towards life, whether they are optimists or pessimists – affecting ones judgement. I see myself as an optimist, looking for the positives in the bleakest of situations, especially when analysing a dull image. You make it what you want, even if its not the truth.

In this specific lecture, we began with a simple yet effective activity in which we paired up, passing judgement on each others clothing – ’judging a book by its cover’. From something as simple as a pair of multi-coloured trainers to a tweed jacket, immediately labelled the individual. The majority of judgements may have been correct, however a substantial number were incorrect. Its not until you introduce the “books” voice to the equation that you discover the truth.

For example, a more serious case of ‘judging a book by its cover’ is a daily occurrence for victims of knife crime. Currently working on a project relating to this subject, my eyes have been opened to the ‘domino effect’ – a majority which is caused by peoples instant perception and judgement. Victims fail to gain employment, find love and simply lose all confidence through marks left on ones body. These marks to many, ‘symbolise’ a criminal or illegal background. I must admit I have been one of those people in the past. Its hard to control your immediate perception, however as you mature, you realise there is more to a person than meets the eye.

The same principles apply to artwork.  Most people, especially those out with the art world, decide instantly whether they like an image or not. However, if you take time to analyse, you will discover the true meaning, whether it be through symbolism, composition or the medium used. For example, many years ago, I went to a Francis Bacon exhibition in Edinburgh. My initial thoughts were, “rubbish”. I was young and severely judgmental, however as I matured over the years I returned to Bacon. It was then I realised the power of symbolism, not only through the image, but the way in which the image was composed.

Born in 1909, Dublin, a young Bacon was influenced by the works of Picasso. It wasn’t until the mid 1940’s until he made his breakthrough with his “three studies for figures at the base of a crucifix”  making an impact at the Lefevre Gallery. At first glance, I thought “I could do better”, however as I analysed the paintings, my attitude altered. My favourite series of painting are that of the Heads I-VI (1948-49). His paintings contain elements such as mutilation, Pain and claustrophobia – all of which create an uneasy viewing. The use of  the distorted figure placed within a box, creates boundaries and emphasises the feeling of being trapped. His use of large brush strokes combined with the screaming face creates an uncomfortable and some what scary atmosphere. Bacons main themes present how weak and vulnerable the human condition really is.

Head I

Head I, 1948
oil and tempera on wood, 100.3 x 75 cm
collection Richard S.Zeisler, New York

Head II, 1949

Head II, 1949
oil on canvas, 80.5 x 65 cm
collection Ulster Museum, Belfast

Head III, 1949

Head III, 1949,
oil on canvas, 81 x 66 cm
private collection

Head VI, 1949

Head VI, 1949
93 x 76.5 cm
Arts Council collection, Hayward Gallery, London

The power of Logo Design

Many people show their ignorance towards Graphic Design. Throughout my studies, I have been asked on numerous occasions – “What is Graphic Design? Do you make posters and that?” My blood boils every time. I always reply, “look around you!”  I point at the bottle of juice they are drinking, the clothes they are wearing, the magazine they are reading, the signage for the shop we are browsing – the list goes on. Everything around us is some way or another graphic design.

Whether or not an individual takes in an interest in Graphic Design, it’s impossible not to be affected by it. A perfect example of this was presented to me at a recent lecture. Opened with a quick and cheerful quiz – small sections of Logo designs appeared on screen and students were asked to identify the company. Although I understand the power of branding, I was shocked to see how quickly other students (illustrators and animators) recognised them – whether it was the flick of a letter, a typeface or colour. To further emphasise the effects of branding, I presented the same images to my girlfriend, who has little knowledge of the subject – with the exact same results.

Here are some examples;

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