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

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About ryanmcginley

Currently studying Graphic Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design.

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