Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Russian Avant-Garde Part 2; Constructivism

Poster by Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1924

After the catastrophe of the First World War, it seemed everyone everywhere wanted a new start. The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that the trauma of the First World War broke the thread of historical continuity. The generations that survived the war believed that the experience not only contaminated the history that immediately preceded it, but the whole of Western history. The war generations wanted a radical new start to history, the more radical the better.
All eyes were on the Soviet Union, a brand new state with a brand new unprecedented political system emerging out of the ruins of that failed past. We have to remember that no one knew how it would all come out at the time. Stalin was still an unknown party apparatchik with a criminal past. The violence of the Revolution was seen at the time as birth pangs, and not as a portent of things to come.

The artists of the Russian avant-garde wanted to give form to this new start. They wanted to begin by ending the privileged status of fine art, to end the divide between fine and applied art; and by implication, to end the class divide between fine art connossieurs (haute bourgeois) and applied art users (petit bourgeois and proletariat). This group of artists wanted to collaborate directly with technology, industry, and mass media to create a new visual (and a new moral and political) order, and to bring it to the broad population. This group of artists called themselves "Constructivisists."

This ambition to end the privileged status of fine art put the Constructivists into conflict with the Suprematists who insisted on the priveleged status of painting as a generator of form. Many of these artists began as painters in the Suprematist movement. Some, like Rodchenko, would give up painting entirely. Others, like El Lissitzky, would continue to paint. These artists created what to my mind are some of the finest and most beautiful abstract paintings of the 20th century.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Composition 64, 1918

Rodchenko, Black Circles, 1918

El Lissitzky produced a series of magnificent abstract compositions he called PROUN paintings, from the Russian acronym for "Projects for Creating the New."

Lissitzky, PROUN composition, about 1920

Lissitzky, PROUN composition, 1923

Vladimir Tatlin emerged as the leader of the Constructivists and as an international proletarian hero of modern art whose praises were sung around the world. He was a very colorful character, one of the few in this movement who was not from a middle-class background. His father worked on the railroad. He ran away from home at 18 and worked as a sailor and as a traveling folk musician. He even worked as a professional wrestler (and not a good one, losing fights and the hearing in one of his ears). I've already discussed Tatlin before in a previous post.

Tatlin, through a bit of great good luck (a gold coin from Kaiser Wilhelm II himself after a folk-music performance in Berlin, according to legend), had enough money to buy a railroad ticket to Paris. He went to Paris and begged Picasso to hire him as a studio assistant. Picasso refused to hire him, but let him hang out in the studio. Tatlin would play Russian folk music for Picasso on a balalaika in his studio while Picasso worked. While there, he saw Picasso working on the sculpture of a guitar made entirely out of sheet metal. The sculpture's use of industrial material, conflation of object and setting, and inversion of mass and volume profoundly influenced Tatlin. Picasso eventually tired of this crazy Russian (he had enough of them with his friends at the Ballet Russe and his future wife, Olga) and threw him out of the studio.

Tatlin went back to Russia and began making a series of wall relief sculptures assembled out of industrial materials like sheet metal, wire, glass, timber, and plaster.

Tatlin, Painting Relief, 1914

Tatlin, like Malevich, made works of art for the icon corner, in this case, sculptures made out of industrial materials. Like Malevich's Black Square, this was intended to propagate a new form language for a new age of science and technology, this time with the materials of that new age.

Tatlin, Corner Relief, 1918

As far as I know, only one of these relief sculptures survives in the original. The rest survive only through a set photographs taken in 1921.

Tatlin's most spectacular project was never realized, an immense tower of steel and glass with moving parts.

Tatlin, model for the proposed Monument to the Third International, 1919 - 1920

This was to be a 1300 foot high tower straddling the Moscow River. It was to have sections that turned like clockwork every month, every week, every day, and every hour. It was to have loudspeakers and massive projectors to beam slogans on the winter cloud cover. It's a stirring design. It's organized around that most unstable of all forms, the diagonal with a great spiral rising around it, a spidery slanting Tower of Babel pointing Onward and Upward. It splendidly distills all those dynamic creative forces of nature and history harnessed to production; the orbits of stars and planets, the turning of seasons, the constant processes of formation and re-formation of the earth itself, the constant struggles and transformations of human history, all forces in motion toward their natural and historical fulfillment in the proletarian state.
However, the fact that this model must be supported by ropes hanging from the ceiling should give us pause. The tower was unbuildable. There was not enough steel in all of Russia to build it. The technology necessary for it had not been invented. It's a romantically impractical monument to practicality. And there is the problem.
So much of this art is driven by utopian dreaming and expectation. That's what makes it so moving and so tragic.

Society of Young Artists Exhibition, Moscow, May, 1920.

Rodchenko, Hanging Sculpture, 1920

Tatlin had a huge influence on other Russian artists. After his example, they began making sculptures intended to serve as prototypes for architecture and design. Like Tatlin's work, they were assembled out of industrial material. No longer is this sculpture shaped from a mass of stone or clay, but constructed around and through its ambient space. Some of these sculptures, like Rodchenko's above, came down off the pedestals and seemed to float in the air and move with the air currents. These sculptures would be a form language for a new world of change and constant motion; the struts of the airplane met the struts of the steel frame house. Also like Tatlin's work, they were too new and different to be successfully accepted by a broad Russian public. However, these works will have a profound influence on art and design beyond Russia.

Where the Constructivists will have their most lasting influence is in graphic design. Below is a typical American advertisment from the 1920s.

Here is a political poster by the Latvian born artist Gustav Klutsis from about the same time as the ad above.

The Russians pioneered the use of simple memorable photomontage images coupled together with short punchy slogans instead of columns of text.

Aleksandr Rodchenko quit painting to devote his full attention to graphic design. He sometimes collaborated with poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in creating short memorable slogans on bright memorable posters.

Rodchenko, Poster for a Film Festival, 1925

Rodchenko, cover for Novy LEF magazine, 1925

Rodchenko pioneered a new graphic design incorporating photography with bright colorful forms and large simple text. He also rethought the photography he used in these designs. He began by incorporating other photos, but began making his own photographs. Rodchenko's photos emphasized the abstract qualities of imagery; shots taken from odd angles such as from high above or far below that flatten the image into pattern.

This cover design very remarkably anticipates the graphic layout debuted in Life magazine in the USA about 9 years after this issue.

Among the many ironies of the 20th century is that these creations of Communist utopians would have the biggest influence on later American publishing and advertising.

So, what happened to the Russian avant-garde? By 1932, it had almost entirely disappeared.

Defamatory Exhibition of Modern Art in Moscow, 1937

In the same year Hitler staged the Decadent Art Exhibit, Stalin staged a similar, but less ambitious, exhibition to drive the last nail into the coffin of Russian modernism. In the photo above in clockwise order are paintings by Kandinsky, Rodchenko, and Malevich with Malevich's Black Square on the bottom right.

Here is what the Soviet regime really wanted from its artists even before Stalin took power, easily comprehensible story-telling form that concentrates on spectacles of agreement and solidarity. The stories are always kept simple and uncomplicated from any drama. Nothing is asked from the viewer except agreement. Artists had to adapt to this new regime or perish, professionally or literally.

-Malevich died of cancer in 1935.

-El Lissitzky found himself increasingly marginalized and under threat. He died of tuberculosis shortly after the German invasion in 1941.

-The once internationally celebrated Tatlin was reduced to painting camouflage during World War II. He died in poverty and obscurity in Moscow in 1953, forgotten in Russia and in the West.

-Rodchenko survived as a photo-journalist and curator for the government, dying in 1956.

-Gustav Klutsis was arrested in 1933, and shot 3 weeks later.


Benjamoon said...

Excellent article... often analagous to Soviet cinema and the fates of film artists like
Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.

it's margaret said...

You are like a big, wide, multi-lane busy city street sometimes... And I mean that in the most wonderful, amazed and fascinated way.

Blessings on you and all you do.

Counterlight said...

I love Eisenstein's movies. I'm thinking about doing a post on "Ivan the Terrible" sometime in the future, but I'm not that much of a film maven.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

What Margaret said!

Counterlight said...

I may well be a big multi-lane city street, but I'm all of a piece.