Tatlin - Monument to the Third International Constructivism
We can derive stimulus and pleasure from visual art in a multitude of forms and styles, although personal subjective taste will of course determine what is the strongest “turn on” for any individual. Landscape, still life, city scenes, portraiture, life studies, to mention but a very few approaches, all have their addicts, but I would, for the purpose of this review, like to make a special plea for hard edged, geometric abstraction. There is something profoundly satisfying about the purity of geometric forms – straight lines, curves, circles, ovals, squares, triangles and whatnot strike a chord in many, if not all of us, and this satisfaction is intensified if the forms are the context for vibrant, dynamically juxtaposed pure colour. Many movements in modern art have sought expression in this way, e.g. de Stijl, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism – one could multiply the “-isms”. But not least among these schools of expression were the Russian “Constructivists” who flourished in the early twenties of last century, although their influence continued far beyond that time and, indeed, has made an ongoing impact on modern art right up to the present day.
The exhibition “Defining Constructivism” showing at Tate Modern until 17th May focuses on the output of two artists – Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova. Their work displayed is dazzling and exciting in its own right, but the social and political context within which they were active is worth comment. As is well known the October Revolution of 1917 heralded a seismic change in Russian society, a change which had a global effect still apparent at the present day. From 1917 till the middle twenties, and before the oppressive rule of the Stalinist regime and after became dominant, it was felt that a “Bright New Dawn” had broken, that the ordinary people – workers and land labourers – having thrown off the shackles of Tsarist rule were at last free, free above all to build a new society in which all men and women were equal, where the wealth of the nation was equally shared, and where opportunities for self improvement were open to all. This created an atmosphere in which the arts flourished. Visual artists were encouraged in their work – no attempt was made to force it into a propagandist mould, but painters, sculptors and craftspersons of all kinds were encouraged to slant their work towards the physical and social environment in order to enrich the lives of the mass of the people. This triggered two main trends in Russian art: towards new approaches to architecture and urban planning; and likewise to industrial design.
The seeds of these developments were sown before 1917, particularly by Vladimir Tatlin. His visits to Berlin and Paris, and especially his contact with Picasso, inspired him to produce “constructed” sculptures, using a variety of functional materials, including wire, sheet metal, wood, string, and other stuff. Here, Tatlin’s emphasis was as much on “sculpting” the space his artefacts occupied as the materials he used. After 1917 it was natural for him to embrace the Constructivist approach, and Rodchenko quickly followed in his footsteps, producing constructs with materials used in manufacturing processes, thus strengthening the link between art and industry. His painting, and Popova’s “architectonic” images also reflected the growing obsession with urban and industrial design. Psychologically their hard edged geometric abstracts could also be seen as an expression of this preoccupation. Subsequently Rodchenko abandoned easel painting, concentrating on 3-D constructs and photo montage. Popova, meanwhile, varied her prolific output, moving into textile design, costumes, theatre and film sets,and allied art forms. She died prematurely at the age of thirty-five when at the height of her powers.
So much for the socio-political background which may, or may not, be of concern to us as artists. But this much can be said, that the Constructivist movement has bequeathed a body of abstract artwork which is unsurpassed in the boldness of its graphic design and its thrilling and dramatic use of colour.
“Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism” is an exhibition not to be missed – Tate Modern till 17th May 2009.
Rodchenko - Non-Objective Painting
Popova - Space Force Construction
Rodchenko - Linear Construction
Rodchenko - Spacial Construction No.15
Popova - Fabric Designs