Art Styles: Russian Constructivism

Vladimir Tatlin "Monument to the third International" russian constructivism sculptureConstructivism was an art movement that was active from 1915 to the 1940’s. It was a movement created by the Russian avant-garde, but quickly spread to the rest of the continent. Constructivist art is committed to complete abstraction with a devotion to modernity, where themes are often geometric, experimental and rarely emotional. Objective forms carrying universal meaning were far more suitable to the movement than subjective or individualistic forms.

Constructivist themes are also quite minimal, where the artwork is broken down to its most basic elements. New media was often used in the creation of works, which helped to create a style of art that was orderly. An art of order was desirable at the time because it was just after WWI that the movement arose, which suggested a need for understanding, unity and peace. Famous artists of the Constructivist movement include Vladimir Tatlin, Kasimir Malevich, Alexandra Exter, Robert Adams, and El Lissitzky. Critics derided Kasimir Malevich for reaching art by negating everything good and pure: love of life and love of nature. The Westernizer artist and art historian Alexandre Benois was one such critic. Malevich responded that art can advance and develop for art's sake alone, regardless of its pleasure: art does not need us, and it never did.

Tatlin is considered the father of Russian Constructivism. He worked for the new Soviet Education Commissariate which used artists and art to educate the public. During this period, Tatlin developed an officially authorized art form which utilized 'real materials in real space'. His project for a Monument of the Third International marked his first foray into architecture and became a symbol for Russian avant-garde architecture and International Modernism. Tatlin's most famous piece remains his "Monument to the Third International" (1919-20, Moscow), a 22-ft-high (6.7-m) iron frame on which rested a revolving cylinder, cube, and cone, all made of glass which was originally designed for massive scale. (shown here)

"beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" El Lissitzky Russian Constructivism propaganda poster El Lissitzky was a Russian avant-garde artist who did not limit himself to developing a form of abstract painting but rather extended the new functionalism to photography, book design, architecture and urban planning. His enormous versatility enabled El Lissitzky to forge links between the Russian Constructivists and Neo-Plasticism (De Stijl), the Bauhaus and Dada. As a painter and architect, Lissitzky was both personally and artistically close to the painter and architectural model-maker Kasimir Malevich.

The Constructivists worked on public festivals and street designs for the post-October revolution Bolshevik government. Perhaps the most famous of these was in Vitebsk, where Malevich's UNOVIS Group painted propaganda plaques and buildings, the best known being El Lissitzky's poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge in 1919 (shown here). Inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky's declaration 'the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes', artists and designers participated in public life throughout the Civil War.

Other painters, sculptors, and photographers working during this time were usually involved with industrial materials such as glass, steel, and plastic in clearly defined arrangements. Because of their admiration for machines and technology, functionalism, and modern mediums, members were also called artist-engineers.

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