Constructivism on Display, Part One

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

The Years of Lenin

The word “Constructivism” was a Russian word that came from multiple sources in Russia and spread to Western Europe very quickly, as soon as the Civil War ended in 1921. In fact, the slogan of the 1920 Dada Fair in Berlin was “Art is Dead: Long Live Tatlin’s New machine art.” That same year, the term “Constructivism” was in circulation at the Düsseldorf Congress in May, where it signified a Bauhaus approach of using new construction materials rather than using conventional means of building and the Dada interpretation of anti-art or anti-traditional art. Constructivism in Russia, however, had an institutional home the job of which was to take the word from a name and an idea and to make the construction of a new art form a Soviet reality. That goal fell to the Vkhutemas, a new art school in Moscow, which sought to apply Constructivism to the Revolution and its needs. It was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) himself who established the Vkhutemas institution in 1920 and gave it his qualified blessing by visiting the classrooms in 1921. Fairly or not, the Vkhutemas, an acronym for the Higher Art and Technical Studios, is often compared to the Bauhaus in that it combined industry and design and art under one roof. Like the Bauhaus, the school was the result of a merger between two pre-existing institutions, the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts, but unlike the Bauhaus which was a very small school, the Moscow college had 2500 students compared to the 200 annual enrollment at Dessau. Like the Bauhaus, the faculty was distinguished, with artist Aleksandra Ekser teaching “color in space,” Alexander Rodchenko was in charge of construction, while Nadezhda Udaltsova presided over “volume in space.” Most famously, it was Varvara Stepanova who was in charge of the textile department. It was Stepanova, who stated the goal of her department and of the entire school succinctly as being “devising methods for a conscious awareness of the demands imposed on us by new social conditions.” However, Lenin was disturbed by the lingering presence of Futurism and Suprematism, evidence of a past era still present among the students and faculty. Seeking to reassure Lenin about the Vkhutemas, theorist Aleksei Gan (1893-1942) wrote Constructivism in 1922 a year after Lenin’s visit, stating that “Our Constructivism has declared unconditional war on art, for the means and qualities of art are not able to systematize the feelings of a revolutionary environment.” As the leading theorist and agitator, Gan was responsible for the phrases that would be linked to the post-revolution Constructivist movement and its anti-art stance. “Art is dead!” he insisted, “There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique, and organization!”

The Revolution in politics had acted like an earthquake on Russia, transforming the nation, and for a time, the new Soviet Union was a very good place to be an artist or a designer or an architect. For a few years, one could dream; one could create a new world; one had the freedom to create new objects for new purposes. In 1928, an American, Alfred Barr (1902-1981), active in the nascent New York art world, decided to visit Moscow to witness the new movement of Constructivism, where all disciplines intersected, giving birth to new forms. Upon his return, Barr, who would become the first director of the new Museum of Modern Art, wrote, “We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.”

To that end, Aleksei Gan set up the First Working Group of Constructivists, also known as “artists-engineers,” turning theory into application. In response to the need to honor Lenin, in Saint Petersburg—Petrograd–the Constructivist artist, Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) built the Monument to the Third International in 1919, a model for a structure that was never built. With his Constructivist experiments, Tatlin himself was the source of inspiration at At 1300 feet, the Monument, which was to have been the tallest structure in the world, was often on display, becoming the image of all that the Revolution aspired to. But this monument, like the unfinished project of the avant-garde in Russia, was never built and remains an unrealized requiem for unfinished dreams. In point of fact, while Western scholars toil to reconstruct the lost years of the avant-garde after the Russian Revolution, the present-day Russians themselves have a complex and ambiguous relationship with the past. The Russian schools hardly touch upon the Great War, now considered an imperial conflict best forgotten. Even in the centenary of the October Revolution of 1917, there is a gap between the sanctity Lenin and a respect for those years when he was in charge. This conceptual gap seems to be caused by the long reign of Stalin, during which he crushed the hopes and dreams of ardent believers in a social revolution during decades of terror. While evoking the memory of Lenin, Stalin wiped out evidence of his accomplishments, suppressing or killing the artists and architects he had promoted or supported along with unrelated political dissidents. Only recently have there been cautious and reluctant gestures towards what remains of avant-garde architecture still extant in Moscow and other Russian cities. These efforts, however tentative, are significant because little of the important movement of Constructivism remains today. Black and white photographs stand in for objects now lost and ideas never realized. Models of proposals exist but many plans remain on paper, preserving a poignant record of an artistic desire to change society. When one moves beyond the photographs and drawings and asks the pointed question—what has survived? Unfamiliar names emerge, standing alongside that of the leading Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin. One could argue that it was Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974), who left the most extensive record of the Constructivist and architectural avant-garde behind in a scattering of remarkable buildings still standing, and in the memory of his grand prize at the Paris Exposition of industrial design in 1925, won for the Soviet Pavilion. Like many of the Russian Constructivist movement, the architect Melnikov taught at the Vkhutemas school, but by 1925, he had separated himself from the institution. His desire to combine his dedication to the Revolution with his assertion that the individual should also assert him or herself in works of art led Melnikov to start the New Academy at the school as a separate program but he was marginalized when his department was absorbed into the Academic workshop.

In 1925, artists, Rodchenko, Tatlin, filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, and architect Konstantin Melnikov came together to display the Constructivist philosophy and practice at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1925. Now an independent artist, Melnikov became the architect for the Soviet Pavilion in Paris. It was here, at the heart of an Exposition that would later be thought of as the home of a new decorative movement, Art Deco, that Constructivism was manifested for the world in terms of a building, a workers’ club and a symbol of the Revolution. If the Constructivists had introduced themselves in the New Russia Exhibition in Berlin, their philosophy of new architecture was viewed and experienced by the thousands who attended the Fair, most of whom were seeing the Russian Revolution in action for the first time, alive and well at Melnikov’s remarkable Soviet Pavilion. The Pavilion itself was one of the first manifestations of what would be a short experiment in avant-garde radical architecture. Once Stalin was firmly established in power, those days of optimism came to an end to be quickly replaced with a very different vision of the task of architects. Writing in 1932, when Russia was in the grip of totalitarianism, Hans Schmidt explained in “The Soviet Union and Modern Architecture” what had happened after the Soviet Pavilion had won acclaim:

Unlike their Western colleagues, the Russian architects had no opportunity to acquire new skills by dealing with the problem of the working class dwelling or the middle-class house. The victory of the October Revolution brought to the forefront a number of young architects who identified with the aims of the Revolution. Taking up the cudgel in the fight with the older generation of architects, they apparently were bringing about the triumph of modern architecture. At a time when relatively very little construction could actually be realized in the Soviet Union, this young and technically inexperienced generation devoted all its energies to utopian projects, in many cases outstripping the real situation of revolutionary development by decades.

As shall be discussed in the next post, the Soviet Pavilion was a triumph of a “utopian project” build to display the designs of a new generation for their nation. But Melnikov’s was a fleeting moment and, in a very few years after the Paris Exposition, the plans for an avant-garde architecture would be halted. As Schmidt noted,

This defeat was rendered even more poignant in a situation which manifested itself by revealing an important difference between the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. In the West, the principles of free competition apply up to a certain point even in the field of the arts. In Soviet Russia, however, all ideas are expected to be subordinate to and integrated into the mainstream of the Revolution. As things stand now, modern architecture has gambled away its chance, at least for the time being. Even the broad masses and youth have joined the ranks of the general opposition. What is even worse, though, is the fact that the modern movement in architecture has presently run into a closed ideological front ranged against it.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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