Constructivism: the ism that just keeps givin'
No movement in art has found more favour with designers than the short-lived creative revolution that became known as Constructivism. Why this lasting impact? asks Hugh Aldersey-Williams
The handful of brilliant artists who came together around the time of the Russian Revolution succeeded to a large extent in devising a visual vocabulary that could take the place of language and so speak more directly to the people. Constructivism celebrated the anonymous hero-worker of the new communist state. Its simple geometric elements, assembled into complex structures, suggested (or in the case of the few realised projects, memorialised) the teamwork of men hefting steel beams. The aesthetic was both more abstract and more coded than anything that had gone before – an apparent impossibility that in the event caused the Soviet public no difficulty at all. Red and black, circles and triangles, steel and glass worked then and they work now. “Away from the utopian, revolutionary politics, there is still an engagement of these forms with the eye and mind that is tremendously stimulating,” says Amanda Geitner, head of collections at the Sainsbury Centre which is currently staging Constructed: 40 Years of the UEA Collection, a major show of Constructivist work. Their pure geometry seems to avoid any reference to nature and yet has the power to beguile us.
"We have seen a tide of increasingly jejune depoliticised versions of Constructivism perpetrated by western graphic designers over the years. The most conspicuous – and egregious – recent example of this is the Franz Ferdinand album You Can Have It So Much Better [above, designed by Matthew Cooper] which reworks a famous Rodchenko photomontage of 1924 for a Moscow publisher in which Lilya Brik, the muse of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, joyously cries out 'books' [below]"
But it still seems odd that a design movement so strongly identified with a nation and a moment in history so remote from, and apparently irrelevant to, most of our lives should speak so clearly to us. One obvious explanation for why it does is that it has been easy to nick the style and dump the politics. We have seen a tide of increasingly jejune depoliticised versions of Constructivism perpetrated by western graphic designers over the years. The most conspicuous – and egregious – recent example of this is the Franz Ferdinand album You Can Have It So Much Better which reworks a famous Rodchenko photomontage of 1924 for a Moscow publisher in which Lilya Brik, the muse of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, joyously cries out “books”. By inserting the words “franz ferdinand” in their place, the band has scored an ugly victory for commercial egotism over intellectual idealism. The spurious revolutionary aura of the cover is all the worse because it comes so late in the day, years after the noted critic Hal Foster skewered the whole 1980s trend of “fetishistic Constructivism”.
Steven Heller, the long-time art director of the New York Times Book Review, well remembers that period, “when you couldn’t turn around without seeing a lame version of Lissitzky. I remember a Sherlock Holmes poster done by [the illustrator] Paul Davis. That made no contextual sense.” Good designers, such as Davis, could at least marry the formal vocabulary of Constructivism with their own language, but most could not, so that now, says Heller, “it’s no more than a commercial code”.
In the Soviet Union at the same time, some designers were trying to keep alive not just the style but also the spirit of the movement. The Paper Architecture group formed at the beginning of the 1980s ironically took for their name the sneering label applied to the Constructivists during Stalin’s Terror. Fundamentally out of step with the Brezhnev era, their projects had even less chance of getting built than Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International [below], Constructivism's greatest icon in three dimensions. Fantastic now rather than utopian, they did however possess a critical edge rarely seen further west.
In the west, a few designers have sought to exploit Constructivism for more than just its easily imitated style. For them, there is genuine affection for a look associated so closely with political idealism. Their hope is that through a kind of ideological osmosis their work communicates their belief in a cause. “It doesn’t hurt that there was a political component to the movement,” observes New York designer Alex Isley. “People believed in something that was radical in its day. That’s seductive.”
One of the most striking examples of this influence occurred with Red Wedge, a collective of musicians, including Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, who sought to excite young people about left politics at the height of the Thatcher era. The name comes from Lissitzky’s diagrammatic 1919 image, Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge [below], representing (two years after the fact) the (red) Bolsheviks driving out the (white) imperial regime. Neville Brody created the group’s logo, but carefully avoided too literal a reuse of the Constructivist design. The black, white and red, type-only cover of Naomi Klein’s anti-consumerist bestseller No Logo can be taken as another example of Constructivism indirectly used to create the right ethos. And of course, it’s all done more literally on every second vodka label and Shostakovich CD.
It is hard to decide which of these factions is ultimately more naive – those who use the style alone, or those who seek the right-on association with revolutionary Leninism. Many designers may be idealists of one sort or another, but the idea of any political campaign coming with its own off-the-peg design style these days seems wrongheaded to say the least.
“I was always a bit wary about this nostalgia for Constructivism,” says the New York-based Russian émigré designer Constantin Boym, pointing out that the idea of nostalgia for this movement of all movements is quite an oxymoron. Pale western imitators may be happy to steal the look with the ideology considered as an optional extra. “I was always attracted by the opposite approach,” says Boym, whose work bears no stylistic resemblance to Constructivism, but shares with it an irreverence for authority and a populist appeal. “Obviously, their ideology is hopelessly obsolete, not only in a political sense. Everything was about ‘usefulness’, and artistic expression was largely discredited. Yet there was some general democratic idea in the air – ‘Art for everyone! Art for the people!’ – which is appealing even today, maybe especially today. In the time of Marc Newson and Ron Arad six-digit (or seven-digit?) furniture sales, one is longing for some kind of artistic work that is more accessible.”
By this yardstick, the Constructivists’ goal is today perhaps most nearly approached by Ikea. The Swedish company’s furniture and household objects are simple, sparing, and sometimes delightful. They are useful and affordable, too, and the designers are credited – even if that leaves many buyers none the wiser. Yes, Ikea bizarrely seems to fulfil Tatlin’s cry to chuck out the Romanov chintz: “Not towards the old, nor towards the new – but towards the necessary!” But somehow it doesn’t feel like Art for the People. There isn’t any sense of the struggle that would warrant the capital letters.
What’s missing? “I think it is a general complacency, lack of pathos, absence of criticism or any kind of controversy,” says Boym. “On a deeper level, avant-garde is only avant-garde when it counters some other established order. Since Ikea has won all over the world, it’s become that established order. Nowadays, to do Art, one almost has to take a stand against Ikea, or at least provide a critique of some kind.” For something in this vein, Boym points me to Domestic, a French design collaborative set up by Stéphane Arriubergé, Christine Montard and Massimiliano Iorio in 2005 that began life with the Vynil [sic] collections of wall stickers intended to allow people scope for self-expression – and hence for subversion of conventionally tasteful surroundings. Rodchenko and other artists and designers of the Productivist movement that was the immediate forerunner of Constructivism counted among their ideals a wish “to reduce the number of objects in the human environment, to rethink and simplify the material qualities of everyday life”.
This credo chimes with us today. But contemporary design companies concerned to see greater environmental sustainability in their work see little advantage in using a monolithic style to get the message across. For example, the London communications design firm thomas.matthews may have used red-and-white bold caps for the stark fascia of their “No Shop” for Friends of the Earth [CR April 07], but elsewhere their aesthetic derives directly from the constraint of using recycled materials. “Constructivism appeals to designers because its references are graphic, and graphic art appealed to the Constructivists because it was the means to mass communication for all,” explains Sophie Thomas. “The Constructivists were looking for behavioural change within their society and saw graphics as a way of integrating art into the new society they were building. The worry for the designer now should be how we can sell reduced consumption or educate people to make informed decisions to be able to survive and adapt.”
“Constructivism appeals to designers because its references are graphic, and graphic art appealed to the Constructivists because it was the means to mass communication for all,” says Sophie Thomas of Thomas Matthews
There can be no final answer to the question of style and intent in design. But at the height of the 1980s ‘Constructivist revival’, Brody had given careful consideration to the matter. He told me in an extended interview: “What matters is that design is a way of reflecting social undercurrents. The Futurists supported Mussolini, whereas Rodchenko was a socialist revolutionary. I draw a sense of dynamism and optimism with no intention of a political connotation. If you look at some of Rodchenko’s paintings, you’ll see he anticipated abstract expressionism by a good 50 or 60 years. It’s so abstract, it’s completely apolitical. Rodchenko was more about humanism and humanitarianism than communism.”
Unlike the Bauhaus teachers who fled when Hitler came to power, the Constructivists mostly stayed in the Soviet Union, making what sense they could of Stalin’s regime. Rodchenko and Lissitzky both eked out their days producing wartime propaganda. But by this time, their ideas had been thoroughly assimilated by the Bauhaus and brought westward. And this provides one final reason for the enduring influence of Constructivism. The pedagogic inheritance of western design schools from the Bauhaus, and from Vkhutemas, its Soviet counterpart, means that their associated styles are now deeply embedded. “For me,” says Brody, “what happened between 1914 and 1935 has dictated everything that has happened since in any area of design.”
Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, Isley notes: “Many graphic designers get excited about Constructivism as students. It’s inspiring to students to see how nonrepresentational shapes can be laid out to make a pleasing and dynamic pattern. Constructivism can be seen in the history books as proof positive that what designers do can have meaning and change people’s ideas. As everyone knows, you can’t go wrong with red and black. You don’t have to be able to draw, and you can use a couple of basic typefaces and make your own powerful-looking designs.” Heller agrees, suggesting that even the laziest borrowing can serve an important purpose. “Despite the ignorant uses of style, there is a need to recreate history if only to embrace knowledge. Writers write in the style of other authors, just as artists paint in historic styles. Constructivism – which is an amalgam of geometries – is one of those entry points for designers to understand history.”
This article appears in the August issue of Creative Review. Constructed: 40 Years of the UEA Collectionis at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, until December 14. Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ latest book is Panicology, published by Viking Penguin
Very much enjoyed reading this.
I think some important points were missed that answer many of the questions raised.
When my design students study the early modern movements - Constructivism and its Dutch counterpart de Stijl, Futurism, and the work produced at the Bauhaus school - I remind them often, we are now living the very lives that these movements aspired to. Futurist politics aside, like the Futurists, we seek new things, new buildings, new technology, and we seek them all as soon as possible! Speed, newness, neglecting the old for the new. All of this has accelerated to very high speeds. Most dramatically represented by digital devices and products that are obsolete in less than a year. The Futurists would be very happy. And indeed, even warfare is not that dissimilar in technological speed. Unfortunately.
If you are looking at any of the early modern movements, they all share or are connected in some way and are influencing each other. Newness and technology being the main themes.
The model of a new way of representing and a new way of making and communicating using graphic forms, photography, and typography that was developed by the Constructivists (most of them in their early 20s!) is parallel with de Stijl and Futurism (which, except for Deparo, went in a less desirable direction). All those roads lead to the Bauhaus. Where the entire experimental spectrum was applied to education and application. The Bauhaus licensed student and faculty furniture and product designs to manufacturers to pay the bills.
The destruction of the European art, design, and architectural avant garde by the Nazis and World War II, combined with the earlier elimination of Russian artists by Stalin’s imposed Socialist Realist methods and regulation of art by the state; meant that the remaining super power, the United States, was left with many of the great artists and designers from Europe and the Bauhaus.
The U.S. was and still is a country that is constantly re-inventing itself. A perfect place and time for radical ideas codified in the Bauhaus for application to a consumer society. The modernist trends of post war U.S. fizzled out by the early 1970s but had a come back the past 8 years mostly in interior design, furniture (but less so in graphic design) - it remains to be seen if it sticks. In Europe, the revival of the love of Helvetica by graphic designers (see the movie) happened around the same time as the interior/furniture revival in the U.S.
My point being that, Constructivism is not just the classic forms we know. There are many other examples of Constructivist work in different forms that is more akin to Bauhaus design. So the Bauhaus was Constructivism and Constructivism lives on because the Bauhaus showed us how basic design principles make for good design that people like.
(Sorry if off a bit on the details or generalities or short in description. Wrote this from memory and all of these movements are so much more complex than most realize. It's enough for a conference let alone a comment.)
Fantastic article. I'm studying design at the moment and it sometimes seems as though a lot of the people churned through design courses today are either blind or ignorant of the history / politics behind many design movements.
It's great to read a well written piece discussing the background of Constructivism and the pitfalls of blindly 'borrowing' from a design style.
Anybody interested in this article should consider reading about Carl Jung and his theories on 'Collective Unconsciousness', this affected the Suprematists, including Malevich, who experimented with using visual communication to affect and influence this collective unconsciousness...which we all share on a subliminal level. The Suprematists in turn influenced the Constructivists. One group tried to illicit a direct response through the collective unconscious, while the other desired a more subliminal reaction.
...anyway, I think the point I'm making is that a reason people like the style so much is apart from its avant garde visual aesthetic, its thinking was also very much on the cutting edge too.
i think art is undergoing a www transformation whereby you can view and feel art as opposed to making radical statements about it and have to justify it you add words then it can become a graphic image a lot of the imagery was war driven in the posters above where you needed to get your message to the masses quick as possible interesting read though peace love light
Nice to see others with an interest in "Constructivism"...i am an Independent Artist with much sympathy for the movement which must be one of the most avante-guard ever...is it not about time for a comprehensive exhibition/review/expose of current/post construtivists of the world...
A scrawny cat peers
Rather too expectantly...
Into dark waters
Best regards...pete mcclure
Great article Im study design and I want to be realy good in this we see what happen
Thank you once again guys