The Tate has a major exhibition of the Russian Constructivists Alexander Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova. It’s a brilliant and seminal look at a movement that practically buzzes with contemporary relevance and all must see it now.
Constructivism began as a sort of parallel development to Cubism; breaking form down into elements that could be recast and remixed. But it also had a fascination for technology – they considered themselves as technicians of images, creating a universal artistic tool-kit to replace representational art. This phase of the movement rose through the First World War and came into its own with the Revolution, being entirely identified with the Left.
But the really exciting change was yet to come; in 1922, the Constructivists decided to abolish painting itself, on the grounds that artists in a Marxist society should integrate their work into the process of production and that only by inserting art into industry could they reach the masses. Instead, they fanned out into a variety of trades – graphic design, product design, architecture, film, theatre, fashion. With the arrival of the New Economic Policy, Rodchenko and the poet Mayakovsky started a graphics and advertising business.
There is an old joke about the Soviet Union that suggests they decided to experiment with socialist advertising during the Khrushchev thaw, but gave up after the slogan “Fly by Aeroplane” hit the streets. As you might expect, Rodchenko & Mayakovsky’s treatments were rather punchier. And indeed, this was explicitly socialist advertising; the Constructivists were opposed to NEP and one of Mayakovsky’s motivations was to help the industries that had already been collectivised compete with the Nepmen. Popova designed prints and eventually whole outfits for the textile industry; they all contributed to the Novy Byt project, which aimed to produce a suitably revolutionary range of home products in fulfilment of Trotsky’s Questions of Everyday Life, whose cover Rodchenko designed.
Technology played an interesting role; the new media, radio, the cinema, power-jacquard textiles and newspapers were a major theme. Popova remarked that no achievement had been as satisfying as seeing a peasant woman buying a bolt of one of her fabrics to make a dress; Rodchenko designed a prefabricated Workers’ Club as a sort of integrated Constructivist experience, as classroom, clubhouse, library, cinema, union meeting hall – an immersive user interface for the revolution, which would wrap around film, print, radio, and theatre as the revolution’s communications system.
Of course, it didn’t turn out like that; the politicians they agreed with won on the issue of NEP, which was absolutely the worst thing that could have happened. Looking back, a Tito-like compromise between big state industry, small private business, and perhaps a third sector of workers’ cooperatives sounds like the best possible outcome from where they started. Instead, the command economy was extended to cover absolutely everything, the new leader was Stalin, and the cultural revolution was dropped in favour of Socialist Realism.
Every attempt to break away from the GOSPLAN legacy was eventually squashed or subverted; in the late 40s, after Krushchev, and it’s arguable that the power interests – the secret services, the military industries, and the bosses of agriculture and oil – chose to destroy the Soviet Union rather than accept the Gorbachev reforms. Perhaps the final guarantee of Constructivism’s relevance was that it was incompatible with Stalinism; a truly frightening percentage of the faces in the photos from the early 1920s ended up dead in a variety of horrifying ways, and those who survived the Terror rarely survived the second world war. Soviet culture would never recover Constructivism’s innovation, panache, or humanity, and who could say that Soviet product design ever achieved much?
So far, Constructivism sounds like chilly, serious stuff, and quotes like Rodchenko’s remark that all his paintings were “as useless as a church” but it would be a shame to burn them because of all the work involved seem to bear it out. It’s a valid critique, and it was one thing where the Constructivist women provide a saving grace; Popova’s Space-Force Constructions, painted onto bare timber, playing with the warmth of the wood, are far more humane. (Varana Stepanova’s paintings are pretty stellar, too.) Similarly, you could compare her dresses with Rodchenko’s cover for the 1923 edition of All-Russian Postal and Telecoms Statistics, and you’d be right, even if the whole project reminds a little of this.
The link goes to Bruce Sterling’s blog, which is highly appropriate. After all, Constructivism was a movement dedicated to the proposition that rather than being the change, you should mass-produce it. Sterling’s own Viridian Design Movement was intended to reach the people through the material culture. In a real sense, the best of Internet culture is highly Constructivist; you wonder what would have happened when those clubs started talking back on the expanding telephone and radio networks.