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Russian Constructivism and Popova’s Work Research Paper

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Russian Constructivism was a post World War I movement, active from about 1913 to the 1940s. This was the period that saw art, not just for art’s sake but as a tool of social purpose. Created by the Russian avant-garde, constructivist art was addressed to the state of being completely lost in thought with a touch of futurism in it, where the leitmotif being rarely emotional and mostly experimental. In 1917, artist Kazimir Malevich termed the work of another Russian artist and sculptor, Rodchenko as construction art. Basically Russian constructivism was a part of Russian Futurism movement which aimed at portraying the various facets of modern urban life like the hectic lifestyles, liveliness and dynamism involved with it. Sculptors like Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo executed Constructivism in the form of geometric abstraction into sculptures. The motive of these activists was to bring about a paradigm shift in the educational system by focusing on the development of arts rather than concentrating on political ideologies only. The main motive of the movement was to include art into daily life, so that it can be accepted as something more than just the finer side of life and will serve a more practical and social purpose. (Jaffé, 144-145)

Kazimir Malevich

In 1911 Malevich participated in an exhibition of Soyuz Molodyozhi (Union of Youth)a group based in St. Petersburg, along with Vladimir Tatlin and, in 1912, the group held another exhibition, which also had works by some famous artists of the time. By that time his works were influenced by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, who Russian avant-garde painters. In March 1913 a popular display of Aristarkh Lentulov’s paintings was up in Moscow. The exhibition had influences on Malevich and others who immediately started implementing the cubist principles in their art work. In 1914 Malevich exhibited his works in the Salon des Independants in Paris together with Alexander Archipenko, Sonia Delaunay, Aleksandra Ekster and Vadim Meller, among others. (Flower, 227)

Some of his works include…

Self Portrait
Self Portrait 1912.

Alexander Rodchenko

In 1915 Rodchenko made his first abstract drawings, motivated by the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, in 1915. In 1920 after being appointed as the Director of the Museum Bureau and Purchasing Fund by the Bolshevik Government he reorganized the art schools and museums. Then in 1921 he joined the Productivist group that preached the absorption of art in everyday life. From 1923 to 1928 Rodchenko worked closely with Mayakovsk on the blueprints of LEF and Novy LEF, the publications of Constructivist artists. Many of his photographs were posted or were used as covers for these journals. His images deleted unnecessary detail, gave more emphasis on dynamic diagonal composition, and were concerned with the placement and movement of objects in space. (Overy, 29-34)

Some of his works include…

Dance by Rodchenko
Dance by Rodchenko.

Lyubov Papova

Lyubov Popova was a Russian born artist. She was born to a wealthy family of Sergei Maximovich Popov, who was a successful merchant and a true follower of the arts. She was literally brought up in an environment that breathed art. The important works of Papova include the Violin in the year 1914, in various forms of Cubo-futurism and Impressionism. (Parton, 77-8)

Constructivism made use of visual forms, color and lines to create independent designs which would stand out from the other life objects. The style of this art was abstract and non objective. It represented nothing tangible. This form of art has the freedom to change the more prominent colors and geometry to give it a more recondite form. This was the time when the world was exposed to the Russian artists’ use of symmetrical figures and their modifications to represent asymmetry as well. There was a varied usage of the pure primary colors red, blue and green along with the use of colors like black and white which were pre-dominantly used to depict various works. Gaining knowledge about this form of art showed that it focused on connecting the brighter and the darker sides of non-objective forms of art.

There was also the concrete form of art that was mainly aimed at the representation of the reality which might as well appear as abstract to common eye; however it usually conveyed a more realistic depiction. (Overy, 44)

Constructivism emerged soon after the World War I, the time when the movement arose, which suggested a need for understanding, unity and peace.

De Stijl is the Dutch word for “the style” which took its name from a magazine which was started by Theo van Doesburg, This magazine gained popularity during the period of 1917 to 1928. Holland remained neutral during the 1914-18 war and avoided the catastrophic effects of the war and the shortages were properly handled especially those in production material which caused hindrance in the development of design.

The prominent characteristics of De Stijl were such that they represented rational and abstract notions while they rejected naturalism in place of formal abstraction. This created a universal style in painting, architecture and design. Many geometric figures like rectangles and squares in flat planes of bold primary colors, and black, white and gray, were used – all carefully arranged with straight lines. They were concerned with depicting space, the space between objects, and they gained inspiration from the Dutch architect H.P. Berlage. Hey saw only the images of his radical architecture which spoke to them of machine aesthetics and geometry and which is not naturalism.

De Stijl as a movement also rejected the ‘individualism’ of handcraft and decoration, believing these to be associated with closure and limitation. Instead, they sought the opposite. Machine production, abstraction, universalism were the way to achieve clarity and order in design. These they believed could express infinite space and undefined boundaries. The goal of the artist had always been to interpret and reveal a natural order. Belief in a harmony created entirely by the artist, and faith in the redemptive power of technology became the main principles of De Stijl. (Flower, 17)

De Stijl also shows the principles of construction, the prevailing relationship between line and plane, the qualities of lightness and shadow, and the use of the module in construction.

The artists who participated in the Russian Revolution, believed in the complete freedom of thoughts and expression while the then- existing autocracy of Czar Nicolas II imposed restrictions. Being the ruler, he was unaware of the socio-economic conditions of the people, which also encouraged the artists to join the revolution. The social causes of the Russian Revolution stemmed from the centuries of oppression by the Tsarist regime. Nicholas’s failure as an administrator during the World War I, added on the fire. The lower class was the targeted sections which suffered at the hands of the Tsarist regime, and therefore most of the artists who opposed the regime belonged to this class of the society. Internationally acclaimed artists like Kandinsky and Malevich were among the first artists across the world that brought abstract art to limelight.

Around the time of the World War I, however, it was the Russian artists who created this new language of abstraction called Suprematism which used minimum amount of colors and geometric figure. This art form is supposedly a mark of supremacy of the new art over the art of the past, a mark of revolution. Initially, the efforts of these artists were supported by the revolutionary government. Various agencies promoted these works by the artists and distributed them to museums and cities throughout Russia, thus bringing art to the masses. The artists took a lead in the revolution because they became the torchbearers of modernity for the rest of the oppressed Russian population. Not only did the artists give the revolution a major support, some artists like Rodchenko took the pulse of a nation advancing from dreams of freedom into the darker sides of the governance. Thus the Russian revolution gave birth to what may be regarded as the world’s first museums of contemporary art. (White, 188-189)

The Russian Revolution reached its peak as discontent and chaos increased. Eventually, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia issued a warning to Czar Nicholas II in November 1916. Recognizing the urgency for a constitutional form of government in Soviet Union, the State Duma took the necessary steps. However, Nicholas conveniently ignored the warnings issued by the house, and Russia’s Tsarist regime collapsed a few months later during the February Revolution of 1917. In early March, the Provisional Government ordered that Nicholas and his family should be put under house arrest in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, a place near Petrograd. In August 1917 the Kerensky government evacuated the Romanovs to the Urals, in order to protect them from the rising tide of revolution during the Red Terror. After the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, the conditions of their imprisonment grew stricter and the probability of Nicholas being tried increased. After one year of house arrest, the Czar and his entire family were executed by the order of Vladimir Lenin and Yakov Sverdlov in Moscow. Ultimately, Nicholas’s inefficient administration of his country and mishandling during the World War I destroyed the Tsarist regime and ended up bringing about loss of lives and peace. (Heller and Chwast, 203-207)

The most distinct organization was the Zhendotel which was the world’s first governmental department devoted towards the development and betterment of Russian women. The Zhendotel was established by two Russian feminists’ revolutionaries, Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, in 1919 in the Soviet Union. The organization was devoted to improving the living conditions of women throughout the Soviet Union by fighting illiteracy. This organization took up the responsibility of educating women about the new marriage, education, and working laws put in place by the Communist of the Soviet Union. The concept of women emancipation was first initiated by the Bolsheviks. Some of the prominent party members such as Elena Stasova, a Central Committee member and the secretary of this committee in Petrograd in 1917 played an important part in the revolution. Another lady named Evgeniia Bosh, who was a one-time member of the Left Opposition, has been described as one of the most capable military leaders to emerge at this early stage of the Civil War. Bosh committed suicide in January 1925 when Stalin’s army attacked. Yet another active participant in the revolution was Lenin’s close friend and collaborator, Inessa Armand, the first head of the Zhenotdel until her death in 1920. (Lodder, 165)

Lyubov Popova was a Russian born artist. She was born to a wealthy family of Sergei Maximovich Popov, who was a successful merchant and a true follower of the arts. She was literally brought up in an environment that breathed art.

Through an analysis of styles, Popova coined the term painterly architectonics to the work she did. After her tryst with Impressionism, by 1913, in Composition with figures and geometry, she turned her attention particularly towards the Russian development of Cubo-Futurism which is a mixture of two similar influences from France and from Italy. In the years 1914–1915 the place where she lived in Moscow became the club-house or meeting place for various artists and writers. In the years 1914–1916, Popova along with many other avant-garde artists like Aleksandra Ekster, Nadezhda Udaltsova, and Olga Rozanova contributed to the two Jack of Diamonds exhibitions, then in Petrograd Tramway V and the 0.10, The Store in Moscow. (Slatkin, 117-121)

Another work of Popova, The Violin of 1914, shows us the shift from Cubism to the “painterly architectonics” in the years 1916–1918. This series of artistic works defined her prominent artistic trajectory in wayward form. The canvas surfaced used for the portrayal of the art encompassed various overlapping angular planes which were in a steady state of emanating energy. The various components of this art were aimed at maintaining balance in order to smoothly connect the designs of the past and the future. Color is used as the centre of attraction; the prominent primary color at the centre, drawing the outer figures together. In 1916 she joined the Supremus group great artists of the time Kazimir Malevich , the founder of Suprematism, Aleksandra Ekster, Ivan Kliun, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Olga Rozanova, Ivan Puni, Nina Genke, Ksenia Boguslavskaya and others who at that time did their work in Verbovka Village Folk Centre. (Rickey, 89-92)

However there was an internal strife between those whose thoughts matched with Malevich’s, who considered art to be a spiritual quest and others who thought the need for the artist to create a new physical world. Popova embraced both of these ideals but eventually identified herself entirely with the early aims of the Revolution working in poster, book design, fabric and theatre design, as well as teaching. In 1916 she began to paint completely abstract Suprematist compositions, but the title ‘Painterly Architectonics’ (which she gave to many of her paintings) suggests that, even as a Suprematist, Popova was more interested in painting as a projection of material reality than as the personal expression of a metaphysical reality. Popova’s superimposed planes and strong color have the objective presence of actual space and materials.

Portrait of a Philosopher
Portrait of a Philosopher (Artist’s brother, Pavel Sergeyevich Popov), 1915.

From 1921–24 Popova became active in Constructivist projects, sometimes in collaboration with the architect Alexander Vesnin. She was active in stage designs: Vsevolod Meyerhold’s production of Fernand Crommeldynck’s The Magnanamous Cuckold, 1922; and in teaching: Spatial Force Constructions were used as the basis of an art teaching theory. She designed typography of books, production art and textiles, and contributed designs for dresses to LEF. (Parton, 77-8)

 Painterly architectonics with a pink semicircle
Painterly architectonics with a pink semicircle, 1918. Liubov Popova, Painterly
Architectonic, 1918.

Works Cited

Fowler, Alan. Constructivist Art in Britain 1913 – 2005. London: University of Southampton, 2006.

Heller, Steven, and Seymour Chwast. Graphic Style from Victorian to Digital. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.

Jaffé, H.L.C. De Stijl, 1917–1931, The Dutch Contribution to Modern Art. Amsterdam: J.M. Meulenhoff, 1988.

Lodder, Christina. Russian Constructivism. London: Yale University Press, 1985.

Overy, Paul. De Stijl. London: Studio Vista, 1992.

Parton, Anthony. Women artists of Russia’s new age, 1910-1935. Milan: Rizzoli, 1990.

Rickey, George. Constructivism: Origins and Evolution. London: George Braziller, 1995.

Slatkin, Wendy. Women artists in history: from antiquity to the 20th century. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.

White, Michael. De Stijl and Dutch Modernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

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