Constructivism Art: Definition, Artists & Examples
Instructor: David White
Despite being short-lived, the constructivist art movement has had a significant influence on the artistic movements that followed. In this lesson, we will define constructivism and explore some examples that illustrate the style.
What is Constructivism?
In 2014, Kara Walker unveiled her newest work ‘Sugar Baby’ at the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York. Walker’s piece – a giant sphinx made of sugar – is a powerful commentary on the capitalist origins of slavery, but it quickly received attention for the ways in which white audiences chose to interpret or engage with the work. The dialog around Walker’s sculpture, though difficult at times, is an important reminder of the power of constructivism.
In the context of artistic movements, constructivism was a concept that emerged from Russia in the early 20th century. At its core, constructivism operates from the position that art should serve a social purpose that extended beyond aesthetics. Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ image, for example, is a now iconic piece from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign that was used to send a particular message about social change and the state of American politics.
Critical of the idea of art for art’s sake, the constructivist movement originally began with the idea that art should be used to emphasize how its materials and ideas could make a communist society stronger or more productive. This idea, however, was short-lived, as many within the movement still found considerable value in the power of art as a means of social critique and cultural analysis. Ultimately, the latter of these two arguments was successful, and the concept of constructivism in support of a communist state declined in the 1920s.
Aesthetically Appealing and Utilitarian
In its earliest form, constructivism was literally based on the importance of construction. For example, artists might use glass or wood to construct their art. Rather than simply being an aesthetic choice, the intent was to emphasize the material, and propose new ways that they could be used to strengthen society, literally and figuratively.
Take, for example, ‘Monument to Commemorate the Third International’, by the early constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin. It was originally designed to be the headquarters of Russia’s Communist International Party (the Third International), but was never actually built. It remains only in the form of a scale model. Tatlin’s intention was for it to be a massive structure that towered over other monuments of the world, and celebrated the industrial achievements of Communism, through the use of a modern design and materials like glass, iron, and steel.
The concept of constructivism had a significant influence on the Bauhaus, a German art and design school that operated between 1919 and 1933. During this time, modernism was gaining in popularity along with the broader avant-garde movement that was spreading across Europe and into the United States. Like constructivism, the objective of the Bauhaus school was to blend design, industrial production and art, thus creating works that were aesthetically appealing and socially significant and utilitarian.
In both the work of Tatlin and the artists that emerged from the Bauhaus school, there is a noticeable shift away from the sentimental or subjective appeal that was present in art of the previous century. Instead, this new constructivist approach demonstrated how art could be integrated into a future oriented industrial society.
Constructivism in Two-Dimensional Art
The strongest examples of early constructivism are those that use materials in a new way to convey ideas of utilitarian potential, but the idea of constructivism extends well beyond that into areas like painting and photography.
In ‘Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color’ (1921), for example, constructivist painter Alexander Rodchenko reduced the art of painting to its simplest form, in a tryptic of colored squares. Rodchenko’s painting is a symbolic representation of the Virgin Mary’s robes, but it is intended to challenge the conventional thought and emotional investment in painting. By reducing the romanticism of earlier paintings to their basic primary colors, the artist emphasized the materials being used (primary paint colors), and effectively rejected the sentimental notions that are often attached to art.
In many ways, constructivism has always had strong ties to politics, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the agitprop movement of the early 20th century. Combining the words ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’, the agitprop movement used bold, bright colors to convey political messages or ideas, in posters or advertisements, much like the Obama ‘Hope’ poster referenced earlier.
Agitprop uses bold and bright graphic design to promote political parties or causes, as in this work by Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Despite a less obvious emphasis on the materials being used to create the art, agitprop remains an important and popular form of constructivism. In this case, the fundamental elements are still present: art that serves a social, rather than individual purpose. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s ‘Want it? Join’ poster, for example, encourages citizens to support or join the shock brigades of so-called super laborers who were overly productive members of industrial society.
Lesson Summary Constructivism was an artistic movement that emerged from Russia in the early 20th century. Taking a productive or utilitarian perspective, constructivist artists highlighted construction over aesthetics in order to emphasize the potential of the materials. Early constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, for example, used a column of winding steel in his ‘Monument to Commemorate the Third International’ as a celebration of industrialism.
As the movement spread across Europe, its influence grew, particularly with the Bauhaus School, which blended industrial production and art to create designs that were aesthetically pleasing and functional. While architecture was significant in the movement, painters like Alexander Rodchenko created constructivist works that challenged conventional ideas and sentimental attachments to art.
Finally, the agitprop works of artists like Vladimir Mayakovsky serve as a strong reminder of the movement’s political and nationalistic origins. Using bold and bright graphic designs, agitprop became a useful tool in the early 20th century for promoting political messages and propaganda.