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Ciara Mendoza Professor Caçoilo Art and Women 6 December 2011 Constructivism: Art with a Purpose Russian Constructivism, according to most accounts, began around 1921, mainly in response to the current political environment. Post-revolution Russia came along with various cultural and political ideas about society and art, and Constructivism - as well as Productivism, which branched off from Constructivism - attempted to incorporate these ideas. The main aspect of Constructivism was the idea that art should take the form of products that could be used every day, as opposed to expression that could merely be admired. Their work constantly referenced this principle, but to inform others of their ideas, they physically published leaflets and papers (Vestnik Intellektual’nogo Proizvodstva; in English, The Herald of Intellectual Production) and organized exhibitions that displayed their designs. Ultimately, Constructivists were advocating a change in what was considered art, and believed that traditional art could not keep up with current and modern political agendas. The actual terms “Constructivism” or “Constructivist” were not used until 1917, after the Revolution of 1917 in Russia, and in 1921, the first exhibition for these works took place. Leading members of what was then known as The Working Group of Constructivists included Alexander Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova, and art theorist Alexei Gan, among other individuals. Over time, women artists such as Liubov Popova and Alexandra Exter became involved in this movement. Constructivism, as well as women artists’ ability to participate in it, was largely based on

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the political status of the time. Before and during the Russian Revolution under the influence of communist politician Vladimir Lenin, women were allowed to paint and create art and culture with the same level of respect as fellow male artists. Lenin called for artists and graphic designers to create support for the Revolution (which explains the vast amount of propaganda created during this time period). In addition, the Revolution had left the Constructivists wanting to create art that would embrace “the social needs and values of the new Communist order” (Lodder, 1). Industry, machinery, and labor were ideas associated with communism, which influenced the Constructivist idea of art intertwined with industry. The Bolsheviks, (a portion of a political party founded by Lenin) originally approved the type of art that was being created but eventually, Lenin passed away in 1924 and Stalin, who replaced him, thought that art should be “Social realism-figurative, narrative art that romanticized and extolled the virtues of the communist regime” (Guerilla Girls, 64). In response, Constructivists felt the pressure to include greater realism in their arts. In addition, Stalin called for Constructivist graphic designers to portray Russian leaders with a positive light using propaganda, which further influenced their designs. The main idea behind Constructivism is the belief in practical art with a purpose. This is evident in their “concept of the artist as engineer” (Eskilson, 225). They believed that instead of creating art as expression, they were designing functional products for society. Constructivists along with the members of the offshoot movement, Productivism - believed that art should not be used merely for artistic or individual expression, and in fact, some of them, including Varvara Stepanova, actually rejected fine art. To them, art was a pragmatic, logical, and realistic aspect of life that should be treated as such, and utilized in a way that would benefit the general public. “The Realistic Manifesto,” which was written by sculptor Naum Gabo in 1920 and is believed to

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be a significant text of Constructivism, actually highlights this idea. Gabo states that art should follow the individual throughout his whole life “at work...at rest, at play; on working days and holidays” (Bann, 10). With this statement, he references the Constructivist idea that art should be included in the individual’s life at all times. Therefore, art should be functional and should benefit the people - aesthetic beauty only comes second to function. This principle served as the foundation for all of the movement’s works, which took the form of theater set productions, graphic design, propaganda used to serve the government, and clothing. The members of the Constructivist movement were motivated by other principles that greatly influenced their work. “The Realistic Manifesto” also places importance on realism as opposed to abstraction in art. Gabo claimed that life itself and the laws that come from it are legitimate because beauty and other similar aspects are subjective, and therefore irrelevant (Bann, 8). If life is the ultimate example of authenticity, then all art must be pragmatic as well. Alexei Gan characterized Constructivism as following three important ideas: tektonika (tectonics, which refers to a Communist idea of using industrial materials with a legitimate and functional purpose), konstruktsiya (construction, which refers to appropriately utilizing and organizing the material), and faktura (which refers to actually choosing the specific material and how it is going to be treated) (Harrison, 342). These principles are evident in the works created from this movement because they emphasize a type of art that is based almost on science and reasoning as opposed to a manifestation of pure expression. Constructivists valued work that served a purpose, and these principles of tectonics, construction, and faktura emphasize that. Varvara Stepanova, a significant member (and founder) of Constructivism, incorporated these ideas in her work. Aside from working in graphic design, Stepanova became involved in fashion, and textiles. Her philosophy was that if clothing was fully functional, the aesthetic

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appeal and beauty of it would naturally follow. She believed that clothing should be considered as part of a function of everyday movement and life, as opposed to just a mere object. She created different types of clothing specifically tailored for people in different professions. For example, she created sportodezhda (clothing designed for sports) and spetzodezhda (clothing designed for professions that required extra materials, such as pilots and surgeons). Stepanova argued that the idea of dress as something of function as opposed to something of beauty was relevant when the dress was only worn during the specific activity it was made for (Chadwick, 275). This ideology relates back to an idea presented by Gabo’s “Realistic Manifesto” of “[taking] the present day” (Bann, 11). Constructivists argued for working in the present day they did not believe in regurgitating art from the past, or trying to create futuristic kinds of art. Stepanova’s belief of clothing as a type of practical art, as well as something that is functioning in the present references this idea. Liubov Popova, like Stepanova, was another Constructivist that believed in art with a purpose. Originally, she did paint with a canvas, and some of her well known paintings include Painterly Architectonics. Eventually, in 1921, she stopped painting and instead, turned to Constructivism and began working in theater and stage design. She even worked with Stepanova in some constructions. Her decision to fully immerse herself in the Constructivist movement came at the moment she completed her last painting: “Art is finished. It has no placed in the working apparatus. Labor, technology, organization - that is today’s ideology” (Guerilla Girls, 66). This moment was shortly after the Revolution, when communism was widespread and the government called for greater realism in the arts. The communist ideas of labor and technology being integrated in culture and society greatly influenced Popova into making this decision. Alexandra Exter was yet another artist whose works could be considered part of

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Constructivism. Throughout her life, she never denied or rejected painting or a specific type of art, and she never endorsed or joined any particular movement. However, her work has been described as avant garde, and Constructivist. While she did not feel the same about their application of art to industry and actual materials (that did not include paint or a canvas), she did believe that art could be used in everyday life and social settings. When she established an art school, she designed propaganda with her students (specifically, agitprop, which is propaganda that utilizes art). In addition, she went into stage design like Popova. She produced costumes for theatrical productions, musicals, and plays, as well as designing practical clothing for everyday use. However, despite the fact that she created economical and practical designs for clothing prototypes that were prepared for mass production, her work was never quite completely within the realm of Constructivism. However, her paintings were still included in the early Constructivist exhibition, 5 x 5 = 25.

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Works Cited Bann, Stephen. The Tradition of Constructivism. New York: Da Capo Press, 1974. Print. Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. 4th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2007. Print. Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Lawrence King Publishing, 2007. Print. The Guerrilla Girls. The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. Print. Gough, Maria. The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The Regents of the University of California, 2005. Print. Harrison, Charles. Art in Theory, 1900 - 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Cornwall: TJ International Ltd, 2003. Print. "LIUBOV POPOVA." Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://tars.rollins.edu/Foreign_Lang/Russian/popova.html>. Lodder, Christina. "Alexandra Exter." MoMA | The Museum of Modern Art. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. <http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=1784>. Lodder, Christina. "Constructivism." MoMA | The Museum of Modern Art. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. <http://www.moma.org/collection/details.php?theme_id=1095&section_id=T019199 #skipToContent> "Varvara Stepanova." Russian Avant Garde. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. http://www.russianavantgarde.nl/Russian_Avantgarde_Art/details/Pages/VarvaraStepanova.html.

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Pictures Alexander Rodchenko, Dobrolet (propaganda poster). 1923. Photograph. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Liubov Popova, Painterly Architectonics, 1916-1918. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. Photograph of the first Constructivist Exhibition, 1921. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. Set design for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. Stage set design for a Tragedy, Alexandra Exter, c. 1920s. Web. 5 Dec. 2011 Varvara Stepanova, Designs for Sports Clothing, 1923. New York. Columbia University in the City of New York. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.