Soviet Constructivism and the Third International in Moscow
The advances achieved by the new forms of industrial production at the turn of the 20th century, together with changing needs and a new awareness of public health and education needs, also resulted in a time of change in the Russian cultural community, well before the violent events of the political crisis and the October revolution of 1917 .
Among the first measures taken by the new of government, the urban planning reform was designed to curb the activity of building speculation and, above all, to ensure housing for citizens and create spaces that were useful to local communities. These were not only to be functional but were also a celebration of the productive and decision-making role of the people.
The constructivist movement proposed to create a new form of art, one that was close to the people, through the use of techniques and materials derived from industrial progress. Art, like technology, had to drive social progress. Tatlin's reliefs, dated between 1913 and 1917, were among the first works of the movement and were designed to show how artistic creation could, to a large extent, be "determined" by the plastic properties and the very nature of the material being used. The Realist Manifesto, published in Moscow in 1920 by the brothers Naum Gabo and Anton Pevsner, was similar to Tatlin's positions. It was a tribute to "exact" art, similar to the work of an engineer that at a formal level theorised the rejection of volume and mass and favoured the "transparency" and voids of plastic construction.
Tatlin skilfully translated this message into form and composition not only in his art but also in his architectural work. His work, especially following the events of the revolution, was expressly intended to support the State and the ideology that it promoted. It was for this that Tatlin appointed head of the figurative arts section section of Izo and Narkompros, the Soviet People's Commissariat for Education, which was part of Lenin's plan for monumental propaganda. This was the context in which Tatlin developed his idea for a building that would become the emblem of the Soviet avant-garde and a monumental metaphor of the harmony of a new social order: the 1920 Moscow III International Monument. For the very first time, Tatlin developed a project consisting of a structure that comprised various elements: wood, glass and metal. He intended to combine the ideals of beauty and modernity with the concepts of utility and functionality.
A five-metre-high model of his project was first exhibited in Moscow in 1920 and later in St Petersburg. In 1925 another seven-metre-high model was displayed in the Russian pavilion designed by Konstantin Melnikov for the international exhibition of modern decorative and industrial arts in Paris. Tatlin's project was never realised at full-scale: it called for a 400-metre tall structure, the equivalent of one hundred thousandth part of the earth's meridian. It was to be coloured red, and consist of a steel girder intersected by two coaxial conical spirals that wound around a reticular beam that was purposely inclined by the same degree as the earth's inclination. Within the structure, three revolving glass spaces were superimposed at regular but different intervals.
The three inner volumes were to represent the hierarchy of power represented, from bottom to top, by a cube, a pyramid and a cylinder. The cube would take a year to revolve on itself and was to contain the activities of the legislative assembly: the Comintern. The pyramid revolved around itself on a monthly basis and accommodated the executive and administrative committees: the Ispolkom. The terminal cylinder instead completed a full revolution once a day and was to be used for information activities. A hemisphere that completed a full revolution once an hour lay above this system of volumes. Regarding its technological features, the building was designed with curtain walls made of double glazing with an oxygen-free chamber; a technical system that would be returned, almost a century later, to for the thermal control of energy-efficient buildings.
The design of this dynamic monument was intended to be an explicit proclamation of the aims of the III Moscow International: i.e. inform all the nations of the Earth of the positive effects of the Russian Revolution. Any form of artistic expression had to have a social function. The constructivist artists worked to establish socially useful art that was to be inspired by the concept of structure as the basis of architecture, sculpture and painting. Such an art was to rebuild the country on a democratic basis, overcoming the bourgeois, 19th-century art canons that were both celebratory and representative.
Another critical stage in defining constructivist poetics was the birth in Moscow, in March 1921, of the "Working Group of Constructivists", within the Institute of Artistic Culture. The group included artists such as Konstantin Stepanovic Melnikov, Aleksandr Rodchenko, his wife Varvara Stepanova, brothers Vladimir and Georgij Stenberg. After their first exhibition, which presented Rodchenko's suspended sculptures, Ioganson's tensintegrity structure and the architectural constructions by the Stenberg brothers, a second exhibition was organised in September of the same year, in which three monochrome paintings by Aleksandr Rodchenko were presented to the public as a provocation: Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour, Pure Red Colour; they were intended as the ultimate limit and at the same time the negation of any traditional sense of painting.
With the "Constructivists" exhibition of 1922, the movement found its official identity by stating its objectives in the Constructivist Manifesto drawn up and signed by Konstantin Medunetskij and the Stenberg brothers. That same year the group's theorist, Aleksej Gan referred to the manifesto in his booklet "Constructivism".
Constructivism was not confined to architecture alone; it also had a radical impact on transformations in the fields of sculpture and painting.
From Tatlin to Lissitsky, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Heinz von Foerster, to Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Rodchenko, Niklas Luhmann, who applied the constructivist approach to social systems, and Paul Watzlawick, artists considered themselves the "engineers" of future society: not only did they design plastic and architectural works of art, but they also worked in other fields, from communication to photography, from poster design to set design. The focus of constructivist aesthetics was the transition from composition to construction and the creation of abstract sculptures using composite industrial materials such as iron, metal cables and plastic materials. Easel painting was denied and abhorred, as Nikolaj Tarabukin declared in his 1923 publication "From Easel to Machine".
Constructivist-related ideas were popularised and attracted the masses In Soviet-ruled territories, following models similar to those of the Bauhaus school in Germany. Consequently, in Russian areas, the constructivist message that Vladimir Tatlin expressed as: "art must participate in the life and construction of the world", was conveyed through the Inkhuks, or institutes for artistic culture, and the Vkhutemas, or higher art institutes. The constructivist-related thinking was popularised In Soviet-ruled territories and attracted the masses with models similar to those of the Bauhaus school in Germany. Consequently, in Russian areas, the constructivist message that Vladimir Tatlin expressed as: "art must participate in the life and construction of the world", was conveyed through the Inkhuks, or institutes for artistic culture, and the Vkhutemas, or higher art institutes. Not only could these institutions spread a message that was innovative in both its functions and form, but in this way the government could also operate a form of control over ideas and education. Constructivist theory and practice spread quickly in Europe thanks to El Lissitskij and his advocacy. In 1922 he organised the "First Exhibition of Russian Art" at the Van Diemen Gallery in Berlin, thus promoting links with the intellectual groups of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst, the November Gruppe and what remained of the De Stijl movement. The Bauhaus was then to develop its heritage more fruitfully in Germany, thanks to the teaching of the Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy, who had embraced El Lissitskij's positions ever since 1920. In the Netherlands too, significant analogies were observed with the De Stijl movement, gathered around artists Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. Similar parallels were also found among several avant-garde circles in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia, all of which had different interpretations but had geometric abstraction in common. Valuable opportunities to meet and have exchanges were the Congress of International Progressive Artists in Düsseldorf in 1922 and the International Dada-Constructivist Congress that same year in Weimar, a city which in those years was focused on the early activities of the Bauhaus.
Between the 1920s and 1930s, constructivism had a profound influence on architecture, scenography, fashion, typography and, above all, industrial design, where the rising functionalist aesthetic embraced the use of modern materials and clean lines.