Call of the Avant-Garde: Con­struc­tivism and Aus­tralian Art – Sasha Gr­ishin

Art Almanac - - CONTENTS - Sasha Gr­ishin

As we ap­proach the cen­te­nary of the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion, we also are mark­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of Con­struc­tivism, an art move­ment that arose in di­rect response to the Bol­she­vik re­volt in Soviet Rus­sia.

Its ide­ol­ogy re­flected that of the so­cial­ist state, while its forms and ap­pli­ca­tion re­flected the needs and eco­nomic con­di­tions of the time. Con­struc­tivism bridges the tra­di­tional sep­a­ra­tion of me­dia – it is a to­tally in­te­grated art form. It left the pure art of paint­ing and sculp­ture and took its own prin­ci­ples of de­sign and com­bined them with ty­pog­ra­phy, book de­sign, poster art, ar­chi­tec­ture, fur­ni­ture, ce­ram­ics, tex­tiles, theatre stage sets, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, as well as mu­sic and po­etry. This avant-garde ap­proach had a pro­found im­pact not only on the art of Soviet Rus­sia, but also on the Bauhaus in Ger­many, as well as on nu­mer­ous art move­ments in Europe, Amer­ica and Aus­tralia.

This new ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion at the Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art brings to­gether over 200 works, which pri­mar­ily ex­am­ine the im­pact of Con­struc­tivism on the work of some Aus­tralian artists. It is a di­verse, but far from comprehensive se­lec­tion and, apart from a hand­ful of Rus­sian pieces by Wass­ily Kandin­sky, Kaz­imir Male­vich, El Lis­sitzky, Alek­sandr Rod­chenko, Vladimir Sten­berg and Alexandra Ex­ter, it is largely a mix­ture of work by Aus­tralian and Bri­tish artists who, to some ex­tent, were re­spond­ing to the ideas of Con­struc­tivism. High­lights in­clude Sally Smart, Ralph Bal­son, Ben Ni­chol­son, Gunter Christ­mann, Grace Crow­ley, Rose Nolan, Richard Dunn, John Nixon, Robert Owen, Emily Floyd, Melinda Harper, Frank Hin­der, Ge­orge John­son, Inge King, the Hun­gar­ian artist Las­zlo Mo­holy-Nagy and the Ger­man artist Erich Buch­holz. Cu­ri­ous omis­sions in­clude the Bauhaus Con­struc­tivist Lud­wig Hirschfeld-Mack, who pros­e­ly­tised the mer­its of Con­struc­tivism in Aus­tralia, and pos­si­bly Robert Klip­pel, who also had ideas on ap­pli­ca­tions of Con­struc­tivism to sculp­ture.

Like many art move­ments that came to be in the sec­ond decade of the 20th cen­tury, the Con­struc­tivist artists were ar­tic­u­late in their pro­nounce­ments and man­i­festoes. Alexei Gan, one of the the­o­rists of Rus­sian Con­struc­tivism, cod­i­fied what he termed the three prin­ci­ples of Con­struc­tivism in 1920. The first is tec­tonic – an in­ner erup­tion, an act of cre­ation made within a Com­mu­nist con­scious­ness with an aware­ness of the lat­est tech­nol­ogy. The sec­ond is fac­tura – it is a process of cre­ation, where el­e­ments of raw ma­te­rial are re­duced to ba­sic prin­ci­ples. The third is con­struc­tion – where the ini­tial dy­namism of cre­ation and the sense of pur­pose of tech­nol­ogy are brought to­gether with the na­ture of the ma­te­rial as a sin­gle in­te­grated whole. Al­though there were nu­mer­ous schisms and ar­gu­ments in Rus­sian Con­struc­tivism, Gan’s prin­ci­ples were ad­hered to by many of the artists in Rus­sia and abroad.

While the young Soviet state re­alised rel­a­tively few mon­u­men­tal Con­struc­tivist projects, it was in the realm of theatre, ty­pog­ra­phy and other works on pa­per, where Rus­sian Con­struc­tivism had its great­est im­pact. The bril­liant Soviet theatre di­rec­tor Vsevolod Mey­er­hold im­me­di­ately em­braced Con­struc­tivist prin­ci­ples for his stage sets. These find re­flec­tions in this ex­hi­bi­tion in the works of Sally Smart, Rose Nolan, Frank Hin­der and Justene Wil­liams. Alek­sandr Rod­chenko,

the great revo­lu­tion­ary pho­tog­ra­pher, de­signed a large se­ries of Con­struc­tivist pho­tomon­tage posters that again had a crit­i­cal im­pact on many pho­tog­ra­phers and de­sign­ers.

Lenin viewed the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion as a spark that would ig­nite a world rev­o­lu­tion, and the pro­le­tariat of all coun­tries would unite to over­throw their cap­i­tal­ist over­lords. New Con­struc­tivist art was viewed by the Soviet state as a weapon through which it would spread. Ger­many for sev­eral rea­sons be­came the most ob­vi­ous tar­get for Soviet Con­struc­tivism. Af­ter its de­feat in 1918, the al­lies carved up Ger­many and im­posed the hu­mil­i­at­ing con­di­tions of the Treaty of Ver­sailles, so in a sense, both Soviet Rus­sia and post-war Ger­many were united by their op­po­si­tion to the al­lied pow­ers. In 1921, a Ger­man-Soviet trade agree­ment was signed and this marked the of­fi­cial end of the pe­riod of to­tal en­forced iso­la­tion of Rus­sia and the com­mence­ment of an ac­tive in­ter­ac­tion for the two coun­tries. The Soviet gov­ern­ment dis­patched the Con­struc­tivist de­signer El Lis­sitzky, the revo­lu­tion­ary poet and play­wright Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poet Sergei Es­enin and his wife, the dancer Isadora Dun­can. El Lis­sitzky’s work ap­pealed to the artists Theo van Does­burg, Kurt Sch­wit­ters and La­zlo Mo­holy-Nagy and led to the con­ver­sion of the Bauhaus to Con­struc­tivism.

Con­struc­tivist work at the Bauhaus at Des­sau con­sol­i­dated the for­mal strate­gies of the de­signs of El Lis­sitzky and Rod­chenko, in­clud­ing their use of ty­pog­ra­phy and pho­tomon­tage. Po­lit­i­cal pres­sure con­tin­ued to mount un­til Wal­ter Gropius and Mo­holy-Nagy had to aban­don Des­sau and in 1932 moved to Ber­lin where the Bauhaus was dis­solved by Hitler a year later. From there the Con­struc­tivist ideas were im­ported to Amer­ica by Mo­holy-Nagy to Chicago, by Josef Al­bers to North Carolina and to Aus­tralia by Lud­wig Hirschfeld-Mack. Soviet Con­struc­tivism, which was seen by the lead­ers as the van­guard of the So­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion, by the 1940s and 1950s had swept the world, but some­how the world rev­o­lu­tion it­self lagged be­hind. Con­struc­tivism con­tin­ued to thrive in its var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions in Aus­tralia.

Sasha Gr­ishin works in­ter­na­tion­ally as an art his­to­rian, art critic and cu­ra­tor.

Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art 5 July to 8 Oc­to­ber, 2017 Mel­bourne

Rose Nolan, A Red Con­structed Work, 1992-93, syn­thetic poly­mer paint, oil paint, card­board, per­spex, tin lid and ny­lon cord, 84 x 63 x 32cm Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Gift of Rose Nolan 2014 Courtesy the artist and Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Mel­bourne Ge­orge John­son, Con­struc­tion With Brown Tri­an­gle, 1986, acrylic on can­vas, 186 x 140 cm Courtesy the artist, Charles No­drum Gallery, Mel­bourne, and Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Mel­bourne

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