Europe from 1920-1945 CE

Soviet Constructivism

Constructivism, an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia in 1919, rejected the idea of autonomous art.

Learning Objective

State the impetus behind Soviet Constructivism and its artistic characteristics

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As much as involving themselves in designs for industry, the Constructivists worked on public festivals and street designs for the post-October revolution Bolshevik government.
  • The canonical work of Constructivism was Vladimir Tatlin’s proposal for the Monument to the Third International (1919), which combined a machine aesthetic with dynamic components celebrating technology such as searchlights and projection screens.
  • The First Working Group of Constructivists defined Constructivism as the combination of faktura—the particular material properties of an object—and tektonika, its spatial presence.

Key Terms

  • ROSTA Windows: Rosta Windows or Satirical Rosta Windows (Russian: О с Р, Okna satiry Rosta) were stencil-replicated propaganda posters created by artists and poets within the Rosta (Russian Telegraph Agency) system, under the supervision of the Chief Committee of Political Education during 1919–21. Inheriting the Russian design traditions of lubok and rayok, the main topics were current political events. They were usually displayed in windows, hence the name.
  • Vladimir Tatlin: (1885–1953) A Russian and Soviet painter and architect. With Kazimir Malevich he was one of the two most important figures in the Russian avant-garde art movement of the 1920s, and he later became an important artist in the Constructivist movement. He is most famous for his attempts to create the giant tower, The Monument to the Third International.
  • constructivism: An artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia beginning in 1919, which was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art. The movement was in favor of art as a practice for social purposes. Constructivism had a great effect on modern art movements of the 20th century, influencing major trends such as Bauhaus and the De Stijl movement.
    Suprematism: A genre of abstract art based on simple, geometric forms.

Overview

Constructivism was an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia beginning in 1919. At the heart of the movement was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art. The movement was in favor of art as a practice for social purposes and participation in industry. Constructivism had a considerable effect on modern art movements of the 20th century, influencing major trends such as Bauhaus and the De Stijl movement. Its influence was pervasive, with major impacts upon architecture, graphic and industrial design, theatre, film, dance, fashion, and to some extent music.

Origins and Evolution

The term Construction Art was first used as a derisive term by Kazimir Malevich, an artist of the Suprematist movement, to describe the work of Alexander Rodchenko in 1917. Constructivism as theory and practice was derived largely from a series of debates at INKhUK (Institute of Artistic Culture) in Moscow, from 1920–22. After deposing its first chairman, Wassily Kandinsky, for his “mysticism,” The First Working Group of Constructivists (including Liubov Popova, Alexander Vesnin, Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and the theorists Alexei Gan, Boris Arvatov, and Osip Brik) would develop a definition of Constructivism as the combination of faktura—the particular material properties of an object—and tektonika, its spatial presence. Initially the Constructivists worked on three-dimensional constructions as a means of participating in industry: the OBMOKhU (Society of Young Artists) exhibition showed these three-dimensional compositions by Rodchenko, Stepanova, Karl Ioganson, and the Stenberg Brothers. Later the definition would be extended to designs for two-dimensional works such as books or posters, with montage and factography becoming important concepts.

Public Art

As much as involving themselves in designs for industry, the Constructivists worked on public festivals and street designs for the post-October revolution Bolshevik government. Perhaps the most famous of these was in Vitebsk, where Malevich’s UNOVIS Group painted propaganda plaques and buildings (the best known being El Lissitzky’s 1919 poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge). Inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky’s declaration “the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes,” artists and designers participated in public life during the Civil War. A striking instance was the proposed festival for the Comintern congress in 1921 by Alexander Vesnin and Liubov Popova, which resembled the constructions of the OBMOKhU exhibition as well as their work for the theater.

There was a great deal of overlap during this period between Constructivism and Proletkult; the ideas of Proletkult concerning the need to create an entirely new culture struck a chord with the Constructivists. In addition, some Constructivists were heavily involved in the “ROSTA Windows,” a Bolshevik public information campaign carried out around 1920. Some of the most famous of these were by the poet-painter Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vladimir Lebedev.

Agitprop poster by Mayakovsky

Agitprop poster by Mayakovsky: Mayakovsky worked for the Russian State Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) creating—both graphic and text—satirical Agitprop posters.

Tatlin’s Vision Versus Gabo’s

The canonical work of Constructivism was Vladimir Tatlin’s proposal for the Monument to the Third International (1919), which combined a machine aesthetic with dynamic components celebrating technology such as searchlights and projection screens. Gabo publicly criticized Tatlin’s design, saying he should “Either create functional houses and bridges or create pure art, not both.” This position had already caused a major controversy in the Moscow group in 1920, when Gabo and Pevsner’s Realistic Manifesto asserted a spiritual core for the movement. This was opposed to the utilitarian and adaptable version of Constructivism held by Tatlin and Rodchenko. Tatlin’s work was immediately hailed by artists in Germany as a revolution in art. A 1920 photograph shows George Grosz and John Heartfield holding a placard saying “Art is Dead–Long Live Tatlin’s Machine Art. ” The designs for the tower were published in Bruno Taut’s magazine Fruhlicht.

Tatlin’s tower started a period of exchange of ideas between Moscow and Berlin, something reinforced by El Lissitzky and Ilya Ehrenburg’s Soviet-German magazine Veshch-Gegenstand-Objet, which spread the idea of “Construction art,” as did the Constructivist exhibits at the 1922 Russische Ausstellung in Berlin, organised by Lissitzky. A “Constructivist international” was formed, which met with Dadaists and De Stijl artists in Germany in 1922. Participants in this short-lived international group included Lissitzky, Hans Richter, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

However, the idea of “art” was becoming anathema to the Russian Constructivists. The INKhUK debates of 1920–22 had culminated in the theory of Productivism propounded by Osip Brik and others, which demanded direct participation in industry and the end of easel painting. Tatlin was one of the first to attempt to transfer his talents to industrial production, with his designs for an economical stove, for workers’ overalls, and for furniture. The Utopian element in Constructivism was maintained by his “letatlin,” a flying machine which he worked on until the 1930s.

Dutch Rationalist Architecture

The Amsterdam School is a style of architecture that lasted from 1910 to 1930, with the aim of creating a total architectural experience.

Learning Objective

Indicate the unique aspects of Dutch Rationalism and its architectural elements

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Buildings of the Amsterdam School are characterized by brick construction with complicated masonry with a rounded or organic appearance, relatively traditional massing, and the integration of an elaborate scheme of building elements inside and out.
  • Imbued with socialist ideals, the Amsterdam School style was often applied to working-class housing estates, local institutions, and schools.
  • The most important architects and virtuoso artists of the Amsterdam School were Michel de Klerk and Piet Kramer.

Key Terms

  • Amsterdam School: A style of architecture that arose from 1910 through about 1930 in the Netherlands, with the aim of creating a total architectural experience, interior and exterior.
  • Eduard Cuypers: A Dutch architect considered to have originated the Amsterdam School of architecture (1859–June 1, 1927, The Hague).
  • Brick Expressionism: A specific variant of expressionist architecture that uses bricks, tiles, or clinker bricks as the main visible building material. Buildings in the style were erected mostly in the 1920s, primarily in Germany.

The Amsterdam School (Dutch: Amsterdamse School) is a style of architecture that arose in 1910 and lasted until about 1930 in The Netherlands. The Amsterdam School movement is considered to be part of international Expressionist architecture, sometimes linked to German Brick Expressionism. Buildings of the Amsterdam School are characterized by their use of bricks, rounded or organic appearance, relatively traditional massing, and the integration of an elaborate scheme of building elements inside and out such as decorative masonry, art glass, wrought ironwork, spires or “ladder” windows (with horizontal bars), and integrated architectural sculpture. The aim was to create a total architectural experience, interior and exterior.

Imbued with socialist ideals, the Amsterdam School style was often applied to working-class housing estates, local institutions, and schools. For many Dutch towns, Hendrik Berlage designed the new urban schemes, while the architects of the Amsterdam School were responsible for the buildings. With regard to the architectural style, Michel de Klerk had a different vision than Berlage. In the magazine “Bouwkundig Weekblad 45/1916,” Michel de Klerk criticized Berlage’s recent buildings in the style of Dutch Traditionalism. In this context, the Stock Exchange by Berlage of 1905 can be seen as the starting point of traditionalist architecture.

The Amsterdam School had its origins in the office of architect Eduard Cuypers in Amsterdam. Although Cuypers was not a progressive architect himself, he gave his employees plenty of opportunity to develop. The three leaders of the Amsterdam School Michel de Klerk, Johan van der Mey, and Piet Kramer all worked for Cuypers until about 1910. In 1905, Amsterdam was the first city to establish a building code, and the city hired Johan van der Mey afterwards, in the special position as “Aesthetic Advisor,” to bring artistic unity and vision to its built environment. Van der Mey’s major commission, the 1912 cooperative-commercial Scheepvaarthuis (Shipping House), is considered the starting point of the movement, and the three of them collaborated on that building. The movement and its followers played an important role in Berlage’s overall plans for the expansion of Amsterdam.

The Scheepvaarthuis, Amsterdam.

The Scheepvaarthuis, Amsterdam: The 1912 cooperative-commercial Scheepvaarthuis (Shipping House) is considered the starting point of the Amsterdam School movement.

The most important architects and virtuoso artists of the Amsterdam School were Michel de Klerk and Piet Kramer. Other members included Jan Gratama (who gave it its name), Berend Tobia Boeyinga, P. H. Endt, H. Th. Wijdeveld, J. F. Staal, C. J. Blaauw, and P. L. Marnette. The journal Wendingen (“Windings” or “Changes”), published between 1918 and 1931, was the magazine of the Amsterdam School movement.

After De Klerk died in 1923, the style lost its importance. The De Bijenkorf Store in the Hague by Piet Kramer of 1926 is considered to be the last example of “classic” Amsterdam School Expressionism.

German Bauhaus Art

The Bauhaus was a school in Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts and was famous for its functionalist approach to design.

Learning Objective

Describe Bauhaus design principles and their impact on modern art, architecture, and design

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Bauhaus had a profound influence on subsequent developments in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography.
  • The Bauhaus style was marked by the absence of ornamentation and by harmony between function and overall design.
  • The design innovations commonly associated with Gropius and the Bauhaus—radically simplified forms, rationality, functionality, and the idea that mass-production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit—were already partly developed in Germany before the Bauhaus was founded.

Key Terms

  • Bauhaus: A style in Modernist architecture and modern design, popularized at the “Staatliches Bauhaus” originally in Weimar, Germany.
  • Walter Gropius: (1883—1969) A German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School who is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture.

The Bauhaus was a school in Germany that operated from 1919 to 1933, combined crafts and the fine arts, and was famous for the functional design approach it taught and publicized. Despite its name meaning “house of construction” in German and the founder, Walter Gropius, being an architect, the Bauhaus did not have an architecture department during its first years. Nonetheless, the school was founded on the idea of “total” creativity, or gesamtkunstwerk, in which all arts would be brought together. Many well-known artists attended the Bauhaus, including Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Max Bill, and Herbert Bayer. The Bauhaus style became one of the most influential currents in Modernist architecture and modern design, having a profound influence on subsequent developments in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography.

The most important influence on Bauhaus was Modernism, a cultural movement with origins as far back as the 1880s that had already made its presence felt in Germany before the World War. The design innovations commonly associated with Gropius and the Bauhaus—radically simplified forms, rationality, functionality, and the idea that mass-production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit—were already partly developed in Germany before the Bauhaus was founded.

Germany’s defeat in World War I, the fall of the German monarchy, and the abolition of censorship under the new, liberal Weimar Republic allowed an upsurge in artistic experimentation. Many Germans of left-wing views were influenced by the cultural radicalization that followed the Russian Revolution. Yet the political influences can be overstated: Gropius himself did not have radical views and said Bauhaus was entirely apolitical. Another significant influence was the 19th century English designer William Morris, who had argued that art should meet the needs of society and that there should be no distinction between form and function. Thus the Bauhaus style was marked by the absence of ornamentation and by harmony between function and overall design.

The school existed in three German cities: Weimar from 1919 to 1925, Dessau from 1925 to 1932, and Berlin from 1932 to 1933, under three different architect-directors: Walter Gropius from 1919 to 1928, Hannes Meyer from 1928 to 1930, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from 1930 until 1933, when the school was closed by its own leadership under pressure from the Nazi regime, having being painted as a centre of communist intellectualism. Although the school was closed, the staff continued to spread its idealistic precepts as they left Germany and emigrated all over the world.

The influence of the Bauhaus on design education was significant. One of the main objectives of the Bauhaus was to unify art, craft, and technology, and this approach was incorporated into the curriculum of the Bauhaus. The structure of the Bauhaus Vorkurs (preliminary course) reflected a pragmatic approach to integrating theory and application. In their first year, students learned the basic elements and principles of design and color theory, and experimented with a range of materials and processes. This approach to design education became a common feature of architectural and design school in many countries.

The Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany

The Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany: Bauhaus means “house of construction.”