Book: Art into Life: Russian Constructivism

Looks at Russian Constructivism and examines its role in non-Soviet art history

In the early days of the Bolshevik revolution artists in their teens and early twenties passionately connected themselves to the collectivist goals of communism. Their motives certainly combined idealism with opportunism – a chance to ride the aesthetic revolution to fame on the political upheaval.

The book “Art Into Life” is based on the exhibition the landmark exhibition that toured the United States in the early 1990s. It examines those artists most fervently committed to first removing the class barriers between various art form than to turn art literally into life by putting the combined strengths of painting, poetry, theatre, film, architecture, designs and crafts at the service of people. They called themselves the constructivists, and “Art into Life,” is the first comprehensive look at their political tragedy and dramatic victory.

Full of the ideas of Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov, the artists issued manifestoes proclaiming; “Art is Dead!” It has no place in the human labour apparatus.

Their ranks included Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Liubov Popova and Vavara Stepanova. They joined progressively more bureaucratic art groups with acronyms like INKhUK and VKhUTEMAS in which they swore solidarity and jockeyed for power.

Tatlin, of course, is the pivotal figure in the development of Constructivism. The book’s title, “Art Into Life,” comes from a programmatic statement long attributed to Tatlin, a youthful merchant seaman and son of a railroad engineer. Tatlin was, importantly Constructivism’s conscience.

The general passing of time, coupled with the brutal Stalinist repression of the 1930s are to blame for the eradication of so much original art of the Russian avante-garde. Yet with even the remnants Tatlin’s powerful significance comes through. The reason is that as an artist, Tatlin knew and trusted the incomparable authority that resides in the powerful artistic image. He was not merely making beautiful, useful objects.

Constructivism didn’t always do that, often ceding commitment instead to goals of industrial fabrication and mass production. Constructivism has been notoriously difficult to define because, from the start, it was less an aesthetic program than a monumental question.

Russia, it must be remembered, was not a modern industrialised nation at the time of the revolution. It was a feudal agrarian state. Constructivism asked how art, which is embedded in an artisanal tradition of handmade objects, could proceed in any productive way in a revolutionary world enchanted by the promise of modern technology and possessed of utopian aspirations.

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