Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art

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.

George Johnson, Construction With Brown Triangle, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 186 x 140cm. Courtesy of the artist and Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne

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.

Gunter Christmann, Red/Green Cross, 1966, oil on composition board, 122 x 122cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased 1992. © Estate of Gunter Christmann and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

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.

Justene Williams, The Worker (Costume from Victory Over the Sun), 2016, stretch cotton, felt, plastic toys, self- striped felt, drill, dimensions variable. © the artist. Courtesy of the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney

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.

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

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