In case you've heard the term "constructivism" bandied about in discussions of Shepard Fairey and ObamArt, but aren't quite sure what it actually means, check out the Tate Modern's current exhibition, "Aleksandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova: Defining Constructivism." In the Telegraph Richard Dorment reports that Rodchenko and Popova thought abstraction was a universal language that could put art at the service of the people. "Rodchenko and Popova rejected symbolism of any kind and came to believe that art should not exist on its own, but must serve a practical purpose. Behind everything they did was the wish for art to reach not the educated elite but the workers. One of the first drawings by Rodchenko in the show consists of nothing but a vertical rectangular plane intersected by a horizontal ellipsis. Unless you read the label you'd never guess that you are looking at a design for something of domestic use: a lamp. Later, we come to his design for a kiosk. Though it is easier to read, it's still a giddy arrangement of colourful geometric shapes. For Rodchenko, architecture is an intermediary between the world of pure aesthetics and everyday life.
"And yet there is a discrepancy between what these artists said they were doing and what we see in this show. Both thought of the artist as an engineer and the work of art as an impersonal, quasi-scientific design, like a building or a machine. It followed that the artist's ego had no place in the artwork. Rodchenko used a ruler to draw lines and applied paint to canvas mechanically, so that nothing of his personality should find its way into the things he created. Despite all their conscious efforts, however, their work positively trembles with the joy of discovery, of creation, of optimism and hope for the future. And so, although she often paints on cheap plywood and in some works adds a layer of dust to give the surface the look of something built or made by a machine, Popova can't eradicate the powerful force of art-for-art's-sake aestheticism that had characterised Russian art from the 1890s until the Revolution. Her battle against aestheticism, I think, lies behind all of her work in two dimensions and is the reason why she finally had to abandon painting for fabric and theatre design." Read more.
the resulting cascade of solutions and proposals one of the most exhilarating stretches of creativity ever seen at the Tate. "The show traces an extraordinary progress from revolutionary painting to the creation and design of everything that was needed in the new Russia: aircraft hangars, dresses, chairs, kiosks, tables, teacups, cigarette packets, workers’ uniforms. In a brilliant trajectory, the display actually seems to pick up speed as it progresses."
"Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism," Tate Modern, London, UK. Through May 17.