loader image

Constructivism – Russian Avant-Garde

By Melanie Damani, Art Consultant, Hottinger Art

(III/III Series on Avant-Garde painting)

Constructivism was an artistic movement that originated in Russia with Vladimir Tatlin (1883-1953) in 1913, after he had visited Picasso’s studio and was crucially inspired and forever influenced. It was also a post-World War I development of Russian Futurism. Artists believed that art should be at the service of the modern industrial world.

Alexander Rodtchenko (1891-1956), Russian state airline Dobrolet,1923

In 1922, like in most of the other avant-garde movements, a manifesto was written to settle the main ideas of the movement. Aleksei Gan (1893-1942), one of the other founders of Constructivism, undertook that task and declared an uncompromising war on art. The idea was to reject autonomous art. Constructivists believed that art had no place in a closed space such as the artist’s studio. Instead, art should embrace modern times and the industrial world. At this critical point in Russian history, artists were ruling in favour of art as a practice for social purpose and so art became an active agent in the Communist revolution.

Liubov Popova (1889-1924) Space Force Construction, 1920, Oil with wood dust on plywood, State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki. (Source: Tate Modern, 2019)

Artists such as Liubov Popova (1889-1924), Alexander Vesnin (1883-159), Alexander Rodtchenko (1891-1956), Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), and the theorists Boris Arvatov (1896-1940) and Ossip Brik (1888-1945) would shape this movement with the combined use of particular material properties of an object and its spatial presence. Initially, the Constructivists worked on three-dimensional constructions but later applied their techniques and designs to two-dimensional works such as books and posters.

Anton Lavinksy (1893-1968), Battleship Potemkin 1905, lithograph in colours. Sold for £45,000 in the Posters sale on 4 June 2015 at Christie’s London (Source: Christie’s, 2019)

Constructivism influenced major trends outside Russia such as the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements. The movement focused on buildings and science, rather than artistic expression per se, its reach therefore extending far beyond the realm of art. Not only did it affect other avant-garde art movements but also influenced architecture, sculpture, graphic design, industrial design, theatre, film, dance, fashion, and much more.

Shepard Fairey (b.1970) Obama Hope, 2008, poster , highly inspired by Constructivism (Source: Phaidon, 2019)

Constructivism had ended by the 1930s as avant-garde activity became increasingly distasteful to the Communist regime. However, its influence continued to spread to other movements throughout much of the 20th century. Laura Hillegas said: “Constructivism radically reimaged the role of the artist as an engineer with tools, rather than an academy painter with a brush.” (L. Hillegas, “Constructivism Brought the Russian Revolution to the Art World”, Artsy, 4 January, 2019.

Constructivism market

The Russian art market is still a young market, which reached just over £50 million in total sales in 2018. Dedicated Russian art auctions began only approximately 15 years ago, even though auction houses have been organising Russian art weeks since the 1980s.

The end of the Soviet Regime was the beginning of a long-lasting tradition of bringing the international and local Russian community together. Important sales tend to take place in London rather than in Russia simply because London is one of the most important world centres for art. The market is led by Sotheby’s, followed by MacDougall’s Fine Art Auction, and Christie’s.

Collectors are mainly Russians and their tastes tend to be conservative. Soviet Art, including Constructivism, tends to be appreciated less by Russian collectors, on contrast to a growing community of international collectors with a less emotional perspective on the political side of such artworks.

Our investment strategy committee, which consists of seasoned strategists and investment managers, meets regularly to review asset allocation, geographical spread, sector preferences and key global market drivers and our economist produces research and views on global economies which complement this process.

Our quarterly report presents our views on the world economic outlook and equity, fixed income and foreign exchange markets. Please click the link to download.