The Tradition of Constructivism / Edited and with an Introduction by Stephen Bann. — New York, 1974
The Tradition of Constructivism / Edited and with an Introduction by Stephen Bann. — New York : The Viking Press, 1974. — XLIX, 334 p., ill.
List of Illustrations xiii
Brief Chronology xv
Preface: Constructivism and the New Man xix
Introduction: Constructivism and Constructive Art in the Twentieth Century xxv
I. Constructivism in Russia: 1920—23
Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner: The Realistic Manifesto (1920) 3
Vladimir Tatlin, T. Shapiro, I. Meyerzon, and Pavel Vinogradov: The Work Ahead of Us (1920) 11
Nikolai Punin: Tallin’s Tower (1920) 14
Program of the Productivist Group (1920) 18
From Art in Production (1921) 21
A. Filippov: Production Art 22
A. Toporkov: Technological and Artistic Form 26
Alexei Gan: From Constructivism (1922) 32
Boris Arvatov: From Art and Class (1923) 43
II. Toward International Constructivism: 1921—22
Raoul Hausmann, Hans Arp, Ivan Puni, and László Moholy-Nagy: A Call for Elementarist Art (1921) 51
El Lissitzky and Ilya Ehrenburg: The Blockade of Russia Is Coming to an End (1922) 53
Congress of International Progressive Artists (1922) 58
A Short Review of the Proceedings 58
Statement by the Editors of Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet 63
Statement by the Stijl Group 64
Statement by the Constructivist Groups of Rumania, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and Germany 66
Statement by the International Faction of Constructivists 68
From the Catalogue of the First Exhibition of Russian Art, Van Diemen Gallery, Berlin (1922) 70
David Shterenberg: Foreword 70
Arthur Holitscher: Statement 72
From Introduction 75
III. Constructivism and the Little Magazines: 1923—24
From Let (1923) 79
Whom Is Lef Alerting? 80
Osip Brik: Into Production! 83
Boris Arvatov: Materialized Utopia 85
From G (1923-24) 90
Theo van Doesburg: Elemental Formation 91
Hans Richter: G 93
From Disk (1923) 97
From Blok (1924) 103
What Constructivism Is 103
IV. Extension of Constructivist Principles: 1923—28
I. K. Bonset: Toward a Constructive Poetry (1923) 109
Vladimir Tatlin: On Zangezi (1923) 112
Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren: Toward a Collective Construction (1923) 115
Ludwig Hilberseimer: Construction and Form (1924) 118
Literary Center of Constructivists: The Basic Tenets of Constructivism (1924) 123
Alexei Gan: Constructivism in the Cinema (1928) 127
V. Retrospect, Theory, and Prognosis: 1928—32
László Moholy-Nagy: Letter of Resignation from the Bauhaus (1928) 135
El Lissitzky: From Russia: The Reconstruction of Architecture in the Soviet Union (1930) 137
From The Construction of Architectural and Mechanical Forms by Jakob Chernikov (1931) 148
Erik Fedorovich Gollerbakh: From The Problems of Constructivism in Their Relation to Art 149
Jakob Chernikov: The Constitution, Study, and Formation of Constructivism 153
Vladimir Tatlin: Art Out into Technology (1932) 170
VI. The Constructive Idea in Europe: 1930—42
Michel Seuphor: In Defense of an Architecture (1930) 177
Carlsund, Van Doesburg, Hélion, Tutundjian, and Wantz: The Basis of Concrete Painting (1930) 191
Joaquín Torres-García: The Constructive Art Group — Joint Collaborative Work (1933) 194
Jean Gorin: The Aim of Constructive Plastic Art (1936) 199
From Circle — International Survey of Constructive Art (1937) 202
Naum Gabo: The Constructive Idea in Art 204
Letter from Naum Gabo to Herbert Read (1942) 214
VII. The Constructive Idea in the Postwar World: 1948-65
Charles Biederman: From Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge (1948) 223
Naum Gabo: On Constructive Realism (1948) 234
Nicolas Schöffer: Spatiodynamism, Luminodynamism, and Chronodynamism (1960) 248
Victor Vasarely: Planetary Folklore (1965) 258
From Structure (1959-64) 265
Anthony Hill: On Constructions, Nature, and Structure 268
Richard P. Lohse: A Step Farther — New Problems in Constructive Plastic Expression 277
Kenneth Martin: Construction from Within 283
Joost Baljeu: The Constructive Approach Today 287
Selected Bibliography by Bernard Karpel, Librarian of the Museum of Modern Art, New York 303
Constructivism and the New Man
It is a frequent complaint addressed to abstract, geometric art that it has failed to maintain contact with humanity, that man cannot identify his most profound emotions and his most soaring ambitions with a type of artistic expression that restricts itself to the purity and impersonality of geometrical form. This is a view of man’s relationship to art, and to his environment, that seems to presuppose a lingering adherence to the “pathetic fallacy” of the romantics; to the view that external phenomena exist to provide a kind of sympathetic sounding board to human feeling, and that the artist should try to re-create this resonance in his work. What can be stated quite categorically about constructivism is that it rejects the comfortable assumption of a “given” harmony between human feeling and the outside world. In contrast, it implies that man himself is the creator of order in a world that is neither sympathetic nor hostile, and that the artist must play a central role in determining the type of order that is imposed.
Constructivism takes its stand, therefore, upon the obligations and the aspirations of the New Man. In the dark days of the First World War, the poet Isaac Rosenberg could dedicate his art to the “Soldier: Twentieth Century”:
I love you, great new Titan!
Am I not you?
Napoleon and Caesar
Out of you grew.
But if Rosenberg’s Titan recalls the aspirations of English vorticists and Italian futurists, the constructivist model was to be the Russian revolutionary, who, issuing from the Great War, confronted the gigantic task of building a new society. In Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak has memorably outlined his character in the persona of Strelnikov:
He absorbed an immense amount of information and after taking his degree in the humanities trained himself later in science and mathematics.
Exempted from the army, he enlisted voluntarily, was commissioned, sent to the front, and captured, and on hearing of the revolution in Russia he escaped in 1917 and came home. He had two characteristic features, two passions: an unusual power of clear and logical reasoning, and a great moral purity and sense of justice; he was ardent and honorable. . . .
Filled with the loftiest aspirations from his childhood he had looked upon the world as a vast arena where everyone competed for perfection. . . .
We can recognize Strelnikov in Lissitzky’s portrayal of the New Man in his Kestner Portfolio of 1923: in this striding, purposeful figure who has a black and a red star for eyes, while Lissitzky’s Old Man is characterized by a head drooping “two paces behind.” We can perhaps recognize him later in Michel Seuphor’s evocation of “Man the constructor,” with its explicit reference to the opening of the “Futurist Manifesto”: “There are some who are announcing the new day, who can see the dawn rise before the others. Have they not, these people, been awake the whole night questioning the stars?”
And yet the identification of constructivism with the New Man poses as many questions as it resolves. Pasternak himself was swift to diagnose the limitations of Strelnikov from the creative point of view:
But he would not have made a scientist of the sort who break new ground. His intelligence lacked the capacity for bold leaps into the unknown, the sudden flashes of insight that transcend barren, logical deductions.
And if he were really to do good, he would have needed, in addition to his principles, a heart capable of violating them — a heart which knows only of particular, not of general, cases, and which achieves greatness in little actions.
Constructivism, like the Bolshevik Revolution, may have been centrally concerned with clear and logical reasoning, with the perfection of human institutions, and with the establishment of general laws based on scientific fact. Yet the foremost constructivist artists were those who saw the world through the “prism” of their own technique. Lissitzky himself emphasizes the point in his judgment on Tatlin, who “assumed that intuitive artistic mastery of the material led to discoveries on the basis of which objects could be constructed irrespective of the rational, scientific methods of technology’’ and “proved the justice of his conception” by completing the model for the Monument to the Third International “without any special technoconstructive knowledge.” And when Lissitzky composed his own self-portrait, The Constructor, in 1924, it was to emphasize — through an exquisite photomontage — the supcrimposition of the artist’s hand and the artist’s head; the compass that traces a flawless circle on graph paper is controlled by this union of manual and intellectual skill.
Much of the fascination of constructivism lies in these tensions provoked by the image of the New Man. Theo van Doesburg’s friend Peter Röhl portrayed the dilemma in a charming satire when he caricatured the meeting of “natural and mechanical man’’ at the Bauhaus in 1922. On a less caricatural level was the conflict that impelled Gabo to leave Russia in the same year, since he saw the liberty of the individual artist threatened by the utilitarian demands of “production art” and the intellectual straitjacket of Marxist doctrine.
The notion of constructivism as the art devised for, and in some respects by, the masses had its notable successes — in the “actorless” documentary films of Esther Shub and in the amazing development of architecture and planning in the Russia of the 1920s. But ultimately, in the absence of conclusive support from the state, responsibility for the future of constructivism was bound to revert to the individual artist, who had to reconcile within himself not only the claims of the New Man and the Old, reason and intuition, but also the paradox of creating models for a society that clearly did not exist. “We regarded our art as an art both of the present and the future,” writes Gabo. “But such an art needs a new society.”
Thus the constructive ideal leads us, by way of historical documentation, to the problems of the present day and the prospects for the future. The present collection sufficiently attests the vigor of the constructive tradition, which has now endured effectively for half a century. Are we nearer to the birth of the New Man? Or must the constructive artist continue to provide new models for a society that simply requires confirmation of its ancestral patterns of thought? The question is perhaps unanswerable. Yet Arthur Koestler suggested long ago in his essay The Yogi and the Commissar that there may be a “pendular rhythm” between “rationalistic” and “romantic” periods; between the quietism and irrationality of the Yogi and “unneurotic repression” of the Commissar, who is in a sense the official embodiment of our constructive “New Man.” No one could deny the predominant prestige of the Yogi in recent years. Yet maybe the pendulum has already started to swing.
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