PRINT February 2006


the Russian Avant-garde

OUR KNOWLEDGE OF Russian Constructivism has progressed in huge spurts separated by steady trickles of information. While the broad chronological scope of Camilla Gray’s inaugural study of 1962, The Great Russian Experiment in Art: Russian Art, 1863–1922, meant that the author could only barely touch on Constructivism, the book sparked the interest of artists, scholars, and curators alike. This enthusiasm intensified as the political upheavals of the late ’60s in Europe and the United States propelled the issue of the relationship between art and politics to the fore. Gray’s book was followed by two solid decades of exhibitions and publications (the latter mostly of primary texts). But because censorship concerning the Soviet avant-garde prevailed in Russia during most of this period, information could only remain fragmentary, brought back by scholars such as Andrei Nakov or John Bowlt who had access to private archives. More and more vintage texts were published—manifestos, declarations, correspondences, etc.—from a seemingly inexhaustible trove (the Constructivists were a loquacious bunch), while more and more objects fueled the Western market. Yet all the while, an overview accounting for this new material remained as needed as it was elusive.

Enter Christina Lodder’s formidable Russian Constructivism of 1983, which radically altered this state of affairs—an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that her research was conducted before the advent of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. At last, one possessed an overall map by which to navigate all the odd acronyms from OBMOKhU and VKhUTEMAS to AKhRR and RAKhN. Lodder did more than any scholar before her to establish that Russian Constructivism was not of a piece, that its history was fraught with many tensions, that it was plural. She also dismissed once and for all the cold war cliché of the Constructivist as a naive fellow traveler of the Soviet regime who was soon disabused of his or her convictions and then emigrated or met an untimely end in the gulag. Finally, it became clear that the tale of an avant-garde modernist movement harshly repressed by the state was too simple (even if partially true), and that the informers, such as Naum Gabo, on whose testimony this tale had been built were far from the insiders they had professed to be. But although Lodder underlined the political engagement of the Constructivists, explaining their desire to leave the domain of “pure art” for that of production, and although she devoted ample space to the ideological views of the theoreticians who, alongside them, helped articulate their program (such as Alexei Gan, Nikolai Tarabukin, or Boris Arvatov), she nevertheless kept the ever-changing political context in which all these men and women worked, and to which they constantly had to adapt, strangely at bay. The result was a transformation of the Constructivists into some sort of “pioneers of modern design,” and their furniture prototypes or textile patterns were compared to those of the German (and capitalist) Bauhaus. It is no surprise that this view became widely shared by Russian scholars when the advent of perestroika finally allowed them to work on historical material to which they had been denied either access or publication permission. Lodder’s book was followed by a downpour of monographs written by Russian scholars on Aleksandr Rodchenko, Liubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, and Vladimir Tatlin, among others, all filled to the brim with new documents, and all devoted to portraying (with a tint of nationalist pride) the Constructivist artist once again as a brilliant and overlooked forerunner of contemporary design.

It was at this point that three young female art historians entered the field, undeterred by the huge advantage held by these senior Russians when it came to navigating the labyrinthine spate of archives suddenly made public in what was then still the USSR. (Gender is not irrelevant here, as this trio felt emboldened by the exceptional parity afforded to women artists in the Constructivist movement—unique, perhaps, in the entire history of twentieth-century art—as well as by the strong feminist positions held by the Soviet regime in its early years.) All three scholars simultaneously and independently endeavored to challenge the design take on Constructivism and to reintroduce ideological concerns and political engagement as integral to the movement’s history. To the first, Leah Dickerman, we owe the rigorous Rodchenko retrospective, which she cocurated at MoMA in 1998. To the second and the third, Maria Gough (who was, in the interest of full disclosure, my graduate student) and Christina Kiaer, we owe two splendid books, respectively, The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution and Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism.

Both books take seriously the Constructivist artists’ ardent desire to be at the forefront of the transformation of Russian society into a Communist one, a turn from the old way of life (byt) to a whole new one (novyi byt), but it is remarkable how little overlap there is in terms of the material covered. This cannot be explained simply by acknowledging that most of Gough’s study concerns the early phase of Constructivism (from 1921 to 1923) while Kiaer’s is mainly focused on subsequent years. For one thing, both authors disavow such a chronological division: Gough by devoting a crucial chapter to the extraordinary foray into the realm of industrial production made by one of Constructivism’s least-known protagonists, Karl Ioganson, in 1923–26; Kiaer by devoting a chapter to Tatlin, who is largely absent from Gough’s study. Nothing, perhaps, helps better distinguish the two books than what their authors chose to emphasize in a text that plays a key role in both their accounts: Walter Benjamin’s stunningly equivocal portrayal of Moscow, written shortly after his return from a two-month sojourn there in December 1926 and January 1927. Both authors note that Benjamin saw a society at a momentous crossroads, at once pregnant with “the possibility of the revolution’s utter failure and of its success.” What strikes Gough, above all, is Benjamin’s frantic description of Soviet Russia as a society where, as he wrote, “each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table,” where “no organism, no organization, can escape [a] process” by which “it must endure experimentation to the point of exhaustion.” By contrast, Kiaer focuses on Benjamin’s fascination with the profusion of all kinds of goods (mostly man-made and sold illegally by impromptu peddlers on the cold streets of Moscow) and on his interpretation of this phenomenon not as an indictment of the Soviet system of production and distribution, which it bypasses, but as a resurgence of a precapitalist mode of consumption signaling that new relationships between men and objects might emerge within the context of a Communist society.

Gough’s Constructivism is, like all else in early Soviet Russia, a laboratory where everything pertaining to art is subjected to “experimentation to the point of exhaustion,” most significantly the role of the artist in the collective society to come. (The title of her book echoes that of the famous essay “The Author as Producer,” in which Benjamin asserts the right of the writer to exist in such a society and discusses his role in the class struggle.) But Gough’s interest in Benjamin’s metaphor also has a more specific function, in that it allows her to pay particular attention to what has been called the “laboratory phase” of Russian Constructivism—often in a derogatory manner (notably by the artists themselves, after the fact, when decrying their “formalist” youth was the only means of avoiding the gulag). Contra Lodder, for whom the shift to production marked a definitive rupture with the laboratory phase, Gough endeavors to show the continuity between the fundamental research done in the early years with the applied solutions later tried in the “real” factory.

After a brief introduction that presents the cast and the setting (most prominently the Institute of Artistic Culture [INKhUK], whose first director, Wassily Kandinsky, was forced out by the Constructivists in January 1921), Gough’s first two chapters guide us through the long and hard labor of Constructivism’s delivery. Her examination, in unprecedented detail, of the debates INKhUK held throughout 1921 underscores the seriousness of artists whose own usefulness was at stake. The most important discussion, which extended from January to April 1921, concerned the very notion of construction (as opposed to composition). Several definitions were argued, all springing from the same desire to set “objective” guidelines for art in its abstract age: how not to fall back on bourgeois subjectivity and the pure arbitrariness of personal taste (à la Kandinsky) when one is bereft of the bankrupt crutch of representation. The debate was never formally closed but a consensus emerged. In a construction the process of production must remain transparent; the principles underlying this process must be fully motivated by the material involved; and their application must yield no superfluous elements. Gough shows this discussion, which might at first seem purely academic, to be a burning issue at the very moment when Lenin launched his New Economic Policy (NEP), opting out of the ideological purity of War Communism in an effort to rebuild the devastated Soviet economy by allowing the (capitalist) private sector to flourish again. In other words, the Constructivists insisted that rigorous and motivated principles of planning lay at the core of their works, Gough writes, “at precisely the moment when Bolshevik economic policy was moving in the opposite direction”; that is, away from organization toward the free market (or away from planning toward “arbitrariness”). This was all the more significant given that INKhUK was “itself one of the beneficiaries of state funding under the policy of War Communism, a funding that the NEP threaten[ed] to terminate.”

Perfectly aware of the momentousness of their situation, the Constructivists appointed a veteran Communist, Alexei Gan, to write up their program (discussions about his text, which would become a book simply titled Constructivism in 1922, began even before the composition /construction debate had ended), and they simultaneously planned an exhibition in order to demonstrate the richness of their laboratory work. The exhibition in question, held in May–June 1921 under the auspices of the OBMOKhU (Society of Young Artists), has long been considered a landmark in Constructivism’s history, its installation shots featured in every anthology, with Rodchenko’s hanging constructions hovering over a forest of structures by Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, Konstantin Medunetskii, and Ioganson. What is new in Gough’s account is the attention she devotes to this last figure, prompted in part by the sheer intelligence of his interventions during the inkhuk debates and in part by the novelty of his nine “Spatial Constructions” (note the overall rejection of the old term sculpture). Little was known about Ioganson until now, and his work had only been summarily discussed. In meticulously analyzing the sequence of his “cold structures,” as he called them, at the OBMOKhU exhibition, Gough uncovers the truly brilliant mind of an inventor who pioneered what would come to be known in engineering as “tensegrity systems”—almost three decades before their rediscovery in 1948 by Kenneth Snelson and their development in the ’50s by Buckminster Fuller. In contrast to the static monuments of the past, Ioganson had invented a mode of construction that was dynamic, adaptable to all kinds of purposes (Vladimir Mayakovski quickly perceived its potential use in bridges and other architectural structures), and highly economical (thus pertaining directly to the shortage of materials that was nearly bringing Soviet industry to a halt).

The term inventor is crucial here, for it is the label that Ioganson chose for himself during the debates that followed the OBMOKhU exhibition and that marked the definitive adoption of a Productivist position by the Constructivist group at a moment when the nefarious effects of the NEP were already plainly visible in all sectors of Soviet life. Once again, the discussions—centered above all on the necessity to abolish the division of labor in a Communist society—are much more directly linked to the political situation than had previously been thought. Having renounced the “easelism” of pure art but still lacking the technical knowledge of the spetsy (the much-loathed “bourgeois specialists” that Lenin had to lure into managerial positions in Soviet industry), the Constructivists wondered what role they could play in the industrial sphere, and their array of proposals is discussed throughout the third and fourth chapters of Gough’s book. But despite their eagerness to engage directly in industrial production (as opposed to submitting designs to be executed by others in the workshops), Ioganson alone managed to join the workforce of a small factory at the end of 1923 as a simple metal cutter. Adhering to a concept of invention as “a process without determinate end” (which he derived from the fact that the inventor of radio did not know how it would be used), Ioganson responded as a “worker-inventor” to the Communist party’s call for inventions from the bench—a Soviet effort to deflate the proletariat’s anger toward the spetsy. There he contrived several new production-enhancing machines and gradually climbed up several rungs in the factory’s hierarchy. He ended up in charge of the “production meetings” (collective discussions between workers and management) before realizing, utterly disillusioned, that his efforts had only further intensified the very division of labor that he had set out to attack by his singular example.

But Ioganson’s amazing trajectory was not the only possible answer to the NEP. Although Rodchenko, Stepanova, and Popova—the principal heroes of Kiaer’s study—were at first just as determined as he to participate directly in the process of production, they quickly understood that the intense Taylorization urged by Lenin to rebuild Soviet industry would leave them little or no room in which to maneuver. Despising the petit-bourgeois mode of life of the nepmen, these three artists nevertheless decided to take advantage of the fluidity of the situation following the demise of central planning and to concentrate their efforts on that essential component of any market economy—the commodity—in the hope that changing its very nature might fundamentally alter its mode of consumption.

What could a Communist commodity be? Is it not a contradiction in terms? Did Marx not decry commodity fetishism as the very core of capitalism, with its phantasmagoric replacement of the use-value of objects with their abstract market value? The dream of Kiaer’s Constructivists was to create a new kind of thing, a thing that could not be possessed per se (hence the title of her book, borrowed from the famous song by John Lennon), because they would be free participants in social life: “Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades, and not these black and mournful slaves, as they are here.” These words, penned by Rodchenko in Paris, could be read as the motto of Kiaer’s very rich study—the Constructivist object would be a counterfetish. Unlike the capitalist commodity, it would reveal its process of production, it would appeal to the sense of play and have multiple uses—in short, it would awaken its consumer.

Although Tatlin had paved the way for the Constructivist ethos with his “culture of materials” (according to which a form must be generated by the properties of the material from which it is made), he functioned as a foil for Rodchenko and his friends. Like them, he rejected the politics and the aesthetic of the NEP, but he always thought in terms of preindustrial processes and, above all, never quite understood that an object must elicit desire in order to become a commodity, even a socialist one. Kiaer’s favorite trio, however, maintained that this should be a major concern of the Constructivist-as-producer during the transitional period of the NEP, a time when it was presumably still possible to shape a new mode of consumption, and they tested their conviction in three remarkable projects: the fabric and fashion “designs” of Stepanova and Popova; the advertising posters of Mayakovski and Rodchenko; and Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, which served as part of Russia’s entry in the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels in Paris.

Stepanova’s and Popova’s collaborations with Soviet industry did not last very long. (They began sometime in late 1923, and Popova was still working for the First State Cotton-Printing Factory at the time of her death in May 1924, while Stepanova continued until some time in 1925.) Yet as the only Constructivist objects ever to be mass-produced, their textiles function as the poster children of Constructivism’s Productivist moment. The main reason for these women’s impressive if short-lived success is that, unlike Ioganson, they compromised with the ills of the market economy in the hope that they might channel its suspicious, profit-driven dynamism toward a good cause—combating the old byt (or its NEP reincarnation). Abjuring both their early demand to participate in the production of their “designs” and their former denunciation of fashion and shopwindow displays as typical of NEP commercialism, they conceived of their textiles as a means of altering the traditional position of women in Soviet society. No longer a reactionary agent pining for a return to prerevolutionary (basically peasant) values, and no longer the de facto ally of the petit-bourgeois ideology of the NEP (the two most feared scenarios of the Bolshevik hard-liners who turned on the feminist position), the new woman would wear her newness literally on her sleeve. The Constructivist dress was, as the NEP demanded it, a commodity and as such it had to attract consumers. Yet with its jarring fabric, it was also a banner for the society to come. Even the ephemeral hipness of fashion—the cleverest form of planned obsolescence ever devised by capitalism—ended up co-opted as a propaganda tool!

There are a few details that I find hard to swallow in Kiaer’s account, notably her idea that the clumsiness of Popova’s much-discussed flapper dress was intentionally devised in order to reveal how the garment was made and thus deflect commodity fetishism, and I have similar disagreement with her reading of a “vulvar shape” and of a “vaginal ‘central core’” within the geometric pattern of the dress’s fabric. It would have been more to the point, it seems to me, to discuss both Popova’s and Stepanova’s fascination with Op art–like visual titillation and how this squares (or rather does not) with their materialist, anti-illusionist stance. But these are minor quibbles, and Kiaer succeeds in convincing us that what had thus far been considered a fairly limited and even somewhat aberrant aspect of Constructivism was part and parcel of its ideological program.

The same is true—and this is even more surprising—of the hilariously quaint advertising posters concocted by Mayakovski and Rodchenko for Mossel’prom, the state agency for agricultural products. By beginning her chapter on this material with an extraordinary close reading of the first collaborative project by the Constructivist duo, the 1923 edition of the book Pro Eto (About This), Mayakovski’s long anti-NEP love poem illustrated by Rodchenko’s most famous photomontages, Kiaer could easily have been laying the groundwork for a standard modernist evaluation of the ads as proof of the artists’ devolution into instrumentalized kitsch. Instead, she raises the broadsides, with their nostalgic mix of goofiness, ironic allusion to the recent past, and childish appeal to orality (lots of kiddie faces stuffing themselves with cookies or cigarettes), to the status of what Walter Benjamin called “dialectical images” and to what British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called “transitional objects” (apposite, of course, and the pun is intended, as far as the “transitional” NEP period is concerned).

The last chapter is perhaps the most moving. It follows Rodchenko to Paris and unpacks his disgust for capitalist luxury along with his anxiety about the seduction it surreptitiously exerted on him (following the “oral” phase of the Mossel’prom ads, Kiaer’s diagnosis of Rodchenko’s anal-paranoiac obsession with the filth of Das Kapital—all these hotel bidets!—is, if perhaps not rigorously Freudian, quite gripping). Above all, though, it is her close reading of Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, replete with convertible (ludic) furniture and emblems of now long-gone collective leisure, that underscores the hopelessly utopian thrust of the Constructivist enterprise.

Both Gough and Kiaer end their books with an afterword. Kiaer’s is the more mournful of the two: Her last image, a 1994 photo of a Moscow kiosk covered with banal ads for the American candy bar Snickers, contrasts sharply with the Mossel’prom posters she lovingly deciphered. Gough, however, remains hopeful. With Ioganson in mind, she states that “there is nothing inevitable about the konstructor’s failure” and that we can still invent a future for Constructivism. “When they invented Constructivism,” she writes, paraphrasing Ioganson, “they did not exactly know then how they—and we—would use it.”

A contributing editor of Artforum, Yve-Alain Bois is professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey.


Maria Gough, The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 280 pages.

Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 384 pages.