franzferdinandThe years following the revolution of 1917 in Russia saw graphic design develop, with film as a mass medium. Constructivism was an artistic and architectural movement that originated in Russia from 1919, just after the Russian revolution, onward which rejected the idea of “art for art’s sake” in favour of art as a practice directed towards social purposes. Constructivism as an active force lasted until around 1934, having a great deal of effect on developments in the art of the Weimar Republic and elsewhere, before being replaced by Socialist Realism. Its motifs have sporadically recurred in other art movements since.

Germany was the site of the most Constructivist activity outside of the Soviet Union (especially as home to Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus, a progressive art and design school sympathetic to the movement) but Constructivist ideas were also carried to other art centres, like Paris, London, and eventually the United States.

The international character of the movement was proven by the various origins of its artists. Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, and El Lissitzky brought Constructivism from the Soviet Union to the West. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy came to Germany from Hungary, Theo van Doesburg from the Netherlands. Ben Nicholson was the most prominent English Constructivist. Josef Albers and Hans Richter encountered the movement in their native Germany but were also instrumental in its international dissemination.

The constructivists worked on public festivals and street designs for the post October Revolution Bolshevik Government. They would work on design of posters for everything from film to political propaganda. The posters were mostly related to socialism and communism. In the first few years of the revolution, posters became the public speakers, shouting visual slogans and illustrating political movements. Everyone should be equal, come and join our political party. One for all, all for one. As the revolution developed it harnessed the new resources of photography and with them the skills of the designers.

stalinAnd this would really kick off the poster add design. The artists tried to create works that would take the viewer out of the traditional setting and make them an active viewer of the artwork. Constructivist artworks are mainly not emotional and used geometrical shapes and negative colours to make the artworks to get the instant attention of the viewers. Objective forms which were thought to have universal meaning were preferred over the subjective or the individual. Constructivist themes are also quite minimal, where the artwork is broken down to its most basic elements. New media were often used. Again, the context is crucial: the Constructivists sought an art of order, which would reject the past (the old order which had culminated in World War I) and lead to a world of more understanding, unity, and peace. This utopian undercurrent is often missing from more recent abstract art that might be otherwise tied to Constructivism.

Three different types of poster design are evident. The first, most practised by Victor Deni and Dmitri S.Moor was the development of the political illustration. Moor’s allegories gained power in enlargement, with haunting contrasts of then and now, enemies versus heroes, imperialism against workers’ struggles, to which he added a simple slogan: Smert Mirovomu Imperialismu (Death to World Imperialism).

Many of Moor’s and  Deni’s posters were restricted to red and black. Red could be used to identify revolutionary elements, particularly flags, workers’ shirts and peasant blouses. Black was used for the main drawings and as a solid colour for the clothes of capitalists and priests. The restriction of colour was used to powerful effect.

Woodblock posters, a tradition that had been revived and adapted in the First World War for patriotic propaganda, now found new form as ‘Rosta Windows’, produced from 1919 to 1922. Their initiator was a political cartoonist, Michael Cheremnikh, who produced 500 posters for Rosta and is said to have design 50 in a single day.  

El Lissitzky

El LissitzkyEl Lissitzky was born Eleazar Markovich Lisitskii in Vitebsk in 1890. From 1909 until 1914 Lissitzky studied architecture in Darmstadt. In 1919 Lissitzky became a professor at the art school in Vitebsk, where he met Marc Chagall and Kasimir Malevich. At that time Lissitzky turned to the Suprematist theory of art and the UNOWIS group, beginning to work on a series of abstract paintings he called ‘Proun’ (‘For the New Art’).

Trained as an architect in Germany, Lissitzki’s most significant achievements were in the design of books and exhibitions. He was one of the pioneers of photomontage, the assembly of different elements that gave life to the essentially static photography, juxtaposition or superimposition, combining different viewpoints, cropping, cutting out and exploiting violent contrasts and changes of angle. In his self-portrait The Constructor, Lissitzky employed collage (sticking together) and montage (superimposing), by drawing and lettering on the image, as well as multiple printing from several negatives of the hand, self-portrait and gripped paper.

Lissitzky’s designs for books united geometrical abstraction with functionalism. They expressed his belief that ‘A sequence of pages makes the book look like cinema. In the Suprematist Story of Two Squares, published in 1922, the narrator is developed by captioning the square-format geometrical compositions with a dynamic typography in the margins. The following year Lissitzky designed a book of poems by Mayakovsky, Dlya Golosa (To Be Read Out Loud – literally, ‘For the Voice’), which had a thumb index with a symbol code for each poem. The illustrations were constructed from printer material, mainly ‘rulers’ (pieces of metal or wood that printed as lines of varying thickness).

As well as printing propaganda, Soviet designers were involved in the decorations banners for the street parades where they used three-dimensional structures to carry revolutionary messages. During the 1920’s international trade fairs and exhibitions were important means of promoting trade and of publicizing socialist culture. Lissitzky was the most widely employed and original of the exhibition designers. Between 1926 and 1934 Lissitzky designed several exhibitions.His designs for the Pressa press exhibition in Cologne in 1928 used large scale of photomontage. Likewise, at the international Hygiene exhibition in Dresden in 1930 the visitors were bombarded with slogans at every angle and with posters covering the ceiling.

Lissitzky had considerable influence outside Russia. He spent long working visits in Germany, launching a magazine in Berlin and another in Switzerland, and his Story of two Squares was translated into Dutch. Lissitzky was a Russian avant-garde artist who did not limit himself to developing a form of abstract painting but rather extended the new functionalism to photography, book design, architecture and urban planning. His enormous versatility enabled El Lissitzky to forge links between the Russian Constructivists and Neo-Plasticism (De Stijl), the Bauhaus and Dada. As a painter and architect, Lissitzky was both personally and artistically close to the painter and architectural model-maker Kasimir Malevich. El Lissitzky died in Moscow in 1941.