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Exhibition of Soviet graphic design and Constructivism on view at ADAM - Brussels Design Museum
Books in All Fields of Knowladge (Reconstruction of Varvara Rodchenko, 1963), © the Rodchenko and Stepanova Archive.


BRUSSELS.- From June 5 to October 8, 2017 the ADAM - Brussels Design Museum welcomes the Moscow Design Museum and its unique exhibition The Paper Revolution . Soviet Graphic Design and Constructivism [1920 – 1930’s] dedicated to one of the most outstanding art phenomena of the 20th century.

During its first decade, Soviet Russia, a young revolutionary state, needed its own visual language. A new artistic movement was born from this dynamic and was named Constructivism. Posters, magazines and book covers became the main propaganda tool of the new political regime. Constructivist artists declared the end of the traditional art and proclaimed the beginning of a new era. Social, political changes were happening in parallel with aesthetic changes in the art sphere up until the 1930s. The objective of the Constructivist revolution was to change the role of the artist and to make him/her a creator of the new materialistic world, a constructor of new things. Nevertheless, consumers were not prepared for the minimalistic furniture projects, household goods and clothes. No one was willing to pay for an art transformed into everyday objects. So the aesthetic revolution lived mostly on paper.

Graphic design became the only area where designers could apply their innovative ideas creating covers for books, magazines and posters. Graphic design created by constructivist artists depicted and reflected their time and aspirations. This type of art became the main vernacular of artists who dreamt to conquer the material world but succeeded to conquer it only on paper.

The exhibition features eight topics:

TRIUMPH OF THE TYPOGRAPHY
CONSTRUCTIVIST FONT

We can reasonably trace the origins of constructivist graphic design to the publication of the manifesto written by Aleksei Gan in 1922. In fact, all the elements which characterize the movement such as the role of typeset, the attention to fonts, combined with creative variations of their sizes and their forms, were already evident in this publication. Unlike the handwritten Russian futurist books, the Constructivists fetishized printing press. One of the most remarkable achievements of constructivist typography was the discovery of the new semantic role of fonts, graphical elements and shapes of layout. As a consequence of experiments made by El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko, typography finally started to compete with text. Arrows, bold fonts, underlining and enlarged punctuation marks were used to stress, if not manipulate, the meaning of the printed word. Constructivists also embraced the notion of mass production and dreamed about the transformation of common objects into artworks – achieving great success in book publishing.

COLLECTING THE FRAGMENTS
PHOTOMONTAGE FROM ILLUSTRATIONS TO PROPAGANDA

Photomontage was turned into a popular media after the publication of Rodchenko’s illustrations of Mayakovsky’s poem About This in 1923. Constructivists embraced it as the new way to construct images from photographic elements. They believed that such media matched the very spirit of modernity: traditional figurative art was dead but montage allowed to assemble images in the way cars were assembled on the conveyer belts of factories. The constructivists glorified the objectivity of photo images, which in contrast to traditional painting, represented the truth, ignoring and seemingly oblivious to the fact that the real essence of that new media was actually the manipulation of images. Since 1924, constructivist montages had been put at the service of political propaganda, soon proving their efficiency. Therefore indoctrination through image became their main function. By the second part of the 1930 photomontage started to lose its creative spirit, evolving into mere fake photography .

SUPREMATISM AS AN EMBELLISHMENT
TRANSFORMATION OF ABSTRACT ART INTO DESIGN

Around 1913, Kazimir Malevich developed the suprematism movement, a new style whose main principles were based on geometric abstraction. Soon, in 1919, attempts to use pure abstract forms for the needs of political propaganda had already started in the framework of the group UNOVIS (The Champions of the New Art) created by Malevich in the Vitebsk art school. This effort was small in scope and not always convincing and it was initially limited to a few attempts such as a billboards created by El Lissitzky and exhibited on the streets of Vitebsk or the famous poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wage (1919) also created by the artists. But, in 1924, inspired by suprematism, Gustav Klutsis started to include red and black geometric figures in his montages.

Numerous epigones would then use abstract elements typical of suprematism, with graphic compositions reduced to ornaments. Soon, black squares and red circles became common clichés of the Soviet graphic design of the 1920s – 1930s.

ICONOGRAPHY OF CONSTRUCTIVISM
PHOTOMONTAGE FROM ILLUSTRATIONS TO PROPAGANDA

After the death of Vladimir Lenin (1924), artists such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, Sergei Senkin and especially Gustav Klutsis started to produce propaganda photomontages. The application of this new medium for political propaganda subjects proved highly efficient as production of montages was incomparably faster than the creation of paintings or graphic compositions. As soon as in 1924, some basic types of the constructivist propaganda iconography were established. Radical artists who rejected academic painting started to produce compositions inspired by medieval religious art, where gigantic figures of leaders were juxtaposed with images of faceless masses. Many compositional structures were clear reminders of Orthodox icons. Moreover, montage was crucially useful because the majority of the population in the country was illiterate. Montages essentially became tools of political indoctrination.

MAGAZINE COVER AS A SYMBOL OF ITS TIME
The 1920s and 1930s coincide with the blossoming of Soviet press. Hundreds of magazines and newspapers were published in the new proletarian state, disseminating the words of Vladimir Lenin, who believed that “[t]he press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses”1 . The Soviet leadership took it seriously and the press rose as an important instrument of political indoctrination. During the 1920s, newsstands became typical and striking sights of the Soviet cityscapes with colorful covers of different magazines which attracted the gaze of by-passers. There were publications such as LEF (the Left Front of Arts) , Soviet Architecture, Give! , The Brigade of Artists which were produced by the participants of the constructivist movement and aimed at a specific audiences. But there were also mass publications such as 30 Days, Women’s Magazine, Shift which appealed to the broader public. All the same, their covers also displayed the influence of constructivism, which became a real visual standard of that time.

ZENITH OF THE STYLE
ANONYMOUS CONSTRUCTIVISM

Constructivist graphic design gained popularity with an impressive speed. Since 1924, after the death of Lenin, when the soviet political propaganda reached unprecedented output, numerous artists started to mimic the photomontages produced by Gustav Klutsis. It has to be said that their success was also helped by the simplicity of the method of photomontage with resulted convenient for the production of visually propagandist materials. Some theoreticians closed to LEF (the Left Front of Arts) cherished the idea that art, as an elitist practice, died when every proletarian would have been able to express himself. Photomontage turned this dream into reality: numerous professionals and amateurs applied and played with the “cut and glue” simple technique. All around the state, the creative use of different fonts and geometrical elements testified about the great popularity of the trend.

POWER OF THE IMAGE
USSR IN CONSTRUCTION AS THE BIBLIA PAUPERUM

The magazine USSR in Construction was established in 1930. The highly original concept was to dedicate each issue of this large format photographic magazine to a different report about industrial and military successes of the Soviet Union. From the beginning, the magazine was mainly produced for a foreign audience and it was thus published not only in Russian but also in English, French, German and, during the Spanish civil war, in Spanish. Soviet propagandists were the first to understand the persuasive power of the photographic image and USSR in Construction became a reincarnation of the medieval picture book, known as the Biblia pauperum – the Paupers’ Bible, produced to indoctrinate the illiterates. The issues of USSR in Construction were designed by El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Nikolai Troshin, introducing an innovative design and employing the best photographers of the state.

“VANITY BOOKS” OF THE BOLSHEVIK STATE
STRIKE LABOR TURNED INTO LUXURY GOODS

In the beginning of the 1930s a new type of book started to emerge. Initially dedicated to the activist workers of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, these new publications started to cover an impressive and wide range of topics, from the buildup of the Red Army to the production of railway engines in the USSR. It looked like every state board in the country wanted to celebrate its achievement with a lavish publication. Unlike the books designed by the constructivists during the 1920s, these new “vanity publications” were outrageously expensive: albums, which usually included a minimum amount of text and a lot of illustrations, were printed on expensive paper and sophisticating bound. Such costly volumes were not obviously destined to mass circulation and often were disseminated as presents for local and foreign dignitaries. The very essence of these expensive books contradicted every founding principle of constructivism.

The exhibition features examples of graphic design (posters, books, magazines, postcards) made in Constructivist style by outstanding artists such as Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Gustav Klutsis, Vladimir & Georgii Stenberg, El Lissitzky, Sergei Senkin, Aleksei Gan, Valentina Kulagina, Anton Lavinsky and many others.





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