What we really mean when we copy Soviet constructivism from Alexander Rodchenko

Alexander Rodchenko and constructivism - famous 1925 posterI was writing a post about how the internet is keeping the USSR alive – or at least, its “stuff,” like posters and old medals – but I got distracted by this poster, so instead you get to read about Alexander Rodchenko and constructivism.

Question: Was this poster as familiar to its original, Soviet audience, as it is today? Answer: Please jump in on the comments if you’re a Soviet personage with an answer to that one. The woman in the original poster is Lilya Brik, who became a muse for Rodchenko and the lover of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and she’s shouting the word “books.” It’s an advertisement for the publishing house Gosizdat. It’s all part of a loose group of artists, poets and writers that formed in the waning days of Tsarist Russia and, mostly met varying tragic ends under the Soviets. It’s become one of those images that’s instantly familiar the first time you see it.

Rodchenko was born in St. Petersburg in 1891, and lived through the end of the tsars, the revolution and Stalin, dying in 1956. In between, he became one of the founders of Russian constructivism (yes, there’s a Pinterest). His work was incredibly influential, but the interwebs is oddly light on details of his life. None of the kooky anecdotes or odd quirks – true or not – that tend to make the rounds online. Of course, you could always, gasp, read a biography. No? Then here’s the Wikipedia 101 on him, though it’s light on details and doesn’t say much about his touchy relationship with the regime. He survived, falling in and out of favour over the years, but ultimately, he never saw a cell and died in Moscow.

We like to think of our artists as anti-establishment rebels, not outright propagandists or don’t-rock-the-boaters who coast on through without attracting undue attention. And when we copy them – like Franz Ferdinand’s album covers or this one from Mike and the Mechanics – we like to think we’re being things like cool, hip, edgy. Maybe slightly rebellious? But the reality might be that we’re just riffing on some Stalin-approved graphic design.

Which is how you end up with an album cover like this. And a write-up about it like this:

Rodchenko capitalised on the newfound freedoms afforded by the Russian Revolution and saw his life goal as a social crusader, making art accessible to a mass audience – thus aligning creativity with socialist ideals. Franz Ferdinand’s particular remodelling demonstrates the art-school chic from which they came and almost captures the Bolshevik mentality more profoundly than the original on account of its stark colour scheme. – Virgin Media [emphasis mine]

CreativeReview, out of the UK, has a great article on the use and abuse of constructivism in design and popular culture – “Constructivism: the ism that just keeps givin’.” Worth reading if only for the creepy suggestion that Ikea is the ultimate expression of the constructivist ideal:

But it still seems odd that a design movement so strongly identified with a nation and a moment in history so remote from, and apparently irrelevant to, most of our lives should speak so clearly to us. One obvious explanation for why it does is that it has been easy to nick the style and dump the politics… Unlike the Bauhaus teachers who fled when Hitler came to power, the Constructivists mostly stayed in the Soviet Union, making what sense they could of Stalin’s regime. Rodchenko and Lissitzky both eked out their days producing wartime propa­ganda.

The thing about constructivism – and most Soviet propaganda – is that it’s eye-catching. The appeal to artists, designers, advertisers is instant and obvious. It worked for Stalin and it still works now. That’s the problem.

© 2017 Lea Zeltserman