Revolution in the head: The kings of constructivism

Rodchenko and Popova's Constructivist style was one of the great successes of 20th-century art, argues Tom Lubbock
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'We, who have worked for five years in a land of revolution, know: That only October has given us new, tremendous ideas that demand new artistic organisation. That the October Revolution, which liberated art from bourgeois enslavement, has given real freedom to art. Down with the boundaries of countries and studios! Down with the monks of rightist art! Long live the single front of the leftists! Long live the art of the Proletarian Revolution!"

They meant it, all right. But now, when we look back 90-ish years to the art of Russian Revolution, it seems like a kind of joke. The look remains instantly recognisable and rather friendly. But its energy, commitment and optimism have become frankly unbelievable. Those blocky graphics and lettering! Those zooming diagonals! Those slicing sheets of pure colour! It's a style that comes with exclamation marks, and for us that means it comes with irony. Its name was Constructivism. Can we take it seriously at all?

Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism opens at London's Tate Modern on Thursday. It focuses on the work of the movement's two main movers, Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova. He was a proletarian, growing up in St Petersburg. She came from a rich merchant family, and had done art tours of Europe. They weren't a couple (his partner was another artist, Varvara Stepanova).

But both joined the Russian artistic avant-garde in the teens, picking up the news of Cubism from Paris, and developing it into abstraction. And when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, they both identified themselves and their art with the revolution.

This is a Year Zero story: new world, new life, new consciousness, a new start on all fronts. It was an opportunity seized not only by artists but by the political authorities, too, who through the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment were keen to make the revolution cultural as well as social. The Tsarist art institutions were restructured. Rodchenko was an able organisation man, and got himself swiftly into leading positions in the successive art bureaucracies.

That's not immediately clear from what's on the walls. Look at these paintings, from the first very years of the revolution, with titles such as Painterly Architectonic, Non-Objective Painting, Space-Force Construction, Linear Construction. You see art in a melting pot. The artists may have declared for the revolution, and but they don't seem to know where their art is going.

For a few years, anything is possible. A painting can be an abrupt pictogram of four whisks of paint. It can be constellation of coloured spots on black, a tumble of pick-up-sticks lines, shades of black-on-black, broken spirals.

But caught up in visual excitement, you also come up against an issue that faced the artists, too. These works are very startling, beautiful and explosive. They can stand for all kinds of newness. But abstract art is abstract, after all. What's so revolutionary, Communist-revolutionary, about it?

And as the story of the show continues, it's about transforming this art, from individual into a collective creativity. The first move is the rejection of personal expression and sensibility and spirituality. "Down with the monks of rightist art!" Down with Kandinsky (though he was friend of Rod and Pop). The artist must be an impersonal constructor. No delicate handiwork; use geometrical instruments; assemble a picture as if it were a machine, from a set of materials, from form, colour, texture.

"Construction" is good. "Composition" is bad. Can you tell the difference, just from looking? You can, oddly enough. A composition, however abstract, has a kind of face. A construction looks like a diagram, or a plan for something, even though you can't say for what.

Then the next move: the death of painting itself. The historic year is 1921. The exhibition is 5x5=25. Five artists – Popova, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Alexander Vesnin and Alexandra Exter – hang five paintings each, paintings that are to be their last. Rodchenko made the most dramatic contribution, showing a trio of plain, one-colour pictures, a red one, a yellow one and a blue one. "Reducing painting to its logical conclusion... I affirmed: it's all over." After that, no more art. Art to become life.

That's the last move: an art that's become fully utilitarian – in effect, turns into design. Rodchenko and Popova designed advertisements, cafés, textiles, tea things, theatre sets, public spectacles, publications. And if you associate with Constructivism with a hectoring manner, then its experiments in design are sometimes a surprise. Its banners may blare, but its book and magazine covers and its fabric patterns are models of plain, solid craftsmanship. With their crisscross lines, meshing rings, slotting oblongs, intercut chevrons, they're things we still could desire on our coffee tables and coat hangers.

It was these more modest products that actually got into production. Popova saw her textiles bought by peasant women. Yet the new life imagined by Constructivism, whether in the street or the home, largely stayed imaginary, a series of blueprints that for various reasons couldn't be realised, or were only realised in demo mode. The last room in the show has a reconstruction of Rodckenko's design for a workers' club, which was originally made for an international fair in Paris.

Designs got grander still. You may remember that a year ago, in the From Russia show at the Royal Academy, you could see a film showing a reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. A model of this giant helter-skelter, destined to be taller than the Eiffel Tower, was cleverly montaged into place as if it had really been erected on the banks of the Neva – all guesswork, since neither its form nor its location were ever finally decided. But it was another sketch of the future, and a far more epic project than any of Rodchenko's.

The Tate Modern show puts its stress on hopes and plans, and not on failures and difficulties and bad news. It comes to an end in about 1925, the year after Popova's early death, the year after Lenin's death. It gives no inkling of the fate of art in Stalin's Soviet Union, nor of Rodchenko's long subsequent career, with its various public compromises and private backtrackings (including a return to easel painting and figurative painting).

Of course, these brief years were a great moment, a dawn, in which many ideas of modern art were born. But did they actually need the October Revolution? Constructivist designs certainly used a lot of red, but beyond that, it's not obvious to me there's any inherent link. Dynamic abstraction was an international phenomenon, and its politics varied. Italian Futurism was a proto-Fascist movement. Vorticism in England had no definite political orientation. As for rigorous impersonal construction, Duchamp and Mondrian both adopted it, with no public-spirited motive.

And yet Constructivism undeniably survives and thrives and upstages its contemporaries. It's an iconic style, one of the great successes of 20th-century art. Perhaps only Pop Art is its equal in this respect. A cartoonist can use it and expect it to be familiar. It still delivers a powerful punch. And it carries a sense of heroic idealism, too (though rather detached from its original political ideals). It's obviously over the top, but if you use this visual language on a party invitation, say, or a poster, or a product label, you can't help spreading cheer. So long live the art of the Proletarian Revolution!

T he Independent is media partner to Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism, which is at London's Tate Modern from 12 February to 17 May. Readers can get two tickets for the price of one by calling 020-7887 8998 before 6pm on 28 February and quoting 'Independent Rodchenko and Popova Offer'. £1.50 transaction fee per booking. Available over the telephone and on full-price tickets only