Why has a 100 year old graphic style from the heart of revolutionary Russia become one of the most globally recognised and enduring art movements ever?
What are we talking about?
Constructivism that’s what. This was an artistic and architectural movement in Russia from 1914 onward which dismissed "pure" or fine art in favour of art used as an instrument for social and political purposes. The term 'Construction Art' was initially a mocking term coined by Kazimir Malevich, pioneer of the earlier Suprematist style. Malevich aimed to create expression and feeling in his work solely through the ‘symphonic arrangement of shapes on a field of white.' Malevich also worked in the constructivist style. Other big players were Alexander Rodchenko, known for his strong graphic approach, sculptor Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky who is credited with bringing a unity between painting and architecture.
All that sounds a bit dry, but with their pure geometry, these pioneering artists created a powerful visual vocabulary that could replace language and communicate a message directly to the people. Not bad for a couple of pointy triangles!
What does it look like?
Red, black, white, triangles, circles, solid squares and dynamic angles define the look. Many contemporary designs have been influenced by this abstract art: most of us would recognise them instantly: Peter Saville's iconic work for Factory Records? I trust we all know the London Underground logo? OK how about the cover design for Franz Ferdinand's album You Can Have It So Much Better, designed by Matthew Cooper? (A rework of a famous Rodchenko photomontage). Yes you knew it, I thought you would. There's plenty more examples but you get the point.
So what is that stylistically binds these works together, what's the common DNA they share? The answer is simple, here's the blueprint: 'Remove the clutter, simplify the shape, reduce the colour palette and concentrate on the purity of form'. Sounds easy. I stole these words from Will Gompertz and his superb book 'What are you looking at? 150 years of modern art in the blink of an eye'. I couldn't have defined it any better. Whoops, I thought all good artists were supposed to hide their sources!
Above left: Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, 1919
Above right: Books, Alexander Rodchenko,1924
Don't you know
They're talkin' bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
Nick the style ditch the politics?
Ok brief history lesson over. Don't worry there's not a test at the end of this. Now that the scene is set, what I want to chat about is the continuing influence this revolutionary art movement has had on our contemporary graphic design. Both students and professionals regularly plunder this treasure trove of exciting, potent design - guilty as charged your honour! However, all too often, many designers are happy just to steal the look but ditch the politics, style over substance perhaps? These pale imitations may look good but say nothing and change nothing. It's like a Rottweiller with no teeth! What a waste..as Ian Dury once said.
Not all these modern interpretations are without merit thankfully. One of my personal favourites is Barney Bubble's cover for punk band Generation X (before Billy Idol started dancing with himself and attending white weddings). This knockout constructivist style image of the number 45 has been cited by designer Peter Saville as an inspirational spark for a post-Modern approach to graphics. Wow, high praise from the big man himself.
Front cover, Your Generation/Day By Day, Generation X. Barney Bubbles 1977
Red Wedge logo, Neville Brody 1987
Another great example was the 'Red Wedge’ movement, a musical collective fronted by Paul Weller and Billy Bragg in the late eighties. The aim was to use music to assist the Labour movement with ousting Maggie and her Tories out of power in 1987. The fact that it didn't work was a great pity but it was a brilliant demonstration of art and politics coming together again with a shared purpose. Exciting times, shame that Paul was going through his Style Council phase. Nuff said. The Red Wedge identity was designed by Neville Brody and influenced by the El Lissitsky poster Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge. This is great, I'm getting to name check a lot of personal heroes today - art, politics and music, what a cocktail!
Like many others, what I would love to see is for designers to get back on the wagon and use this graphic weapon to say something meaningful, to inspire change and not just provide graphic eye candy for shipping product. Sorry I couldn’t resist a little rant to finish with… Lennon by name Lenin by nature. “Well, you know, we all want to change the world”
PS This blog was inspired by a very talented graphic design student at Edinburgh College that I mentor. Her response to a given design brief was the very function of constructivism; using a simple, memorable graphic to inspire people to get involved and make difference.