Tate Modern exhibition tells the story of constructivism, the explosion of creativity in Russia that rerouted aesthetics
Modern art is a federation, not a one-party state; a tasty assortment rather than a single flavour. So, different bits of it engender different levels of excitement. At the bottom of the range, you have the substantial slow-downs of the pulse brought on by a Martin Creed installation at Tate Britain. Creed should be made available on the NHS as a safe substitute for Mogadon. At the other end of the scale, however, lie the heart-busting explosions of adrenaline prompted by the best and most exciting spectacle in modern art – the sight of a group of creatives who share a common aim turning up at an important historical moment and forcing through an artistic revolution that pushes global aesthetics in a new direction.
It doesn’t happen very often, I grant you. When it does, though, the results are nostril-flaringly, snort-inducingly, toe-curlingly exciting. Impressionism arrived in this explosive manner. So did cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism and pop art. But the most exciting of all such commencements took place in Russia in about 1918, alongside the Bolshevik revolution, when constructivism appeared.
It was the most dynamic rerouting of aesthetics the world of art has seen. Changes of this magnitude had happened before, but they generally took centuries to complete. In revolutionary Russia, they took days and weeks. In the space of a few ridiculously short seasons, Russia’s artistic rebels turned everything on its head: painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, typography, fashion, theatre, poetry.
Imagine the gothic age becoming the Renaissance overnight. The entire creative slate was wiped clean and sent back to Go. Even biscuit advertising was rethought, as a startling poster in the Tate’s fine celebration of the his-and-hers constructivism of Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova makes amusingly clear. “Eat Red October cookies,” instructs a smiling girl suspended in a futuristic hexagon, as a remote-controlled stream of biscuits enters her mouth at Sputnik pace. Red October cookies, it seems, are the best.
The constructivists believed that art needed to be untied from all its representational duties in order to soar into space like a liberated helium balloon. Geometry was freedom.
Realism was repression. Russia needed a revolutionary abstract art, they argued, that avoided all the old ways of communicating its meanings. Today, it all sounds overly strident and studenty, perhaps even silly, but it spawned some of the 20th century’s most thrilling art, a decent chunk of which is included in this show