Russian Constructivism and the rise of the modern poster in the 20th century

The Art Syndicate Staff Writer: Constanza Ontiveros Valdés

 

A few years after the Russian Revolution Constructivism emerged in the Soviet Union as a means to put art at the service of the newly established Communist society. During this time, Constructivist artists created thousands of posters that, next to other art artforms, reflected the modern and industrial world the new regime allegedly brought through dynamic and bold designs. Importantly, the Constructivist aesthetic surpassed the Soviet Union´s boundaries and influenced a myriad of art styles and graphic design trends. This article looks at the main elements of the Constructivist poster and explores how this art movement marked the development of poster making during the twentieth century.

 

First of all, Constructivist artists considered all sorts of art forms as active agents in the Communist revolution. In this way, constructivists compared the artist to an engineer who created art through a rational process that could serve a purpose and would speak to the masses even if they were illiterate. Within this context, posters fit perfectly with the constructivists´ ideals and were considered to be “paintings for the workers” in opposition to oil paintings associated with the overthrown bourgeois society. During this time, Constructivist artists created their posters mostly through state art and technical institutes, which solidified their place as part of the system and contributed to the creation of a distinctive style.

 

Stylistically wise, the posters created by the constructivists, like Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, the Stenberg Brothers, and to some extent, El Lissitzky, usually included bold typography in different sizes and shapes, contrasting geometric forms and diagonal elements. Likewise, Constructivist artists used a minimal color palette consisting of mainly red (associated with the working-class revolutionary forces since the French Revolution of 1789) paired with black, and, to a minor degree, blue, green or yellow. Next to its symbolic meaning, the minimal palette chosen by the constructivists was cheaper and other stocks of color were also limited. Importantly, constructivists experimented with innovative techniques and were one of the first ones to introduce photomontage in poster design. The resulting work was extremely dramatic and dynamic, containing layered images that conveyed a straight-forward message to the masses.

 

Side by side with political propaganda, in the second half of the 1920s, Constructivist artists, like the Stenberg Brothers, designed many movie posters given cinema was viewed as one of the tools for spreading Communist ideals. At the same time, constructivists designed countless book covers, textiles, and all sorts of materials used to divulge the political views of the time. This approach to art making became known as “agitprop” (a combination of the words “agitation” and “propaganda”), a term used nowadays to refer to any cultural manifestation with an overtly political purpose.

 

All in all, Constructivism marked a dramatic shift from previous, more traditional art movements and philosophies of art. Even as the movement ended in the mid-1920s, due to the growing hostility of the Bolshevik regime towards revolutionary art, the style and ideas of the constructivists marked other art movements, such as the Bauhaus School or the De Stijl movement; contributed to the emergence of art as an object or idea; and introduced new techniques and materials to art-making. Without a doubt, the enduring legacy of Constructivism is still alive in the world of advertisement and poster making. If you look carefully at current ad campaigns or politically charged posters you will surely find some of the distinctive traits of this avant-garde movement.

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