Constructivism (art)

artistic and architectural philosophy

Constructivism was an artistic and architectural art movement that rejected the idea of autonomous art in favour of art as a practice for social purposes. This movement originated in Russia beginning in 1919, and had great effect on modern art movements of the 20th century, influencing major trends such as the German Bauhaus and the Dutch De Stijl art movement.

Poster by Mayakovsky.


Malevich, c. 1912: study scenery for 'Victory over the Sun', sketch
Alexander Vesnin, c. 1915: 'Abstract Composition'
Vladimir Tatlin, 1916: 'Counter-relief', sculpture
Vladimir Tatlin, 1919: 'The Monument to the Third International', sculpture
Lissitsky, 1920: 'Proun 19D'
Lissitsky, 1920: 'Klinom Krasnim'
Moholy-Nagy, c. 1921: 'no title'
Moholy-Nagy, 1927: 'no title'
Antoine Pevsner, 1950's: 'Elan', bronze sculpture
Naum Gabo, 1956-57: 'Flower and Bee', sculpture under construction
Naum Gabo, 1956-57: 'Flower and Bee', sculpture under construction


  • Art must not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere – on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops, and in the workers' homes.
    • Vladimir Mayakovsky (1918) 'Shrine or Factory?' ; translation from Mikhail Anikst et al. (eds.) Soviet Commercial Design of the Twenties (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987) p. 15
  • The artist constructs a new symbol with his brush. This symbol is not a recognizable form of anything that is already finished, already made, or already existent in the world – it is a symbol of a new world, which is being built upon and which exists by the way of the people. (c. 1919)
  • We consider the triumph of the constructive method to be essential for our present. We find it not only in the new economy and in the development of the industry, but also in the psychology of our contemporaries of art. Veshch will champion constructive art, whose mission is not, after all, to embellish life, but to organize it. (1921)


  • We [= Lissitzky himself] have named PROUN [the art style, stepping over from painting to architecture] a station on the path to the construction of the new form.. .From being a simple depicter the artist becomes a creator (builder) of forms for a new world — the world of objectivity. This does not mean the creation of a rivalry with the engineer. Art has not yet crossed paths with science.. .PROUN is understood as the creative construction of form (based on the mastery of space) assisted by economic construction of the applied material. The goal of PROUN is progressive movement on the way to concrete creation, and not the substantiation, explanation, or promotion of life.
  • The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. It has replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras
    • László Moholy-Nagy, his quote on the spirit of the century (1921); as quoted in Abstract Art, Anna Moszynska, Thames and Hudson 1990, page 93
  • Everyone is equal before the machine.. ..everyone can be the machine's master or its slave.
    • László Moholy-Nagy, quote on the machine-era (1922); as quotes in Abstract Art, Anna Moszynska, Thames and Hudson 1990, page 93
    • El Lissitzky, in 'Suprematism in World Reconstruction', Lazar M. Lisitsky, 1920; (despite its title, this text acted as a retrospective commentary on Malevich's original formulation of Suprematism and postpones a far wider concept, which Lissitzky later would call the 'constructive' method.
  • We must take note of the fact that the artist nowadays is occupied with painting flags, posters, pots and pans textiles and things like that. What is referred to as 'artistic work' has on the vast majority of occasions nothing whatever to do with creative effort: and the term 'artistic work' is used in order to demonstrate the 'sacredness' of the work which the artist does at his easel. The conception of 'artistic work' presupposes a distinction between useful and useless work and as there are only a few artists buyers can be found even for their useless products. The artist's work lies beyond the boundaries of the useful and the useless.
    • El Lissitzky, in 'Suprematism in World Reconstruction', Lazar M. Lisitsky, 1920; (despite its title, this text acted as a retrospective commentary on Malevich's original formulation of Suprematism and postpones a far wider concept, which Lissitzky later would call the 'constructive' method.
  • Cubism demonstrated in its constructions its modernity in relation to scale, but in painting and contre-relief we have in front of us an absolute scale which is this - forms in their natural size in the ratio 1 : 1. If however we wish to transform the contre-relief into an architectural structure and therefore enlarge it by one hundred times, then the scale ceases to be absolute and becomes relative in the ratio of 1 : 100 Then we get the American statue of liberty in whose head there is room for four men and from whose hand the light streams out.
    • El Lissitzky, in 'Suprematism in World Reconstruction', Lazar M. Lisitsky, 1920
  • Painting.. ..turned to the design of purely abstract volumetric forms.. .Since the leading exponent of the color theory was a painter (Malevich), he failed to recognize the objective reality of the world [in architecture!]. Because he always looked at it only through his own eyes, he remained trapped in a world devoid of real objects. The broader implications of this had to be developed by us, the architects.
    • El Lissitzky (1929), in 'Basic Premises' in 'Rußland: Die Rekonstruktion der Architektur in der Sowjetunion', Moscow 1929, in: Interrelationships Between the Art, in: An Architecture for World Revolution, transl. Eric Dluhosch - MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970
  • The second conception of the world via the medium of matter required both a visual and a tactile perception of things. In this case the whole design process tends to emanate from the specific characteristics of the respective medium used. The leader of this movement (Tatlin) assumed.. ..that the intuitive and artistic mastery of materials would lead to inventions on the basis of which objects could be constructed. He believed he could prove this theory with his design for the 'Monument to the Third International' (1920), [never built]. He accomplished this task without having any special technical knowledge of construction.
    • El Lissitzky (1929), in 'Basic Premises' in 'Rußland: Die Rekonstruktion der Architektur in der Sowjetunion', Moscow 1929, in: Interrelationships Between the Art, in: An Architecture for World Revolution, transl. Eric Dluhosch - MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970
  • One of our [his] utopian ideas is the desire to overcome the limitations of the substructure, of the earthbound. We have developed this idea in a series of proposals (sky-hooks, [like Lissitzky's paper-architecture design 'Wolkenbügel' (1924)] stadium grandstands, Paris garage].. .It is the task of technology to make sure that all these elementary volumes that produce new relationships and tensions in space will be structurally safe.. .The idea of the conquest of the substructure, the earthbound, can be extended even further and calls for the conquest of gravity as such. It demands floating structures, a physical-dynamic architecture.
    • El Lissitzky (1929), in 'Basic Premises' in 'Rußland: Die Rekonstruktion der Architektur in der Sowjetunion', Moscow 1929, in: Interrelationships Between the Art, in: An Architecture for World Revolution, transl. Eric Dluhosch - MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970


  • The Cubists were perhaps the first school to overcome this association of the ugly and the mechanical: they not merely held that beauty could be produced through the machine: they even pointed to the fact that it had been produced. ...They extracted from the organic environment just those elements that could be stated in abstract geometrical symbols: they transposed and readjusted the contents of vision as freely as the inventor readjusted organic functions: they even created on canvas or in metal mechanical equivalents of organic objects... This whole process of rational experiment in abstract mechanical forms was pushed further by the Constructivists.. .They created in form the semblance of the mathematical equations and physical formulae that had produced our new environment... seeking in this new sculpture to observe the physical laws of equipose or to evolve dynamic equivalents for the solid sculpture of the past by rotating a part of the object through space.
    • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934) Ch. 7 "Assimilation of the Machine"
  • [Constructivism is] not as a tool or even a specific method, but rather as a perfect union of the coming state and the movement's 'spiritual' aims.
  • From the very beginning of the Constructivist Movement it was clear to me that a constructed sculpture, by its very method and technique brings sculpture very near to architecture.. .My works of this time up to 1924.. ..are all in the search for an image which would fuse the sculptural element with the architectural element in one unit. I consider this Column the culmination of that search.
    • Naum Gabo, quoted in: Simon Wilson (1991), Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition. p. 146
  • But the projects with which the architects of Russian proletarian architecture present us are not only based on pure imagination, but their construction would, if they were fitted for realization, entail enormous waste of space and materials. The dwelling complex 'Wolkenbügel' [designed by Lissitzky, with the help of [ w:Emil Roth - Swiss architect, 1924] (assuming that one could live here without either freezing or melting!), shaped like a 4, stands in a very un-constructive way on three legs in which the elevators are located. The latter take up as much space as would one or more skyscrapers. And these 'architects' are to teach the West what architecture is!
    • Theo van Doesburg, in 'Architecture and revolution — Revolutionary architecture? Utopian designs by Tatlin, Lissitzky, and others', Theo van Doesburg, in 'Het Bouwbedrijf' (1928)
Richtingen in de Hedendaagsche schilderkunst / Trends in the Present Day Art of Painting, Jacob Bendien; W.L & J. Brusse N.V. Rotterdam, 1935 (transl: Anne Porcelijn), pp. 93-98
  • The Constructivists' reality is that of the (natural) sciences built up from experience. Even if this reality has been shaped by man, it is no less objective and no less measurable than the reality of concrete natural objects.. .We practically have it in our power, like the machinist has power over his machine.
  • The Constructivists were drawn into this [mechanical] movement especially because of their respect for machines and technical constructions. They saw in this a support for their ambition to find clarity and exactitude as opposed to subjectivity and individualism.. .Like New Objectivity, Constructivism is an attempt to liberate us from the subjectivity of our Expressionistic excesses.
  • Constructivism blossomed in this New Russia; the Bolshevik Revolution undoubtedly contributed to the development of the still unfulfilled Constructivism.
  • But the Constructivist also wants to control the art painting materials. He started by defining the general basic elements of the art of painting.. .For him painting was in the first place, an objective study, a willful transition of the strictest simplification of art painting tools/materials, until, eventually nothing was left except the famous black square plane by Malevich [who started later Suprematism ].
  • From there the art of painting was rebuilt. However, not to our subjective needs of expression, but to the most primitive possibilities that could be concluded from the black square plane, the so-called Constructivist elements.. .The Constructivist elements are for instance; two black planes next to and adjoining one another (a horizontal extension of the black square), a black square right above and adjoining another (a vertical extension of the black square), etc. After this, the circle, the triangle etc.
  • There was a great deal to be learnt from the engineer. Firstly his accuracy, not with a grand gesture, but rather working with accurate calculations. This is what the Constructivist was searching for: objective, strict reality. Only.. art there is no way to calculate. At best they could only play at being 'engineer'.
  • Although the machine was a beacon showing the way from the shadows of Expressionism.. .Constructivism had to be freed from the machine itself. It had to find its own constructions, its own materials and specifically its own statics and dynamics.
  • One can suggest movement by showing how we see something moving. For instance a fast turning wheel, where we no longer see the separate spokes. However, when the Constructivists want to express movement, they do this directly through the art painting materials themselves. They suggest movement especially through the form and direction of the figures used.. .Also for other sensations they try, as a test, a direct art painting expression, for instance the sensation created by a sound dying away, or an electrical current or a magnetic attraction.
  • Lissitsky does exclaim 'Schafft Gegenstande' [Make Objects / Things]. But by this he does not mean real things.. .why 'Gegenstande [Things]'? He only wants to make pseudo-things which express his urge for reality, for the earth. Things of the same hardness, immovability, earthbound in the same way as the daily life he sees around him.
  • The Constructivists do not limit themselves exclusively to painting materials such as paint and chalk etc., but use all possible materials if they are suitable for accurate use, such as metal, glass, concrete etc.. .Above all these were much more suited to the creation of things even more realistic than reality itself.
  • Not all Constructivists concentrate so strongly on reality. There are those for whom inner life plays an important part, such as the non-Russian Moholy Nagy, Kassak, Baumeister etc. Their art painting figures often have a more symbolic meaning.. .Sometimes without any direct connection to reality.. .Moholy Nagy's work is 'l'art pour l'art' - as opposed to Lissitsky who is demonstrative; he is ethical in as much as he propagates the Bolshevist morale of not dreaming but doing, of preferring a direct gesture rather than one of beauty.. .Lissitsky wants nothing to do with 'l'art pour l'art'. 'Proun' – as he called his work – is art in order to demonstrate the feel of reality. In 'Kunstismen' [art magazine published by Lissitsky and Jean Arp ], Lissitsky defines Proun as the 'Umsteige-station von Malerei nach Architectur' (the 'Step-over from the art of painting to Architecture').


  • We know only what we do, what we make, what we construct ; and all that we make, all that we construct, are realities. I call them images, not in Plato's sense (namely that they are only reflections of reality), but I hold that these images are the reality itself and that there is no reality beyond this reality except when in our creative process we change the images: then we have created new realities.
    • Naum Gabo cited in: Eidos: a journal of painting, sculpture and design. (1950) Nr.1, p. 31
  • The moral attitude of Neo-Plasticism [= De Stijl] is very much like that of Constructivism, except that the Constructivists wanted to bring things out in the open and the Neo-Plasticists didn't want anything left over.
    • Willem de Kooning (1951), in his speech 'What Abstract Art means to me' on the symposium 'What is Abstract At' - at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 5 February, 1951, n.p.


  • We believe that the elements in the chemical formula of our creative work, problem, invention, and art, correspond to the challenges of our age.
    • El Lissitzky (1967; 1980) El Lissitzky : Life, Letters, Texts. p. 378
  • My talent lies in the expression of my life and creative power through light, colour and form. As a painter I can convey the essence of life.
    • Moholy-Nagy in: Art of the 20th century, Part 1 by Karl Ruhrberg, Klaus Honnef, Manfred Schneckenburger, Ingo F. Walther, Christiane Fricke (2000) p. 178


  • Mondrian.. .The Constructivists?.. .They had certainties. They wanted a stable basis to work on, but I'm afraid that that was enormous arrogance on their part. Nothing is stable and no certainties are possible.
    • Bram van Velde, in Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde, ed. Charles Juliet, First Dalkey Archive edition, 2009, London and Champaign; 11 August 1972; p. 90
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