Cultural Studies Homepage

Subject - CSG / CSV (Cultural Studies)

Courses: Diploma of Graphic Design (CUV50311), Diploma of Visual Art (CUV50111)

VUIT Digital Arts

Teacher Name: Lisa Cianci - email:
Education Manager: Adam Hutterer - email:

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Class 07 - Lecture Notes

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CULTURAL REVOLT: Russian Constructivism and Suprematism



The Russian avant-garde is an umbrella term used to define the large, influential wave of Modern art that flourished in Russia (or more accurately, the Soviet Union) from approximately 1890 to 1930.

  • Russian Constructivism was essentially utopian in spirit

Monument to the Third International 1917

The term covers many different, but inseparably related art movements that occurred at the time; namely Neo-primitivism, Suprematism, Futurism and Constructivism. These avant-garde movements included highly influential artists such as

Varvara Stepanova

Vladimir Tatlin,

Lazar El Lissitzky

Alexandra Rodchenko.


  • Constructivism was an art for the Communist Revolution of 1917 in Russia

Varvara Stepanova, 'The Results of the First Five-Year, Plan' 1922


By declaring them selves part of the Communist Revolution, the constructivist artist and designers sought to be a large influence on the shaping of the future Soviet Union.


The Constructivists practiced their own brand of collectivism in which individuals and their work were subordinated to a collective group effort which fused artistic innovation and political commitment to change.

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Varvara Stepanova and Alexandra Rodchenko in 1920



Vladimir Tatlin

Developed by Vladimir Tatlin, Constructivism was an artistic outlook that aimed to encompass the whole spiritual, cognitive and material activity of early 20th century Russian society. Art and in particular graphic design was thought of as a tool to enlighten the masses and a weapon to incise revolutionary change.

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Vladimir Tatlin 1917


Vladimir Tatlin the Russian artist, architect and former ship carpenter was one of the first instigators of the art and design movement known as constructivism. He came upon this aesthetic approach after travelling to Paris  in 1914 and visiting Picasso's studio, where he saw a series of tin and cardboard constructions in the style of analytical cubism.

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Pablo Picasso "Guitar" 1914


Picasso’s novel sculptural objects assembled out of planes of cardboard, metal and wood, took Tatlin by surprise. Six weeks after he returned to Moscow, he exhibited his first “corner reliefs” sculptures.

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Vladimir Tatlin “Corner Reliefs “ 1914


Tatlin abandoned any association with representation in his works, adopting pure geometric and constructed techniques, using newly developed industrial materials such steel, glass, wood. These sculptural works represented a necessary step in the development towards machine art, which Tatlin also helped to develop. His best known work however, is in architectural design.

Tatlin’s Tower or The Monument to the Third International is a grand monumental building designed by Tatlin, but it was never actually constructed. It was planned to be erected in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, as the headquarters and monument of the third international congress.

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Tatlin's tower - a work in progress.


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Vladimir Tatlin “The Monument to the Third International” 1917


  • The Monument is generally considered to be the defining expression of architectural constructivism rather than a buildable project.

The main framework was to contain four large suspended structures. These structures would rotate at different rates of speed. At the base of the structure was a cube, which was designed as a venue for lectures, conferences and legislative meetings, and this would complete a rotation in the span of one year.

Above the cube would be a smaller pyramid housing executive activities and completing a rotation once a month. Further up would be a cylinder, which was to house an information centre, issuing news bulletins and manifestos via telegraph, radio and loudspeaker, and would complete a rotation once a day. At the top, there would be a hemisphere for radio equipment. There were also plans to install a gigantic open-air screen on the cylinder, and a further projector which would be able to cast messages across the clouds on any overcast day.

The Monument is generally considered to be the defining expression of architectural constructivism rather than a buildable project. Even if the large amount of required steel had been available in revolutionary Russia, because of the housing shortages and political turmoil, there were serious doubts about its practicality.

Lazar El Lissitzky

El Lissitzky sought to create a modem art world that would take viewers out of the traditional passive role and make them active spectators. His famous civil war poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge wanted the viewers to strive for revolution.

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El Lissitzky, "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge!" poster, 1919


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 El Lissitzky 'The Constructor' self-portrait photomontage 1924


He used bold colours such as red, black on a white ground and geometric and architectural forms floating in space, believing this would be a universally understood visual language.



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El Lissitsky  “Proun No 89”, 1925


With the term "proun" El Lissitsky defined a reference point for his geometric-abstract art, which manifested itself in paintings, sculpture and large installations.

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El Lissitzky “Proun Room” 1923 (reconstructed 1971)


Alexandra Rodchenko

In the minds of many it was the Constructivist typography and layout that was most identified with the art of revolution. Lettering was expected to function on both a substantial and emotional level.

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Alexandra Rodchenko Advertisement Poster 1924


  • Alexandra Rodchenko believed that graphic design must be a coded sign, unambiguous, objectified, and free from ornament.

He used energetic and dynamic design composed of heavy block typography, bold abstract shapes and contrast of flat colour. These elements were often arranged with a strong diagonal emphasis and incorporated images of products or figures cropped at acute angles.

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Alexandra Rodchenko poster for “Battleship Potemkin” 1925



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Varvara Stepanova, “Garment designs” 1922


By 1921 the New Economic Policy was in place and the Soviet Union was on the way to economic normality. About this time Rodchenko, Tatlin, Stepanova, and others from Moscow’s Institute for Artistic Culture abandoned painting and sculpture for domestic design.

They attempted to manufacture items for everyday use such as textiles dishware, clothing, and furniture in an economic and efficient manner. They also made advertising for commercial enterprise, for department stores as well as cinema, theatrical and cultural events.

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You can see Alexandra Rodchenko's influence on contemporary design in Franz Ferdinand’s cover for their album ‘You Could Have it So Much Better’ 2005

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Franz Ferdinand’s album cover ‘You Could Have it So Much Better’ 2005


Soviet Cinema

Soviet cinema and the printed material used to promote it were truly revolutionary mediums of communication. Poster artist such as the Stenber brothers developed a sophisticated two-dimensional pictorial space. Images were combined in different planes, using scale and position to communicate space, rather than traditional perspective.

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Stenber brothers “The Man with a Movie Camera”, 1929


The Russian avant-garde reached its creative and popular height in the period between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and 1932, at which point the ideas of the avant-garde clashed with Joseph Stalin’s newly emerged state-sponsored direction of Socialist Realism.


Constructivist theory and style were exported to Europe through manifestos, periodicals, and the personal efforts of its leading practitioners. It would come to influence The New Typography movement, De Stijl, and Bauhaus graphic design. 


Suprematism, considered the first school of abstract painting in the modern movement, was developed by Kazimir Malevich in 1913 and introduced at the 1915 0-10 exhibition in St. Petersburg.

This development in artistic expression came about when Russia was in a revolutionary state, ideas were in ferment, and the old order was being swept away. Among other works, Malevich exhibited the famous Black on White, conceived during his work on the opera Victory Over the Sun three years earlier.

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Installation view showing works by Kazimir Malevich in. 1915. The composition Black Square can be seen in the upper corner of the room

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Kazimir MalevichBlack Square” 1915



Malevich wrote about the painting and about Suprematism in his thesis The Non-Objective World:

“The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond these feelings”.

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Malevich - Suprematism

The art of Suprematism had produced a new visual language and a new structural design for painting. It implied the transferral of forms from the surface of canvas to space.

Suprematism had opened up new possibilities for visual art, by the abandonment of so-called "objective consideration," a non-objective sensation rendered on canvas can be carried over into space. The artist was no longer bound to the canvas (the picture plane) and can transfer his/her compositions from canvas to space.


The simplest geometric forms – a square, a triangle, a circle, and intersecting lines composed into dynamic arrangements on the flat surface of the canvas or into spatial constructions, were to express the sensation of speed, flight, and rhythm.

  • The white on white paintings pre-figure minimalism by fifty years.

In his 1918 Suprematist Composition, White on White, a step forward from Black on White painted a year earlier, Malevich attempted to eliminate all superfluous elements, including colour; since in 1918 he virtually gave up painting, perhaps these experiments convinced him that he had reached his goal and could not develop his Suprematist ideas any further. The white on white paintings prefigure minimalism by fifty years

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Kazimir Malevich  “White on White” 1918


Yet at the time, the general public saw non-objectivity in painting as the demise of art and failed to grasp the concept that feeling had assumed as an abstracted external form.


Nevertheless, Malevich's ideas were so bold and innovative that despite the initial shock they created, Suprematism quickly became a dominant style, espoused by other artists, especially Rodchenko, El Lissitsky, Naum Gabo, Kliun, and Puni. And even though Malevich, in 1919 announced the movement's demise, Suprematism has had a great impact on the course of modern art. These include the non-object focus developed in the Bauhaus school of design and later the advent of Minimalism and Installation practices. 

As the new order became established, and Stalinism took hold from 1924 on, the state began limiting the freedom of artists. From the late 1920s the Russian avant-garde experienced direct and harsh criticism from the authorities and in 1934 the doctrine of Socialist Realism became official policy, and prohibited abstraction and deviation of artistic expression.


Socialist realism is a style of realistic art, which was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in other communist countries. Socialist realism is a fundamental propaganda oriented style having its main purpose the maintenance of the goals of socialism and communism. Although related, it should not be confused with social realism, a type of art that realistically depicts subjects of social concern. Unlike social realism, socialist realism often glorifies the roles of the proletariat or working class public.

In conjunction with the Socialist Classical style of architecture, Socialist realism was the officially approved type of art in the Soviet Union for nearly sixty years, particularly in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Modernism was rejected by members of the Communist party, who did not appreciate avant guard styles such as Impressionism and Cubism, since these movements existed before the revolution and were thus associated with "decadent bourgeois art." It was thought that the non-representative forms of art were not understood by the proletariat and could therefore not be used by the state for propaganda.

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Socialist realism became state policy in 1932. Accordingly, the Moscow and Leningrad Union of Artists was established in 1932, which brought the history of post-revolutionary art to a close. The epoch of Soviet Socialist Realist art began. In 1931-2, the emphasis on the anonymous labouring masses gave way to the "hero of labour", derived from the people but set apart by the scale of his deeds.

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Vera Mukhina, Worker and Collective Farm Girl 1936





Consider the visual elements found in constructivist art including:

Line - Form - Colour - Composition - Texture


Consider the themes found in constructivist art through the following contexts. Many constructivist used revolution and social change as a subject for their art; find examples of four artists and their work.  


The theme of social utopia was represented best in the works of which constructivist artist? Find examples.

How was Constructivism different from Socialist realism?

What where the legacies of Constructivism on the 20th century?


Describe El Lissitzky’s composition techniques.

What was Suprematism?

Identify four works by Kazimir Malevich.

Describe the themes explored in Malevich’s artwork.





Assessment Task 3 - Individual Manifesto Project

What is a manifesto?

For artists and designers, a manifesto is a statement of intent, a summation of your personal creative philosophy, and a way of presenting your concepts and theories of art-making in a strong, forceful way. A manifesto can be a way for you as artists and designers to clarify and understand your own position in the continuum flow of creative practice - socially, politically, spiritually and within a contemporary community of practice.

This assessment task is an opportunity for you to create something that represents you - you can be creative and think outside the formats that have been used in the past. use your research skills to inform your selection and decision-making to come up with your own unique art manifesto.

It might help you to develop ideas for how you might construct your manifesto, to look at some of the works discussed in previous weeks - if your personal practice and philosophy are aligned to a particular style or genre, you can draw from that type of work to create your own.

There are also many examples online of artist manifestos, you should try searching for your own. If you find something good that is not linked to our class notes, let us know and we can add it to a list of resources.

It is not always recommended to use Wikipedia for research but the page on "Art Manifesto" gives a really good starting point for deeper research into the art manifestos of many movements from the last 100 years.

You may find some directions here to explore - many of these movements have been presented in our lectures thus far and will continue to do so over the coming weeks.

One book reference I have found that is a rich source of content appropriate to the task is: 100 Artists' Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists (Penguin Modern Classics), edited by Alex Danchev, 2011. It doesn't have many pictures, but the text is really interesting and you can dip into it at any point. You can get an eBook version on Kindle from Amazon for only $10:

If anyone wants to have a look at it, I have it on my iPad which I will bring to class.

You are also required to visit Stickie Institute, just off Flinders St and report back on what you found there in your visual journal. The "Zine" as a format may lend itself to a manifesto design format.



Questions to discuss in class:

what is the purpose of the artist manifesto?

what art movements/genres that have been discussed in our lectures have included artist manifestos?

are there any specific examples that you have seen that might influence your own manifesto design & execution?