Alfréd Kemény’s “Constructivist Art and Péri’s Spatial Constructions” (1923)

Translated from the German by Steven Lindberg.  From

Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European

Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).

• • •

The latest wave in the contemporary visual arts — Constructivism — has posited the simplest possible organization of artistic design and the most deliberate mastery of creative powers as the guiding principles of creative work in the arts.  The physiological structure of the human body is subject to strict cosmic laws of construction.  As an [474] individual constructional body within the constructional body of the world, it has a need for construction — for constructional design — that stems from the profoundest cosmic-physiological causes.  The laws of the world and the laws of man become the laws of art.  The immutable laws of the world and of the human microcosm that are expressed in ever new relationships (= contrasts); the immutable laws of the artwork that correspond to these laws of the world, derived from ever new combinations of elementary mathematical (arithmetic, geometric) relationships, that is, from the contrasts in the means particular to it: form, color, material; the eternal immutability of law in the eternal transformation of form — this is the profound meaning behind Constructivist design.

In a world of relative motionlessness, we perceive everything as an object, as a certainty.  Given the enormous dimensions of the circumstances associated with world movement, we can assume that the world itself is also relatively motionless.  All the more so because an external motionlessness — resulting from the tensions among the individual parts in this apparent calm — can cause an intense movement within us.  From this recognition Constructivist art forms a new objectivity, a new realism.  The artwork itself is created as an abstract reality, as a new object with definite forms and sharp borders.  In deliberate contrast to “nonobjective painting,” the abstraction of Constructivist design is neither objectivity “resolved” nor nature blurred.  The structure of the world takes shape in the sharp clarity and precise organization of the artistic object.  The organizational endeavors of the present day are given a corresponding artistic form.  Clarity of form is inherently opposed to the confusion of life today in order to establish a clear construction for the life of tomorrow.  Of course, this desire is not expressed actively and concretely enough.  The nature of the ethics of Constructivist art is more cosmic and physiological, more individual and formal, than social.  We may speak here of an intuitive, mathematical design, in which the arithmetic and geometric relationships of the forms dominate.  The world is brought back to its relativity, to its original creative logic, which forms the cosmic out of the chaotic, number out of the undifferentiated, the unambiguous out of the multifaceted.  This logic is not the barren poverty of an intellect without energy — or only so in the work of the less talented and of the imitators — but rather controlled consciousness and economy of strength.  Its effect derives not from the passivity of an intellectual message but from the assailing activity of an immediate sensuality.  It is not the subjectivity, the individuality of the artist but rather objectivity, the rational vigor of the design that determines its value above all.  The true task an artwork must fulfill is always taken into account.  The Constructivist painting is painted for a wall, not made to float in airless space.

Cubism and Futurism had already revealed the path that leads from the subjective interpretation of nature and emotion toward objectivity in design.  However, this path reached its high point in the subsequent movements in the visual arts — Suprematism, neoplasticiscm, Tatlinism, Constructivism.  Naturally, the value of a particular artwork is determined not by its trend but by the vigor and originality with which it renders the new goals of design objective.  The trend of art is dependent on the period, on the economic structure of existing society.  This is true even when the artist himself takes a stand against the dominant form of society.  Constructivist art possesses the will to collectivism.  Collectivist art is, however, impossible in the universal anarchy of the prevailing bourgeois society.  As the art of the proletariat it is postponed to the future.  The worldwide revolution of the proletariat is its prerequisite.  Constructivist art makes use of the idea of constructing a collective life to move from the past epoch of individualist art toward the future epoch of collective art.  Constructivist art is necessarily only a transitional phenomenon for a transitional period.

Wherever the logical element of design — consciousness in lieu of the unconscious element: creative intuition — was overemphasized, the result was not creative design [475] but only an aesthetic sham.  The fundamental condition of creative art remains, now as always, artistic intuition.  Even so, organizing logic, which came to be emphasized in response to the emotional disorder of nonobjective painting, led to a clear, exact, solidly formed, unambiguous, and new form of objectivity.

Peri’s construction of space is characterized by an economy compressed into a minimum of forms, by a spatial tension that results from the extreme contrasts in this minimum of forms, from hardness of masses, and from a keen certitude of representation that has no associations with nature whatsoever.  The traditional square picture frame does not permit the picture plane to be sharply defined.  The square, as the most neutral shape, bestows a certain decorative banality on the entire picture; the passivity of the traditional approach to defining the pictorial space and the isolation of the picture from the wall render it impossible to activate the space in any way.  Malevich and Mondrian, independently of each other, brought the square to the ultimate consequence of the design possibilities inherent in it.  In working with the square, by means of invariability, by emphatic repetition of one and the same square plane — the most indifferent surface possible — they destroyed the form of the painting as such and achieved a relatively formless type of design based on pure color relationships on a plane.  The Russian Constructivists — Tatlin, Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Johansen, Vladimir and George Stenberg, Medunetzky, Gabo, and Klucis — moved from the plane into real space.  They gave spatial and plastic designs to the purely material relationships of unadulterated — pure — materials (iron, brass, copper, glass, wood, and so on) used simultaneously in the space.  By giving the picture plane the sharpest asymmetrical definition possible, Péri exploded the traditional square shape of the painting.  In this way he achieved a powerful spatial charge from hard, opposing relationships of two-dimensional forms.  The explosiveness of the space is heightened by rhythmic repetition and the relative lack of color of the paints used (black and grayish brown, black and red).  The colors are secondary to the spatial function of the forms.  As a result, the opposing relationships of the forms that produce the spatial tension are expressed much more strongly.  The equilibrium of the object designed results from the immutable color relationships and from the variability of the relationships among the forms, from the color contrast (as the unchanging element) and the form (as the changing one) of the picture plane.  A rigid, immobile stability composed of extreme contrasts.  The spaceless, cubic template of today’s moronic “architectonic interior” is destroyed.

A new struggling spatial activity develops from the deeply serious dark contrasts with the dominant elements that result from the omnipresent black paint.  In the penultimate constructions the black paint fights with brown and gray.  The activity of black is crucial.  In these works, despite their asymmetrical and nonquadratic construction, both the horizontal-vertical conflict of the quadrilateral and the concentric, centripetal closed form of the old “painting” are retained.  In the final works the horizontal-vertical construction of the painting is eliminated.  Opposing diagonal forms span a vertical or horizontal axis as contrasting forces.  The spatial tension increases to the most active power relationships of a space balanced at the outside limit of the possibility of equilibrium.  Recurrent red fights with black, and its activity drowns out the activity of the Hack paint.  The powerful form masses open up the concentricity of the composition into a dynamic of centrifugal eccentricity.  From that point the path leads to the architecture of the future.

The linocuts presented here illustrate Péri’s spatial-Constructivist designs.  They are not original, creative works and do not wish to be viewed as such.  The artist uses linoleum because it is well suited to reproduce his spatial constructions.  Nevertheless they still have the value of originals because the elimination of color presents the artist with a new set of problems.  Péri’s work is presented here in chronological order.  Though reproduced on a smaller scale, the proportionality and scale relationships of [476] the forms is the same as that of the originals intended for a wall.  The role that color plays in separating the forms and its energetic function in heightening the spatial activity of the design are fulfilled here instead by the lines.  The mechanical uniformity of the lines emphasizes both the opposing connections of the form parts of the painting as a whole and the suppressed monumentality of the design, just as the repeating rhythm of the colors did in the paintings.  Designing using pure relations of space-creating opposing forms is even more effective when colors are eliminated.  The lines reproduce, as hard and definite outlines, the nonquadratic and objective character of the spatial constructions with intense urgency.

[Originally published as “Die konstructive Kunst und Péris Raumskonstruktionen,” preface to Mappe: Péri, Linoleumschnitte, 1922-23 (Berlin: 1923)]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 23, 2010.

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