Written by Kelsey Neumann
Constructivism, a movement originating from Russia, was born with the optimistic feelings of revolution. It took on board quintessential aspects of modernism such as minimalism, avant-garde and Marxist theories, while being very much in its own sphere.
Heide Gallery in Melbourne is hosting a constructivist exhibition - but with an Australian and international twist. The show contains an impressive mix of both Australian and international artists who have embraced the colourful and minimalistic styles of constructivism over the last 100 years.
The breadth of practice displayed in this survey truly opens our interpretation to what art can include; bringing painting and sculpture into the realm of functionality and design.
Recently I interviewed curator Lesley Harding about how Constructivism has had such a lasting impact on Australian art.
Kelsey Neumann: What drew you to Constructivism for this exhibition?
Lesley Harding: Sue Cramer, my co-curator, and I had worked on an exhibition a few years ago in 2009 called Cubism and Australian Art and we followed that up with an exhibition on minimalism and postminimalism. We thought, given the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution, that [constructivism] would be a really interesting thread to follow through Australian art.
So, the context is a large, thematic, cross generational, survey exhibition. The beauty of constructivism is it is a very cross disciplinary art movement, changing and metaphorizing away from Russia very quickly which is what we now call international constructivism. It’s a complex, and I think very interesting story, giving the ability to dig around and find new things to say about some of our most celebrated artists.
KN: Being such a European focused movement, how did it gain influence in Australian?
LH: Well that has a twofold answer. The first wave of constructivism in Australian Art happened in the 1930s but it was deviated from the original Russian movement. A number of Russian artists, particularly people like Naum Gabo, travelled around Europe and America having quite an impact on artists interested in abstraction.
So, Australian artists like Frank Hinder had worked in America and saw examples of international constructivism, bringing those ideas and contacts to Sydney. In the 1940s Ralph Balson had his first solo exhibition in Australia of constructive paintings using what he learnt from Hinder. This aspect is represented the Heidi 2 building looks at the arrival of international constructivist ideas in the late 1930s up until the 1960s.
The second part to the answer is that by the 1960s there was quite a lot of research into the original constructivist movement and a couple of really important books came out. Australian artists became interested in the original movement, going right back to the source. Russian constructivist were interested in what the role of artists might be in the new regime, forming the productivist phase which is really about integrating art and the everyday. Australian artists from the 60s onwards were interested in this, a selection of works from this period are displayed in our main Central Gallery.
KN: You mentioned art changing into a social construct in design. Could you elaborate on how you went about combining art and design in this exhibition and how you chose the works?
LH: The Russian movement was concerned with art having a vital role in everyday culture. There was a sense among this group of artists that their role could be reprised and art would be integrated with everyday life. That included reaching as many people as possible through theatre. We have got some of Frank Hinders stage designs from the 1960s, which he created for the Russian play The Bedbug.
Following from this contemporary artist Esther Stuart worked with the design house Valentino so we have a Valentino, Esther Stuart coat in the show. Propaganda design also played an important role so we have some examples of original materials in the show. This includes an exquisite, but tiny, broach by Rodchenko and ‘Coffee cup and saucer’ by Kandinsky.
KN: When choosing artist for the exhibition, where you focused more on an Australian perspective or a more holistic survey?
LH: We very much took the Australian response to both Russian and International constructivism giving it a theme seen through Australian art. We have got examples of the original movement but we only drew upon Australian collections when choosing those works. This is important in terms of the way that more recent artists interpreted constructivism.
The foresight that someone like James Olsen had in buying those original works had an impact on the development of contemporary art in Australia. The international examples included in the show are touchstones, displayed with more recent selections so people can see understands the relationships.
Date: 5 July 8 October 2017
Location: Heide III: Central Galleries and Kerry Gardner & Andrew Myer Project Gallery and Heide II