The Constructivist moment: a case study of avant-garde movements in Estonia and Slovenia. A short summary of the research project
The general aim of my research is to compare two seemingly similar and yet quite different movements of Constructivism in the field of visual arts in Estonia and Slovenia during the second half of the 1920s. By exploring three relevant aspects of both movements, my intention is to identify the main similarities and differences which characterize the processes and problems related to the adaptation and translation of radical artistic ideas and strategies within the context of a small culture. Three relevant aspects are briefly outlined in the following text, providing an overview of what the project is about.
The Group of Estonian Artists (GEA), traditionally classified as cubist-constructivists, was officially registered in December 1923. It stood out from other unions of artists in Estonia due to its radical ideas and a relatively long life span — the last exhibition took place in 1932, but the group existed until 15 November 1940, when all artistic organizations and groups were abolished by the Soviet occupation regime. Compared to the long life span of GEA, the appearance of Constructivism in Slovenia was a brief but definitely more intensive moment of radical artistic activity beginning with the first Constructivist exhibition in 1924 and reaching its peak with the so-called Trieste Constructivist Space in 1927.
The first aspect I am interested in relates to the question how artists in Estonia and Slovenia came across Constructivist ideas and how these mediated meanings found their way into local art scenes. My main focus is on the role of internationally published magazines since, during the 1920s, there was a remarkable increase in the number of published literary and general cultural magazines in Europe which all tried to respond to the actual need for cultural journalism in society. Magazines have had considerable impact on modern society and played a crucial role in shaping the social and cultural forms of the 20th century. While, historically speaking, the magazine as a physical object lacked a unique visual format, it became an ideal medium for artistic exploration. After the end of World War I many young artists and designers came together in groups that ignored national boundaries; for example, artists from many countries participated in the 1922 Constructivist Congress in Düsseldorf. Such international meetings gave rise to small periodicals and reviews, further promoting experimental design ideas. Series of creative revolutions in the field of visual art and design followed and questioned long-held values and approaches to organizing architectural space as well as the role of art and design in society. Internationally published art periodicals undoubtedly transmitted new ideas into local art scenes and, for example, the artists in Tallinn and Ljubljana adopted and also transformed the ideas (re)presented in periodicals such as Der Sturm, Vesch/Gegenstand/Objet, De Stijl, and Bauhaus. If the magazine may be considered as one of the main means of transmitting ideas and principles of new art movements, then direct contact with Constructivism and avant-garde movements is no less important. It is interesting to see how direct contact in the case of Avgust Černigoj shaped the face of Constructivism in Slovenia, whereas the members of GEA did not have any direct contact with the Bauhaus school, and therefore their comprehension of Constructivism depended much more on mediated meanings.
The second aspect is related to the means and media chosen by the artists who were interested in using Constructivist ideas in representations of their works. The magazine as a medium was perceived as a channel or a means to reflect and represent culture and common cultural values. The importance of the periodical magazine in general lies in its transmission of information, knowledge and tastes, keeping in mind its role as a commodity as well as a cultural artefact. The question that interests me is how artists chose and used the means and techniques of media according to their own interests, and, conversely, how the selected media limits and affects the "artistic message" by submitting it to the inner norms and functions of media discourse, and how the editorial preface or a published manifesto determines the modes of representation of works of art in a particular magazine.
Slovenian and Estonian artists saw international visual communication as a priority, and while no such magazines were launched in Estonia, the Slovenian magazine Tank offered a way to enter new forms of communion. One may say that the magazine as a medium offered artists the opportunity to give a voice to their new ideas and to express oppositional and critical views on art and culture in general. In their written works, GEA members Jaan Vahtra and Märt Laarman ‘theorized' and manifested the aims and principles of the group. This was an essentially new aspect of art writing in Estonia, as self-explanation and justification of the chosen trend and manifesto had been previously unknown in the local art life. Constructivists in Slovenia wrote and published manifestos and explained their artistic aims as well; however, in both cases the desired success remained out of reach, even though artists believed that this strategy was the right one.
The third aspect regarding the Constructivist movements in Estonia and Slovenia outlines a complex situation of being in opposition to local culture. Writing about and working with radical transnational ideas at a time when the official cultural policy supported rather conservative and nationalist-minded artistic discourses was considered a potential threat from the very beginning, and while no serious attempts were made to restrain the Constructivists activities in Estonia, the situation was completely different in Slovenia, where the active counteraction against the Constructivists managed to cut through the roots of the movement quite effectively.
The common aspect of both movements is the adoption of a radical ideology aimed at breaking away from traditionalism. At the same time, the main difference between the two phenomena is that the general public did not perceive the activities of the GEA group as a "threat" — either in political or cultural sense — whereas the circumstances in Slovenia were quite the opposite. Estonian art critics made no connections between radical avant-garde tendencies (for example between the GEA and the Russian avant-garde), and GEA members did not make any direct political/ideological claims in their writings or works of art. The general attitude towards the GEA was apolitical, and art criticism did not raise any questions regarding particular political/ideological ideas behind the group's writings or works of art. Instead, the Constructivist movement itself was discussed as a phenomenon in terms of aesthetical innovation, which, in turn, was understood in a broader context of the tendencies in modern art. Thus, in connection with the GEA's exhibitions, the critics discuss the aspects of form and purity in the group's art, and conclude that, despite the lack of recognizable objects and pretty pictures, the work of the GEA group is of great importance in the general development of art. One could say that, despite the artists' wish to do something radically new and to be in total opposition to the local art scene, the general public refused to see the radical nature of the ideas the group was actually working with. In short, although the members of the GEA perceived themselves as being in total opposition, the general public did not share the same perception.
The three aspects outlined above are, of course, all very complex, and no simple answers are to be found at once. At the same time, however, these aspects offer an interesting point of view or a basis for studying the various forms and "faces" of international Constructivism during the 1920s. Hopefully the comparison between the two Constructivist moments in Estonia and Slovenia will open up some new perspectives on the role and importance of these avant-garde movements in the context of a small culture.
Merle Tank (b. 1984), PhD student at the Estonian Academy of Arts, Department of Art History, is currently studying the reception and activities of the cubist-constructivist movement — the Group of Estonian Artists (GEA) — in Estonia. She has conducted research on the development of aesthetic ideas between 1917 and 1928, which began with an article published in 1917 and is considered the starting point of professional art criticism in Estonia; the development ended with the writings of GEA and the acceptance of the Group's activities (Merle TANK: An Insight into Estonian Art Writing 1917—1928. From Hanno Kompus to the Group of Estonian Artists, Studies on Art and Architecture = Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi, 19/1—2, 2010; summary in English: http://ktu.artun.ee/arh/pdf/ktu_2010_19_1_2_177_180_tank_sum.pdf).
Her PhD dissertation discusses avant-garde artists' writings on art, publications and cultural manifestos in the period 1916—1930. The aim of the thesis is to explore the reflections of international avant-garde movements in the context of a small country's culture. During her PhD studies, she carried out independent research at the Art History Department/University of Ljubljana in autumn 2009 (funded by the Doctoral Studies and Internationalisation Programme "DoRa") and spring 2012.