Aleksei Gan, Constructivism, 1922. Courtesy of MoMA

Aleksei Gan, Constructivism, 1922. Courtesy of MoMA

Review of the republication of Alexei Gan’s Constructivism, 1922 By Eleanor Rees     In 1922 Aleksei Gan published the iconoclastic tract, Constructivism. With this text Gan publicly announced the emergence of the Constructivist movement, and elaborated its three core principles: techtonics, faktura, and construction.Yet, even in its time, Gan’s text was by no means definitive; nor did it unite the movement of the same name. Any image of solidarity that Constructivism promoted was merely artificial. On account of its radical politics, Constructivism was, in fact, dismissed by many associated with the movement, including Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. With its calls for ‘a death to art’, Constructivism now seems hysterical in its polemical language; a product of an era that saw a wave of artists’ manifestos all clamouring for anarchy in the arts, as famously initiated by F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909. However, the material form of the book Constructivism was, and still is, significant. The reproduction of a new facsimile by Tenov Books accompanied with an introduction by Christina Lodder pays long-overdue respect to this important experiment in graphic design.
Varvara Stepanova, Catalogue Cover for 5x5=25 exhibition, 1921. Pencil and Gouache on paper. Courtesy of MoMA

Varvara Stepanova, Catalogue Cover for 5×5=25 exhibition, 1921. Courtesy of MoMA

Gan’s text made the first tentative but crucial steps towards the development of a new Constructivist typography. It announced a dramatic departure from Futurist book design. Drawn with pencil and crayon on scrap paper and bound with string, Futurist style books, like Stepanova’s catalogue cover for the 5×5=25 exhibition, were meant as a playful stab at the pretensions of the academic catalogue. Constructivism replaced hand-drawn covers for a machine aesthetic. El Lissitzky later accredited Gan as the first person to work alongside the machine. Many of the devices that would become hallmarks of Constructivist typography were first used by Gan in Constructivism‘s pages. Chunky sans-serif lettering, thick black bars, arranged not only perpendicularly but at dynamic diagonals, a play between positive and negative forms, and a variation in spacing, are all distinctive features. Yet, as Lodder points out, Constructivism was by no means a fully-fledged Constructivist book. Multiple type-faces are still apparent on the cover, and while some pages are highly innovative many remain in a conservative format with unbroken blocks of horizontal text. Nevertheless, Constructivism was an important experiment that triggered the formulation of a theory and practise of Constructivist typography. These developments would be consolidated shortly thereafter. Stepanova’s cover designs of the same year for the cinematic journal, Kino-fot, and Rodchenko’s illustrations for Mayakovskii’s poem, Pro eto, 1923, assimilated Gan’s machine aesthetic with punchyimagery, thereby introducing greater dynamism.
Aleksei Gan, 1924. Photograph by Aleksandr Rodchenko, The A. Rodchenko & V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow. (Scan from the book)

Aleksei Gan, 1924. Photograph by A. Rodchenko, The A. Rodchenko & V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow. (Scan from the book)

Gan’s text visually extolled the principles of Constructivism through its use of typography. As Lodder puts it: “The medium was the message”. It demonstrated Constructivism’s abhorrence of hand-craftsmanship and, in its place, a devotion to the machine. Although actually hand-drawn the work evoked the process of mechanical reproduction. Its design demonstrates absolute precision and eliminates all individualism, reflecting Constructivism’s demands that a work should be collectively and industrially mass-produced. The Constructivists insisted not only on a new revolutionary form of art, but on a revolution in the process of production itself. The printing-process became a defining feature of the text’s visual appearance. Gan used only the basic tools of the type-setter, just lines and letters- a total economy of means. As a work, it provided a practical demonstration of Constructivist principles. For Gan, “the word would become a powerful weapon in life-building”. At the foundations of his typographical practise was that ideas should make a visual impact. Constructivism’s front cover has a distinctively poster-like effect, reflecting Gan’s conviction that the book should be an agitational tool. Gan was, above all, concerned with the psychology of the reader. He was keen to impress his message on the casual reader who, instead of dwelling on each word, quickly flicks through the pages. Key words and phrases were emphasised in larger type or underlined to catch the eye. Devices were incorporated that would disrupt the tedium of reading, jolting the reader out of his age-old lethargy. There was a variation in spacing with some pages left blank altogether, and dynamic diagonals interrupted block text to leap across the page. Variety within uniformity was the rule.
Varvara Stepanova, Cover design for Kino-fot, issue 3, 1922. The A. Rodchenko & V. Steapanova Archive, Moscow (Scan from the book)

V. Stepanova, Cover design for Kino-fot, issue 3, 1922. The A. Rodchenko & V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow (Scan from the book)

Typography was a field that the Constructivists innovated, and for which they are famous for. The effects can still be widely seen today. Rather than seeing Constructivism’s work in typography as a retreat, an area that they were forced to turn to out of necessity, as their aspirations to transform the environment were scuppered by a scarcity of resources and by a strong adversity from conservative industrialists, it met their desire to transform the psychology of new Soviet man and his experience of life.     Constructivism, Aleksei Gan Tenov Books Buy the book on Amazon: