As I stepped inside Gallery 4, I was immediately confronted by a large angular construction. A crane or an electric tower sprung to my mind at first, which brought me to look for some kind of interpretation in the gallery. Through this, I discovered the subtlety of the display arrangement – the visitor, after spotting the explanatory text at the back left of the room, has to walk round the mysterious sculpture, thereby enjoying different perspectives of it. Furthermore, upon reaching the label, one turns around and notices two additional objects which appear intrinsically linked to the centrepiece.
After reading the interpretive text on the wall, one learns several interesting things about this particular exhibition. The display is dedicated to two artists, brothers born in Moscow, Vladimir (1899-1982) and Georgii (1900-1933) Stenberg, who were leading figures in the early Russian Constructivist movement. The Stenberg brothers were distinctive in their impressive range of activities. Not only were they sculptors, but also architects (they designed rail carriages, bridges, car factories, highways among other things). However, they are mostly acknowledged for their graphic design, as diverse as film posters, theatre sets and women’s shoes! After studying engineering, the brothers’ innate artistic side lead them to the Moscow’s Stroganov School of Applied Arts. They also became members of the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK), and in 1919 founded with their fellow colleagues The Society of Young Artists (OBMOKhU), which constituted of an assembly of students aiming to produce posters for revolutionary festivals across Soviet Russia.
Gallery 4 at the Henry Moore Institute includes a photograph illustrating the second Spring exhibition of the Society in 1921, in which works by the Stenberg brothers were exhibited, alongside other Constructivist artists. Constructivism is the core element in understanding the Stenbergs’ artwork, for it helps to define the specific demands on art at that time and provide the social and political framework of Russia from 1919 onwards. Indeed, constructivism was an artistic as well as architectural philosophy that favoured art as a practice for social purposes. The movement had two main elements: the dynamic experience of modern life, and design innovations, such as industry and street designs, public festivals and other propaganda material, that would afterwards be mass produced to serve the new Soviet Communist government. In short, Constructivists played a part in carrying out the duty to construct a new society after the triumphant Revolution of 1917.
The Stenberg brothers were highly active during this period of change, contributing therefore to a new, functional and dynamic regime. The title of the artwork on display is Construction for a Spatial Structure VI (‘KPS6’, 1919/73). The Stenberg brothers used the abbreviation KPS (which stands for Konstruktsiya Prostranstvennogo Sooruzheniya, ‘Construction for a Spatial Structure’) to label works that were similar in terms of the materials used, namely those composed of iron, steel, glass and wood. The word ‘Construction’ in the title refers interestingly to Constructivism, which emphasized not the composition but rather the construction of art forms and how materials behaved. Facing an artwork such as ‘KPS6’, one is meant to focus on the types of materials used, notably how forms are arranged in relation to each other. ‘KPS6’ was not created with the aim of expressing beauty or to reflect the world, instead it was produced to study materials. Constructivists generally worked under two concepts – faktura, the material properties of an object, and tektonika, the spatial presence of the object. The basic idea was to let the material ‘speak’.
Left : As the visitors reach the label (situated where this picture was taken from), they can see the centerpiece in a different perspective, as well as in context with the two other artworks : the architectural sketch (left) and the Society of Young Artists photograph (right). Photo: Monica Alves de Carvalho
Right : Photographer unknown The Second Spring Exhibition of OBMOKhU. Constructions by A.Rodchenko, K.Medunetsky, K.Ioganson, G.Stenberg and V.Stenberg. Moscow, 1921 Exhibition print Courtesy The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
However, perhaps the most interesting element we learn about the central geometric-shaped sculpture is the fact that it is a copy. The original sculpture was made in 1919 but was regrettably reported lost. The present reconstruction, dating from 1973, was supervised by a French-Bulgarian art historian named Andrei B. Nakov (b. 1941). In order to achieve the most comparable replica, Nakov thoroughly studied the drawings made by the brothers, especially Vladimir’s detailed sketch for ‘Construction for a Spacial Structure VI (KPS6)’. This 1973 blueprint, displayed along with the sculpture and the Society of Young Artists photograph, reveals the tools used to make the sculpture, emphasising again the Constructivist concept of focusing on the materials employed rather than their final arrangement.
The fact that an artwork such as ‘KPS6’ is displayed at the Henry Moore Institute is not coincidental; since its foundation in 1977, the Institute has aimed to stimulate appreciation of the visual arts, and in particular, of sculpture. Thus it would not be a mistake to suggest that the Henry Moore Institute shares some of the views of the late Constructivist movement, in that they are both interested in the technical aspect of works. The Institute decided to focus on the Stenberg brothers’ less popular form of art, their three-dimensional work, for this reason. ‘KPS6’ is related to the brothers’ very first passion, engineering and technology. Indeed, ‘KPS6’ could be interpreted as one of their several proposals for new types of buildings. This on the one hand informs us of the artists’ personal ideas of architectural progression, and on the other hand connects their goals to those of the Soviet government at that time, who was claiming a utilitarian use for art.
Gallery 4 at the Henry Moore Institute serves particular goals. Besides presenting sculptures of historical importance, it provides a special experience between the visitor and the displayed artworks. This is partly due to its small size, which brings us closer to the artworks, and partly because the room is enclosed by a door, allowing a silent atmosphere of reflection on the exhibition and a closer connection to specific artworks. According to Exhibitions and Displays Curator Pavel Pyś, this small gallery works really well for single artist works, as it did for example for Elaine Sturtevant’s Duchamp Bicycle Wheel in 2012-3, or presently for the Stenberg Brothers’ exhibit.
This exhibition very interestingly considers the problematic relationship between an original and a reconstructed sculpture, and particularly how the mediums of photography and drawing play an essential role in documenting these issues in producing an accurate copy. The Henry Moore Institute, ‘world-recognised centre for the study of sculpture’, by encouraging us to contemplate different physical perspectives of ‘KPS6’, is inviting us to examine the sculpture under a Constructivist eye, by focusing on the way it was assembled and the materials employed. While they bore a great influence chiefly in 1920s Russia, the Stenberg brothers nonetheless still remain a significant source of inspiration for architects today.
Monica Alves de CarvalhoVladimir and Georgii Stenberg: Construction for a Spatial Structure VI (‘KPS6’, 1919/73) 22nd January 2014 – 20th April 2014 Gallery 4 Henry Moore Institute, Leeds LS1 3AH
Filed under: Art & Photography