Impact of Utopian Ideals on Art, Architecture & Crafts

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  • 0:00 To Design a Better Society
  • 1:33 Back to Basics
  • 3:59 International Style
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Discover the utopian visions of early 20th century artists and architects. Explore the works of artists like Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky. Learn about the styles of Suprematism, Constructivism, Bauhaus and the International Style.

To Design a Better Society

Classically, utopias displace ideal characteristics in an 'other' place, an ideal setting away from society. Thomas More's 16th century novel Utopia, for example, imagines an island civilization in which the author displaced the hopes and dreams of a better world. Samuel Butler's Erewhon (nowhere backwards) provides the quintessential 19th century vision of utopia, combining a distrust of machines with the classical image of utopia in a pastoral, separated civilization. In the late 19th century, the character of utopia began to change from the classical ideal of the pastoral, other place to the urban, designed society made possible by advances in machine technology and engineering.

Modern utopias imbue ideal characteristics in the urban environment. Dreamers imagined the possibility of creating urban utopias, designing cities to be lived in. Science fiction author H. G. Wells set out his vision of the designed, urban ideal in his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, promoting an image of divine machine power used to create a perfect society.

The impulse to design a perfect society reoccupied early 20th century designers, architects and artists. New technologies, like metal and concrete manufacture and automated machinery, opened the doors to new possibilities in the design of modern, urban environments.

Back to Basics

In contrast to the European and American engineers and architects who sought to design modern Utopias in wood, stone and metal, a different cultural revolution manifested utopian idealistic impulses in Russia. Theirs was a more social, cultural impulse to get back to basics.

Russian artist Kazimir Malevich created a style called Suprematism that synthesized essential geometry and form, an extreme version of abstraction in visual art. Malevich believed that visual art could be broken down into its essential parts, the materialistic qualities of representation stripped away to reveal the feeling and sensation experienced by the artist.

His paintings were the quintessence of basic geometry. At its most extreme, Suprematism condensed into black and white, circles and squares. How simpler can you get when you're talking about visual art? Malevich's white on white sums up the simplicity of Suprematism.

Russian artist and advocate of the Suprematist style, El Lissitzky, wrote: 'The artist constructs a new symbol with his brush. This symbol is not a recognizable form of anything which is already finished, already made, already existing in the world - it is a symbol of a new world, which is being built upon and which exists by way of people.'

The Russian movement called Constructivism grew out of Suprematism, adopting the back to basics philosophy and applying it to other areas of social relevance. Constructivist artists, like Lissitzky, took the style of Suprematism a step further, adopting the principles of simplified form and applying them to architectural design.

Constructivism was envisioned as a social movement, encouraging carpenters, machinists, architects and other laymen to embrace artistic practices. Their goal was to bring about a brighter future through the promotion of a functionalist, simplistic design aesthetic. This would be accomplished by opening the doors that had previously separated art from everyday life.

Constructivism, in turn, influenced the style of architecture that became associated with Bauhaus, each promoting functionalism in design and use, while rejecting ornamentation and decoration.

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