Rediscovering Vkhutemas, the Soviet Union’s Revolutionary Art School

Sometimes referred to as the “Soviet Bauhaus,” Vkhutemas featured a radical experiment in student democracy and design that went even further than its German counterpart.

Left: Arkhitektura: Raboty arkhitekturnogo fakul’teta Vkhutemasa, 1920–1927 (Architecture: Works of the Architecture De-partment of VKhutemas, 1920–1927). Dust jacket by El Lissitzky. Right: Vkhutein: Vysshee Khudozhestvenno Tekhnicheskiy Institut v Moskve (Vkhutein: Higher Art and Technical Institute in Moscow), Moscow, 1929. (Images courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The last episode of the four-part Soviet Central Television series about Lenin’s life has an unusual setting. Made in the late 1960s and shelved until 1987, the stark black-and-white film shows Lenin against the backdrop of avant-garde paintings and futuristic architectural models. A series of striking point-of-view shots convey a heated debate between a group of turtleneck-wearing, leather-clad art students and the premier.

Despite the anachronistic fashion choices, the film is based on a real episode from 1921. Vladimir Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya paid a surprise visit to their friend and fellow Bolshevik Inessa Armand’s daughter who was a student at the young state’s newly established art school. According to the student recollections of the visit, Lenin made snarky remarks about the abstract compositions he saw and questioned the choice of the clunky abbreviation, Vkhutemas, for the institution he had helped create.

In response, the students passionately defended their new objective approach to art and the utilitarian quality of the school’s name. They showed Lenin around their dormitory, organized as a co-op, and complained that their professors weren’t willing enough to learn from them as students. The film ends with Lenin placing a phone call to the minister of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky. He expresses concerns with the star Futurist faculty at Vkhutemas, but remains optimistic about the student governance and the younger generation of artists’ commitment to shaping the emerging socialist culture.

The episode portrayed in the film took place just three months after the Moscow Higher Art and Technical Studios (Vkhutemas) opened its doors in the late 1920s. Today, the school is usually remembered for a slew of avant-garde artists who worked there — Kandinsky and Malevich, Rodchenko and Stepanova, Lissitzky and Tatlin, among many others. Less often is Vkhutemas recognized for its innovative pedagogy and when it is, it’s usually through the lens of the Bauhaus, the interwar German art school.

The two schools shared many ideas, approaches, and even some faculty. Both were open during the 1920s and closed in the early 1930s in the face of increasingly hostile political environments. Both were fertile grounds for artistic innovation and had a lasting impact on art, design, and culture.

Bauhaus remains better known in the West for understandable reasons. Many of its members fled the Nazi regime and brought with them the Bauhaus methodology and archives. For years following the school’s closure, prominent Bauhäusleren held important professorships abroad and had a significant following there.

But even during its time, the Bauhaus simply paid more attention to publicity, starting with adopting a catchier neologism for its name than the clunky “Vkhutemas.” One of its early students and later in life a prominent ad man, Herbert Bayer, served as the director of advertising at the Bauhaus. He created beautiful promotional materials and striking campaigns that had a global reach.

The founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), Alfred H. Barr Jr, was one of the people paying close attention to the school and he featured Bauhaus in an influential chart of the development of Cubism and abstract art. Meanwhile he dismissed Vkhutemas as communist propaganda and didn’t include it in his canonical work.

Students during the “Culture of the material” class, taught by Vladimir Tatlin. In the back, from left to right: I. Morozov, V. Tatlin, V. Pavlov, unknown; in the front, left A. Galaktionov, right A. Damsky. Photo by A. Rodchenko, 1928.

Yet despite this fateful omission, it is hard to imagine Constructivism reaching its full potential without Vkhutemas, which gave the rising stars of the Soviet avant-garde a platform to meet each other and to work through their ideas on emerging artistic culture and its relationship to the working class.

Like many things in the Soviet Union, this platform had an ambitious scale — Vkhutemas had ten times more students and faculty than Bauhaus, and eventually opened in multiple cities. It was also built on the principles of student participation and democratic decision-making that allowed for many styles and artistic movements to develop side by side.

Who Was First?

Officially, Vkhutemas trailed the Bauhaus by one year. However, one of the most interesting chapters in the history of the school began two years before 1920, when Soviet Russia’s first educational reform took place. Following the October Revolution, the 1918 decree established Free State Art Studios, or Svomas, in cities across the country. The Moscow Svomas that would later become Vkhutemas incorporated two famed institutions — the Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Art, and the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

Even though the Svomas maintained a division between fine and applied art professions (something that Bauhaus and Vkhutemas would do away with), it carried out many of the radical reforms that the student conference of 1918 called for. The Free State Art Studios got rid of entrance exams, implemented open curricula, and determined that students would propose and vote on all faculty nominations.

Unlike future Soviet institutions, the Free State Art Studios very much kept true to the “Free” in their name. The schools were free to attend and were made accessible to previously underprivileged groups of students through generous stipends. Students were able to choose their fields of study and their instructors, and were free to craft their own curriculum.

Sometimes this resulted in complete chaos. In a class taught by future Vkhutemas director Yefim Ravdel, the students were allowed to come up with their own assignments, and one group swung trash from the ceiling for a drawing exercise they humorously called “a still life in motion.”

Although the students at Svomas proposed and voted on all of the faculty nominations, this didn’t always mean the most progressive appointments. Suprematist painter Wassily Kandinsky’s classes had dismally low enrollment, while some of the more traditional faculty and disciplines were incredibly popular.

Svomas encouraged equal representation of very different art tendencies, ranging from Realism-Naturalism to Futurism and Suprematism. This was in sharp contrast with the Bauhaus, where the artistic vision of its founder Walter Gropius influenced who was appointed and who was accepted.

Gropius famously even removed one of his own early hires, Johannes Itten, whose practice he disagreed with. He also had a hand in forcing the resignation of the outspokenly Marxist second director of Bauhaus, Hannes Meyer, whose political sympathies and integration of politics into student life and art Gropius disapproved of.

Vkhutemas’ painting studio, early 1920s.

New Art for a New Life

Svomas was undeniably successful at invigorating interest in the art professions among working-class youth, but both the students and the faculty soon got interested in determining what the new artistic culture of their young country should look like.

This resulted in the second educational reform, which called for the merging of institutions that specialized in fine art and production disciplines, as well as the establishment of a unified foundational curriculum.

At the time, the Soviet artists were in dialogue with the Germans and were observing closely what was happening at the Bauhaus. They were reaching a similar conclusion about the merits of training artists in universal disciplines such as space, volume, color, and graphics, regardless of the students’ future specialization.

Since the early days of Svomas, Kandinsky called for “[t]he elimination of the classifying distinctions between sculptor and plasterer, painter and sign painter; the elevation of crafts to an art, … the fertilization of the crafts by the artist innovator.”

Gropius who was the chairman of the German art organization Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers’ Council for the Arts) shared this view. Correspondence between German and Russian artists frequently addressed the need to abolish the class distinction between the artist and the craftsman. This became one of the major points in the Bauhaus’s founding manifesto.

The vision of involving artists in all the spheres of society was especially popular among younger Russian artists, the rising star of Constructivism, Alexander Rodchenko, among them. Rodchenko clashed with Kandinsky and others whom he accused of being too “subjective” and “individualistic,” not focused enough on using art to support the country’s growing industry. Kandinsky left Vkhutemas in 1921 and soon after landed an appointment at Bauhaus where he had the longest tenure of any of the school’s faculty.

“Developing the Masses”

When Vkhutemas opened its doors in 1920, it adopted the buildings and student body of Svomas, but required some preliminary training before being accepted. This requirement could be easily fulfilled by enrolling in one of the so-called rabfaks.

These working-class preparatory departments were established across different professions with the goal of assisting proletarian youth and diversifying the demographics of higher education institutions. Rabfaks were free to attend and relied on unions, village councils, and various youth organizations for a steady stream of prospective candidates.

The rabfak students, who tended to be politically engaged and unified, took an active role in school governance and faculty nominations. The preparatory course they attended was designed around the same progressive ideas that were taught in the foundational studies at Vkhutemas.

The exploration of volume, color, space, and graphics instilled in the rabfak contingent a deep appreciation of the integration of arts and crafts, and the understanding of design as a cornerstone of the new industrial society. “The Bauhaus aimed to develop an individual, whereas the Moscow workshops focused on developing the masses,” observed David Shterenberg, a Vkhutemas instructor.

Vkhutemas students at a demonstration carrying a banner that reads “The leaders die, but the cause remains,” 1923.

Artistic Plurality in the Age of Standardization

This weighty goal was reflected in the sheer scale and the diverse demographics of Vkhutemas’s enrollment, as well as the school’s focus on embedding the new artistic culture in the working class.

The founding decree of Vkhutemas issued by Lenin stated that the purpose of the institution was “to prepare master artists of the highest qualifications for industry, and builders and managers for professional-technical education.” Some groups within the school felt that this mission wasn’t followed closely enough. Constructivists who called for the active involvement of artists in the industrial production clashed with those who were more invested in the theoretic and academic aspects of art.

This wasn’t the only debate happening at Vkhutemas. The school uniquely accommodated art movements ranging from the abstract to the fully representational. Students and faculty publicly debated the merits of different approaches and formed artist collectives based on their views; they published periodicals and manifestos, and organized comparative exhibitions to discuss their differences.

One of the artistic traditions that flourished at Vkhutemas was Socialist Realism. For a long time, it existed side by side with many other more abstract styles. In the early 1930s, however, Socialist Realism became one of the few acceptable forms of expression in Stalin’s Russia. The Soviet government’s growing concern with “formalist” approaches resulted in the dissolution of Vkhutemas, which was dismissed as “Trotskyist.”

Some avant-garde artists adapted to the new reality in creative ways — photography and photomontage, which were considered acceptable, objective forms of representation, were used beautifully in Soviet publications of the 1930s. However, many artists were forced into silence and the institutional archives of Vkhutemas became restricted for decades.

The slow rediscovery of the school began in the 1960s, during the Khrushchev thaw, but has been sporadic and incomplete. However, its hundredth anniversary this year has resulted in many new digitizations and a renewed interest in the school.

As more work produced at Vkhutemas is being rediscovered, the striking designs might get the recognition they deserve, but it’s important to also acknowledge the fascinating trajectory and radical pedagogy of the institution that made them possible.