Institutionalizing the Avant-Garde: Vkhutemas 1920–1930
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Institutionalizing the Avant-Garde: Vkhutemas 1920–1930

Vkhutemas Color Classroom

Launching “What Is an Art School?,” an ongoing series examining at the past, present, and future of art education, we take inspiration from the recent Avant-Museology symposium’s focus on early Soviet exhibitions to explore little-known Soviet educational practices, including the art school Vkhutemas (1920–1930). The following writing is connected to a larger set of translations—to appear in English for the first time—and commissioned texts focused on critically important, forward-thinking art teaching that will be published in the weeks to come.

One year after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, while still in the throes of the Civil War, Soviet Russia underwent a sweeping educational reform, reorganizing, among other things, art, architecture, and design schools. In order to educate the newly empowered masses, Lenin’s government established the Higher Art and Technical Studios, known as Vkhutemas. A merger of a fine arts college and a crafts school, the school was conceived as a “specialized educational institution for advanced artistic and technical training.” By combining eight departments, an architecture department, two fine art departments of painting and sculpture, and five proizvodstvennie (production) departments—woodworking, metalworking, ceramics, graphics, and textiles—the Bolshevik masterminds equated what was traditionally considered the domain of art with that of technical industrial expertise. The Soviet model was predicated on a radically different approach to design education and had an ambitious political mandate to educate the working-class society. From its establishment the interdisciplinary institution offered free education and admitted candidates from underprivileged backgrounds, regardless of their artistic talent or academic standing. While similar to the Staatliche Bauhaus in “communistic spirit,” with an enrollment of over two thousand students, Vkhutemas was an unprecedented modern undertaking.

The difference between the two schools was not just a matter of student enrollment. While the Bauhaus initially aimed to erase “the essential difference between the artist and the craftsman” and called on the architects, sculptors, and painters to “return to the crafts,” Vkhutemas’s mission from the beginning was to “prepare highly qualified artist-practitioners for modern industry.” Although the first head of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, would eventually recast the school’s workshops as “laboratories in which prototypes of products suitable for mass production and typical of our time are carefully developed and constantly improved,” the demand for the new aesthetic paradigm was reflected in their curricular structures in different ways. While both schools “brought together all disciplines of practical art,” they diverged in their relationship to the discipline of architecture. Although the Architecture Department at Vkhutemas was considered most prestigious, it had the same stature to other fields of study on an institutional level. At the Bauhaus all the disciplines—“sculpture, painting, handicrafts, and the crafts”—were thought of as “inseparable components of a new architecture,” coming together for “the unified work of art—great structure.” While implicitly present from the Bauhaus conception, Bau (building) remained, as Gropius stated, “a distant aim” at the core of his famous teaching diagram, rather than an equal part of the curriculum.

Bauhaus teaching diagram showing the progression from the Basic Course to increasing specialization

The mandate for mass education was framed within a larger Soviet project of industrialization, reorganizing all areas of life—from artistic to labor practices—on a scientific basis. Both a vibrant teaching institution and a massive design laboratory, Vkhutemas was a setting where training and experimentation took place side by side. Moreover, it introduced an entirely different model of education—a place for collective life, labor, and creativity. Vkhutemas functioned more like a commune than a school. Its enthusiastic community of young people jointly overcame the turmoil left by Civil War, substandard living conditions, and shortage of the most basic necessities to produce a remarkable body of work. Hundreds of students facilitated the process of formulating how modern art, architecture, and design can be thought of, produced, and experienced. The numerous iterations of design exercises, usually in the form of three-dimensional study models made in clay or scrap paper, resulted in a rich repository of proto-modernist forms, which were methodically analyzed and photo-documented over the course of several years. The continuous feedback between the educational process, research, and testing performed at various scientific cabinets and laboratories at Vkhutemas ensured continuous design innovation and prompted an enormous leap in the development of both the theory and practice of modern space and form.

Vkhutemas Students, 1922

An amalgam of futurist and conservative faculty, Vkhutemas fostered an atmosphere of intellectual and creative cross-pollination, where new ideas were forged in heated debates. The school counted among its ranks such protagonists of the Russian avant-garde as Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, Alexander Vesnin, and Lyubov Popova, El Lissitzky and Vladimir Tatlin,  Kazimir Malevich and Nikolay Ladovsky. These futurists, as they were referred to by the students, were also members of Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture), set up by Vasily Kandinsky in 1920 in order to develop the scientific objective approach for visual and spatial arts. Vkhutemas, along with Inkhuk, became a platform for institutionalization of the avant-garde movement that distilled radical artistic experiments into a systematized body of knowledge. Analyzing the origins, development, and legacy of the school, in turn makes it possible to review the avant-garde through the lens of this constantly evolving and often dysfunctional institution, recontextualizing its key protagonists, networks, and ideas.

Vkhutemas Space Classroom

Key aspects of the school’s educational structure that directly impacted its pedagogy included: 1) its interdisciplinarity—the cross-pollination of different disciplines within the school as well as outside it; 2) its laboratory settings—from the think-tanks to the research units within the school, which facilitated the process of importing scientific knowledge from other fields, such as perceptual psychology and psychotechnics; 3) its collaborative spirit—rooted in communal work and life, as well as in multiple professional associations that linked the school with architectural and artistic practice; 4) its culture of opposition—the constant debates both within and outside the school, in particular those between Constructivists, Rationalists, and Classicists; and finally, 5) its outreach and exchange, which included many initiatives, such as school-wide and international exhibitions, most notably the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris and publications, such as Arkhitektura VKhUTEMASa (Vkhutemas Architecture).

At left: Arkhitektura: Raboty arkhitekturnogo fakul’teta VKhUTEMASa, 1920–1927 (Architecture: Works of the Architecture Department of VKhUTEMAS, 1920–1927). Dust jacket by El Lissitzky. At right: VKhUTEIN: Vysshee Khudozhestvenno Tekhnicheskiy Institut v Moskve (VKhUTEIN: Higher Art and Technical Institute in Moscow), Moscow, 1929. Both images courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Exchange between the art, architecture, and production departments at Vkhutemas was facilitated by the core curriculum, initially developed by its futurist faculty at Inkhuk. This curriculum was conceived of as an entity of four disciplines: Graphics, Color, Volume, and Space. Establishment of the Osnovnoe Otdelenie (Core Division) as an independent academic unit was a strategic step in consolidating Vkhutemas’s avant-garde leadership and directing its overall modernist vector. Starting in the fall of 1923 the training expanded to a two-year program, mandatory for the entire student body, irrespective of their subsequent specialization. The overall course of study at Vkhutemas typically took five years: two years for core training, followed by two and a half years of respective specialization, and a semester for a diploma project.

Vkhutemas Core Exhibition, 1929

The original quartet was, however, short-lived. By the end of its first academic year only the Space course remained in its original state on the institution-wide scale. The other courses, including Graphics, were modified, augmented, or replaced with traditional academic versions. Despite the changes, the Core Division became the backbone of the entire school, analogous to the Bauhaus Vorkurs (Basic Workshop), on the whole, its biggest pedagogical achievement in “the great experiment.” In both Vkhutemas and the Bauhaus, education progressed from the basic course to a specialization, but while the Bauhaus Vorkurs focused on the “elementary study of form and study of materials,” the core course at Vkhutemas was structured around abstract elements, such as line in Graphics or form in Space.

Vkhutemas Space Classroom Student Work

Vkhutemas as an institution evolved constantly throughout the 1920s. Practically every academic year brought structural changes, whether adding or cutting a department or program, expanding the number of mandatory subjects, or renaming the school. The foundation of Vkhutemas starts with the statewide educational reform of 1918, and the establishment of the autonomous Free State Art Studios, known as Svomas, followed in turn by their consolidation two years later. While Vkhutemas existed for only a brief decade, the school was always part of a much longer academic tradition, starting with the Moscow Palace School of Architecture in the 1750s. Like the Bauhaus, Vkhutemas institutional history falls into three distinct phases, spearheaded by different leadership. Each of the three deans, E. V. Ravdel (1920–1923), V. A. Favorsky (1923–1926), and Pavel Novitsky (1926–1930), brought about a decisive turn in the school’s curriculum and culture, in line with the shifting cultural politics of the Soviet state.

The first phase—perhaps the most fertile and optimistic, albeit challenging in terms of material conditions—established Vkhutemas  as a completely new type of school. This was a period of intense debates and theorization of the artistic practices of the time. Vkhutemas set up research “laboratories” to investigate the objective foundations of artistic fields they were teaching and formulating new educational programs.

The second phase authorized a transition from the studios-workshops to the ostensibly more prestigious status of an institute. Between 1926 and 1928, Vkhutemas underwent yet another reform, and was restructured into Vkhutein (Higher Art and Technical Institute). A part of a larger shift in political and economic development brought about by rapid industrialization, the reform aimed to bridge the gap between the educational process and the growing needs of the industrial sector. The status of an institute reflected a trend towards a more formal, technocratic, top-down model, which came to replace the more horizontal artistic organization. The change was accompanied by a development of a well-structured curriculum and a streamlined admissions procedure, but more importantly, it marked a return to a more conservative academic tradition, increasingly reminiscent of the École des Beaux-Arts model it originally was created to oppose.

Finally, the reform of 1929–1930 marked a further shift to meet the agenda of the First Five Year plan by prioritizing the tasks of mass industrialization, eventually leading to the school’s dissolution into separate specialized institutions. The large interdisciplinary institution was deemed “inefficient” by Stalin’s government as its departments were split up into six smaller trade-oriented schools. Vkhutemas’s heritage was considered “formalist”a derogatory, if not outright dangerous term in Stalinist Russia. Despite the school’s cultural importance as the center of the emergent modern movement, Vkhutemas became primarily viewed by the Soviet state as an instrument of political manipulation by the West, the repercussions of which cut it off from the history of modern architecture for decades to come.

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