Architectural compositions by Iakov Chernikhov, 1924-1931

Iakov Georgievich Chernikhov was one of the most outstandingly original artists of a period which produced many great talents. He was born on December 17, 1889 in the Ukrainian provincial town of Pavlograd, and studied first at Odessa College of Art, from which he graduated in 1914, and then at Petrograd’s famous Imperial Art Academy, now the Russian Academy of Art. Here he studied painting and education before switching to the architectural faculty in 1916. One year later, Chernikhov completed his teacher training and his degree thesis on methods of teaching drawing. He was called up for military service in 1916, but managed to continue studying, working, and teaching, though he was unable to resume his studies at the architectural faculty of VKhUTEMAS [the Higher Art and Technical Studios, previously the Academy of Art] until 1922. By the time he completed his degree in 1925, he had gained many years’ experience of educational theory and practice.

From 1927 to 1936 he worked for various architectural firms, designing and building a large number of projects. Until his death in May 1951, Chernikhov also continued to teach a wide variety of graphic arts subjects, including representational geometry and construction drawing. He became a professor in 1934, and was granted tenure the following year. By the standards of his time, he was simply a successful and fulfilled architect. His publications earned him a favorable reputation among his colleagues between 1927 and 1933, but after the Stalinist era his name disappeared from the scene. Only now, many decades after his death, are some of his books and examples of his wide-ranging graphic art being republished, and the magnitude of his unique creative genius becoming more widely recognized. Chernikhov’s first book, The Art of Graphic Representation, was published in 1927 by the Leningrad Academy of Arts. It was a textbook for the drawing course which he had devised but, despite its title, its purpose was not to teach readers how to draw. Even in Chernikhov’s time, the title had an old-fashioned ring to it, but he wrote the book with much more modern aims in mind. It is about graphic, spatial, and abstract compositions, and seeks to encourage students to use lines, planes, and solid to express beauty and movement without depicting anything known or recognizable, experimenting with all the boundless possibilities open to them. This thin volume is actually an extract from Chernikhov’s wide-ranging work. It was aimed at young secondary school and university students with no training in (or experience of) drawing or painting, and was ambitious in its aims. Publications like this were very unusual, since for the previous fifteen years, modern art had been used to express slogans, manifestoes, and statements of principle.


Few of the leading figures in modern art were teachers, but as a passionate educationalist, Chernikhov regarded his books primarily as textbooks, and his superb graphics simply as illustrations. He used his exceptional talents in the service of education and, unlike many other gifted and famous artists and architects, did not prescribe specific styles or techniques, instead focusing on such down-to-earth subjects as the use of materials or ways of depicting form and space. The importance of the imagination to Chernikhov is apparent in the title of the first chapter: “Fantasy and Object.” The Art of Graphic Representation is primarily a way of depicting imaginary spaces, something at which he excelled, and his drive toward systematization compelled him to share this knowledge with others. To his mind, the ability to sketch and draw were essential, but the most important thing was imagination. Chernikhov’s work, which even his harshest critics freely admitted was unique, provides impressive evidence of the dominance of the imaginary over the factual and representational.

Chernikhov’s first publication was revolutionary by the educational standards of the time, but remained almost unnoticed by commentators. In his philosophy of education, realism was simply not an issue; ideally, the depiction should accurately represent what happens in the artist’s imagination, and graphic expression is far more important than creating the illusion of reality. “If we can in any way convey our thoughts and ideas in visual form, with no claim to correctness, and if this image mirrors our imagination, when we can have a clear conscience.”

Chernikhov tended to use his own particular terminology in his theoretical works. The concept of Suprematism, first employed by Kazimir Malevich in 1915, was one of the few key concepts of the artistic avant-garde which Chernikhov adopted as obvious and universally valid. He understood it as the creation of abstract compositions divorced from preconceived canons and procedures.

He divided his teaching curriculum into three sections: Lines, Surfaces, and Solids. Each of these was further subdivided into Architectural, Spatial, and Dynamic Considerations. “The underlying thread is the rhythm of construction, which logically consists of two components: composition and color.” The book has seventy-two chapters, each setting a particular problem that requires resolution and together showing the sophistication of Chernikhov’s concept. These tasks would undoubtedly have fired the enthusiasm of any student with sufficient imagination, and each is accompanied by several dozens of outstanding illustrations, of which there are 1,163 in total. Sadly, this book contains only thirty-eight high-quality but very pale black-and-white graphics, which is probably why it went largely unnoticed.

Chernikhov’s theory of learning was closely related to the “psychoanalytic” method developed by leading figures at ASNOVA and professors Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, and Vladimir Krinskii of VKhUTEMAS [unrelated to Freudian psychoanalysis]. This was used at VKhUTEMAS from 1923 onwards to teach the principles of spatial depiction, and is described in a 1927 publication by the college’s architecture faculty as follows: “The new method explains the laws applying to artistic forms, and their elements, properties, and nature, based on individual psychophysiological perception. It is divided into chapters based on their degree of difficulty.” It is clear that Chernikhov, like Ladovskii and his colleagues, used similar methods to resolve similar problems. The main difference lies in their target readership, since the “psychoanalytic” method was intended for the education of architects. However, Chernikhov wrote in his introduction: “I have achieved interesting results in a whole series of educational institutions — ordinary schools, village schools, and colleges for women, workers, etc.” The 1927 publication provides an introduction to the depiction of space for those with no experience of graphic design, and was the only good textbook of its kind at the time. It was not widely read, though it remains an important work. The word “architecture” does not appear once in The Art of Graphic Representation, even in the chapters where Chernikhov describes the use of graphics in the arts, science, technology, and business. This is probably because this book was intended for students of professions other than architecture — and year his teaching methods are extremely important in the training of architects.

Chernikhov’s book Fundamentals of Modern Architecture was published by the Leningrad Association of Architects in 1930, though he probably wrote it earlier, since the contents page is dated June 12, 1927. Like The Art of Graphic Representation, this new title is a composition manual, but this time explicitly for architects. Chernikhov discusses the theoretical and philosophical principles of modern architecture, with more than two hundred outstanding illustrations by himself. This book was undoubtedly a challenge to the architectural world, since it makes a claim to universality and yet cites not a single fellow architect, ignoring such renowned constructivist theoreticians as Moisei Ginzburg and Aleksei Gan. Even the title is a deliberate provocation.

Chernikhov’s biographer, Anatolii Strigalev, comments: “The abbreviation of the title, OSA, which appears prominently on the cover, is also the acronym of the well-known Association of Modern Architects, the central creative focus for Soviet constructivist architects of the time.” This publication is not simply Chernikhov’s personal definition of constructivism. It raises issues which had been discussed in large numbers of books and architectural journals for many years, and had sparked bitter conflict between architects’ associations.

Dmitrii Khmelnitskii


From the end of the 1920s Chernikhov worked unceasingly on a series of graphic works on architectural painting, which include the cycles Architectural Fairy Tales (1927-1935) Architectural Romanticism (1931-1944), Old Cities (1933-1941), Wooden Architecture, and Windmills. In his Architectural Fairy Tales he evokes the atmosphere of long distant ages and styles, for example in his composition “on Italian and Spanish medieval motifs” or on “old Russia.” However, he also tries to reconstruct the architectural legacy of long-lost cultures such as the buildings of ancient Babylon or those of the Stone Age. His imagination was steeped in the almost completely buried architectural achievements of forgotten or nearly forgotten peoples, whereby he breathed new life not only into past ages, but also the imaginings of former masters whose names have faded over time.

The Renaissance and all that came after it is, from today’s standpoint, inextricably linked with the architectural fantasies of da Vinci, Piranesi, Boullée, and Mendelsohn, as well as with the Russian fantastical painters, whose early works are only known to us from those buildings which were not actually constructed. Thus Chernikhov also writes:

We do not, and probably never will, know what the builders of ancient times dreamt about, what worlds and compositions they saw in their mind’s eye. But it is hard to believe that architects — of whatever era — only though within the limits of a given canon. There have probably always been architects, by whatever name and under whatever circumstances they may have worked, who had great dreams and visions which they were unable to realize.

Speaking about his Architectural Fairy Tales, the maestro said:

I have chosen the thematic of the architectural fairy story because I want to apply the excrescences of “untrammeled fantasies” in practice, in order to see where this may lead. I was overcome by this wish when I began to think that the normal brain is not in a position to create something “absurd” unless it is the “fantastical” architectural design of a master of the field. My “aspiration” was to allow even more, to completely avoid the real world and give myself over to utopias, illusions, and the ephemeral. I examined architecture from every age and era, created by every people. I immersed myself in the most secret worlds of thought and fantasy. I discovered hitherto unseen visionary treasures and tried to take myself and the viewer into a world of mysterious, intense, and exciting experiences. In this regard, people who knew nothing of my new experiments often told me that my work was purely of the imagination and entirely removed from reality. Many were of the opinion that I should set aside my “pretty” but “fey” designs and concentrate on “real and realistic projects” just like everybody else…Quite apart from that, they said, the architecture of the past could no longer be of any use to us from a constructional or any other point of view, even though it was one of the most interesting periods. Having recourse to times long past with only the help of graphics makes architectural painting and painting processes necessary in contrast with modern, mechanized architecture. From the most primitive architectural structures to clay or reed huts, wooden huts, stone buildings, and others, all the way through to complicated styled edifices, I tried to established how “space can be designed,” how “one can shape it with ornaments.”

In my fairy tales, I have permitted myself every manner of digression, accumulation, exaggeration, and assumption, but in this way I was able to reveal the shortcomings and advantages of the characteristics which influence the creation of a form.

The drawings published here document the graphical realization of these thoughts. Over the course of his artistic life, my father repeatedly tried to project his fantastical imaginings into his architectural miniatures.

Dmitrii Chernikhov

5 thoughts on “Architectural compositions by Iakov Chernikhov, 1924-1931

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